A Small Business Guide to Buying a Netbook - Page 2

By Joseph Moran
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Wireless Connectivity

Wi-Fi is a given on netbooks these days, though you’re much more likely to find support for 802.11g/b rather than the newer 802.11n. This isn’t 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.

 HP 5102 netbook
The HP 5102 netbook PC.
(Click for larger image)

If you want a netbook that isn’t 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. It’s an optional feature on some models like the HP 5102, and usually raises the price of a netbook by around $125.

Before outfitting a netbook with WWAN, know in advance which carrier’s network you’re going to use because Sprint/Verizon and AT&T use different 3G technologies, thus requiring different netbook modem chips. (Most manufacturers that offer a 3G option give you a choice between Sprint/Verizon and AT&T.) Also, be aware that carriers often sell 3G-equipped netbooks directly and at a somewhat discounted price, though they’re usually not the most recent models.

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 won’t 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.

Lenovo S10 netbook
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 vendor’s battery life claims with a pinch of salt, though they’re 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.)

Operating Systems

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. It’s 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 doesn’t 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 can’t 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 Microsoft’s Windows Anytime Upgrade, but it’s 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 you’re buying, will ensure you get the most out of any netbook purchase.

A Sampling of Netbooks

Netbook Processor Screen Size/
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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This article was originally published on March 15, 2010
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