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Conclusion

Tom's Definitive 10.1" Netbook Buyer's Guide: Fall 2010
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When Asus announced the Eee PC back at Computex 2007, a few people doubted it would spark off a whole new trend in mobile computing. With the economy the way it is, netbooks offer a cheap way to stay connected while you are on the move. They are often the cheapest of the cheap computers even when considering desktops.

Price tags on the last generation of Atom-based netbooks (N2XX) are almost neck and neck with the current generation. If you are in the market for a netbook, make sure you are getting the Pinetrail (Intel) or Nile (AMD) platforms. The last generation of netbooks only makes sense if it comes at a serious price discount (<$175 in our opinion).

Market Price
$339.99
$299.99
$349.99  
$299.99
$329.99
$299.99
$374.99
Brand
Acer
Asus
Dell
Gateway
HP
Lenovo
MSI
Model
AO521
1001P
10 (1012)
LT2120u
210 HD
S10-3
U160


The new Intel and AMD offerings shouldn’t change the landscape too much. Remember thin and lights are another category entirely. So the holiday buying season is going to be ripe for some good deals--at least ones much better than the market prices we are seeing on these netbooks now.

Here are some of my recommendations:

1. Business notebook:

  • Lenovo's S10-3 has a good mix of correct color, battery life, and arguably the best keyboard available. At 98%, it keeps you keeps your typing speed up. I only wish the company offered a better touchpad. If typing is your thing, this is the netbook you want above all others. The fact that Lenovo is understating S10-3's 6-cell battery capacity should be another plus.
  • Gateway LT21 series (LT2120u) has the best touchpad, hands down. Interfacing is such a crucial component that I cannot stress enough the excellent touchpad design. The fact that this packs a high-density battery makes it an even better shopping option.
  • The Asus 1001P is probably one of the few netbooks out there that offers a matte display as well as a decent keyboard. Business users tend to dislike the glossy displays due to overhead lighting reflections. If you need matte, the Asus, Acer, and HP are the only companies that seem to be offering this option among their different netbook SKUs.


2. Music and Media

  • The HP 210 Mini HD is probably the only netbook available that is specifically designed as a “multimedia”-centric netbook. If you are going to be spending most of your time playing video content, this is good choice. The speakers are well positioned toward the front lip, which keeps distortion at a minimum. HP released a new iteration of its Mini netbooks while retaining model names. The performance is the same as the one featured in this showcase. It seems to actually use the same motherboard. The only difference is that the company no longer offers the 3-cell battery on the newer models. The system is now designed to hold the 6-cell battery flush, so this means you are going to get a beefier system.
  • The Dell Inspiron 10 (1012) is a decent choice for the videophile, as well. There is a good balance of color and white to the display, and it sports a better battery than the 210. I've seen this floating around at Best Buy for sub-$250 prices, so it is a good idea to check every now and then for deals. Just a few days ago, Dell had a "non-HD" option of the 1012, but on September 28, there seems to have been a change in the buying options (along with a simpler shopping interface). All 1012s from Dell.com are now running native 1366 x 768, but have dropped the "HD" suffix. This is rather inconsequential. The thing that I find bothersome is the higher starting price (previously $399.99), while the 1018s take the budget spot at $299.99. These two have a lot of crossover competition, which is probably why Dell decided to restructure the pricing. I generally put less stock into MSRPs because I care about the dollar you actually spend and not the dollar the company wants. Hopefully, we'll see Dell use its immense distribution network to keep their low retail prices. We should also expect some good price slashing on the MSRP (or at least some decent sales prices) as we approach the holidays on Dell.com. Under the current price structure, we can't recommend the 1012 at the Dell.com's $469.99 starting price. For now, we will give Dell the benefit of the doubt by listing the Mini 10 (1012 non-HD) with the price we are seeing at Best Buy.


3. Battery Life

  • The MSI U160 and Gateway LT21 are neck and neck when it comes to battery life, thanks to their high-density battery cells. They only weigh a few ounces more, so this might be a worthwhile investment for those that want to stay away from the wall socket as long as possible.


4. Performance

  • Acer has had quite a slew of popular Aspire netbooks based on two generations of Intel’s Atom processor. The company is trying something different with the AMD-based AO521, and there is a lot to like (including the price). While AMD’s Nile platform consumes a good deal of power, Acer offsets that concern with a decent battery pack. If you plan on doing any amount of serious computing while you are on the go, this probably the best choice. To top it off, this is the most capable 10.1” netbook when it comes to any form of gaming (or heavy multimedia for that matter).


No one shares the same shopping criteria, so look through the system profiles and benchmarks before you make a decision. Obviously, MSI’s U160 and Dell’s Mini 10 (1012) are a bit of a stretch, simply because they fetch higher prices (MSI’s poor wireless strength doesn’t help).

There are a plethora of models and SKUs out there, and we can't possibly cover them all. Buying a notebook is always a bit give and take; most often between battery life, performance, and price. We recommend shopping with clear priorities so that you don't end up regretting your purchase down the road.

There are a few things to keep in mind across all brands:

  • Remember that a multi-gesture touchpad does not mean multi-touch. These touchpads still force you to use only one finger to navigate. If you use multiple points of contact, the touchpad locks up or goes completely bonkers. Multi-touch is what you get on Apple notebooks.
  • DDR2 vs DDR3 is meaningless
  • Don't get hung up on Crystal HD. For the most part, Pinetrail-based netbooks can play Youtube 360p (Fullscreen), Youtube 720p (Windowed), Hulu 360p (Windowed), and H.264 480p (Fullscreen) just fine.
  • At retail prices, netbooks shouldn’t fetch beyond $330, unless you are getting something spectacular to justify the higher price tag.
  • Chiclet keyboards may look nice and offer a smaller profile, but traditional keyboards offer better spill protection. If you just dumped coffee, it can be a tricky all-or-nothing game with the chiclet keyboards. In many cases, you can replace traditional keyboards by yourself without voiding warranty. This isn’t so with the “island” keyboards.
  • At the moment, increasing system memory is the only near-universal user-accessible upgrade available. Hard drives are sometimes out of the question. So make sure you get the capacity you want or a model that offers the option to upgrade before you click the “buy” button. Otherwise, you might have to void your warranty to put in a larger drive. In fact, only four out of the seven netbooks we have seen in the lab (Acer’s AO521, Gateway’s LT2120u, Dell's Mini 10 [1012], and Lenovo's Ideapad S10-3) allow you upgrade the hard drive with minimal effort.
  • Anytime you see a netbook claim over 10 hours of battery life based on current tech, take it with a grain of salt. This is a highly inflated number based on an idle benchmark, usually with WiFi off, and the lowest brightness setting. In real life, people actually perform tasks with wireless networking enabled and a display set brighter than a lunar eclipse. If the fine print says they used BatteryMark, take the number and cut it down by 50%. Though, that new number is still an optimistic idea of battery life. If the fine print says MobileMark 2007, take that number and cut it down by 1/3 and now you have a fair estimate.
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