Wi-Fi is a given on netbooks these days, though youre much more likely to find support for 802.11g/b rather than the newer 802.11n. This isnt a big problem unless you want to use your netbook on a home N network without having to run the network in mixed mode in order to accommodate the older standard.
The HP 5102 netbook PC.
(Click for larger image).
If you want a netbook that isnt solely reliant on Wi-Fi for Internet access, consider a model with a built-in 3G mobile broadband modem, sometimes referred to as Wireless WAN, or WWAN. Its an optional feature on some models like the HP 5102, and usually raises the price of a netbook by around $125.
Whether you get a 3G-equipped netbook from a carrier or not, expect to pay $50-$60 for a monthly data plan and a two-year contract -- and be bound by a 5 GB per month limit on usage.
(Note: As of this writing, no netbook offers a built-in T-Mobile modem -- T-Mobile uses a different 3G technology -- yet the first one is reportedly due to appear in some markets by the end of March.)
Although a not all netbooks offer it, Bluetooth is a feature worth paying a bit extra for. Aside from giving you the capability to sync or transfer data from a smartphone or use a wireless headset for video/voice chat, Bluetooth also lets you use an external mouse without a bulky USB dongle. (Like everything else on a netbook, the integrated pointing device is a bit on the small side, and many people find them uncomfortable to use for long periods.)
Storage and Battery Life
Hard drive options in netbooks generally range from 160, 250, or 320 GB, which should provide adequate space, especially if the netbook wont be your primary system. Netbooks do not come with optical drives, so any software you install must be done via download or USB storage device, but you can also connect a USB-based DVD drive in a pinch.
The Lenovo S10 netbook computer.
(Click for larger image).
When it comes to batteries, most netbooks include 6-cell units, which are generally good for 6-8 hours of use (as always, take a vendors battery life claims with a pinch of salt, though theyre a lot more realistic now than in years past). If being able to run all day on a single charge is important to you, steer clear of netbooks with 3- or 4-cell batteries, which are more common on older or budget models. (Or at least budget for an extra battery.)
Windows XP has long been a netbook mainstay, given that Windows Vista was incapable of running very well on such modest hardware. These days the operating system included with many netbooks is Windows 7 Starter Edition, though XP is still widely available. Its not uncommon for netbook vendors to offer a similar model in both a Windows XP and Windows 7 version; all other things being equal, you can expect to pay a bit more ($20 or $30) for the newer operating system.
When considering a netbook with Windows 7 Starter, be aware that it has limitations compared to its higher-end brethren. For example, Windows 7 Starter doesnt support the visual effects that enable such features as Aero Peek or the Taskbar window preview, nor does it let you customize the desktop background, window colors, or system sounds.
Windows 7 Starter also cant join a domain-based business network, but then again, neither can XP Home Edition, which is almost always the version of XP netbooks come with.
Some vendors, including those that offer custom netbook configurations, may give customers a broader choice of operating systems, often including XP Professional, Windows 7 Home Premium or Professional, and certain flavors of Linux.
You can also upgrade a netbook from Windows 7 Starter to a more capable version via Microsofts Windows Anytime Upgrade, but its neither cheap nor simple. For example, the cost to go from Starter to Home Premium is $80, and it costs $170 to get to Professional (with the latter requiring separate upgrades from Starter to Home Premium and then Home Premium to Professional).
Netbooks can be handy business travel companions, but knowing exactly what you want, and what youre buying, will ensure you get the most out of any netbook purchase.
A Sampling of Netbooks
|OS Options||WWAN Option|
|Dell Mini 10||Atom N280/N450/
Z520/Z530 (depending on model)
|10.1/ 1024x600 or 1366x768||Y/Y||Windows XP Home; Windows 7 Starter; Ubuntu Linux 8.04||Yes|
|Gateway LT2014u||Atom N450||10.1/1024x600||Y/N||Windows 7 Starter||No|
|HP 5102||Atom N450||10.1/1024x600||Y/Y||Windows XP Home/Professional; Windows 7 Starter/Professional; Windows SUSE Linux 11||Yes|
|Lenovo S10||Atom N450||10.1/ 1024x600||Y/N||Windows 7 Starter||No|
Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.
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