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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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Top Comments
  • 11 Hide
    frederico , October 5, 2010 6:37 AM

    Very indepth excellent review. Pleasantly surprised. A lot of people out there have little clue of netbooks or even their uses. I got a little samsung last year and now I use it more than my main PC, obviously not for gaming, but watching webcasts/films at night, listening to music, grabbing it while watching TV to check something on the web, etc, etc. Not to mention completely essential when travelling on train/bus/wherever - 6 hours batt life still holding up.

    Very handy little things - easy to become addicted to. Theres some new models coming out this month that can handle HD but still have great batt life, will be tempted to pick one up.


Other Comments
  • 11 Hide
    frederico , October 5, 2010 6:37 AM

    Very indepth excellent review. Pleasantly surprised. A lot of people out there have little clue of netbooks or even their uses. I got a little samsung last year and now I use it more than my main PC, obviously not for gaming, but watching webcasts/films at night, listening to music, grabbing it while watching TV to check something on the web, etc, etc. Not to mention completely essential when travelling on train/bus/wherever - 6 hours batt life still holding up.

    Very handy little things - easy to become addicted to. Theres some new models coming out this month that can handle HD but still have great batt life, will be tempted to pick one up.


  • 0 Hide
    ScoobyJooby-Jew , October 5, 2010 6:44 AM
    I have used a Gateway netbook with vista and 2 gigs of ram. I loved it. The 2 gigs really helped smooth things out. And when I loaded the netbook distro of ubuntu, it was ridiculously awesome. It satisfied everything except gaming. Which is what I wanted it to do.
  • 7 Hide
    DjEaZy , October 5, 2010 6:50 AM
    ... AMD FTW!!!
  • -2 Hide
    Anonymous , October 5, 2010 7:06 AM
    As far as I know the battery makes a difference between 1000P and 1001px.
  • 1 Hide
    amk09 , October 5, 2010 7:13 AM
    I have been looking forward to an article like this!!!!!

    Great job TH ily ;) 
  • 2 Hide
    Luscious , October 5, 2010 7:33 AM
    That's the best performance rundown I've seen to date on the Broadcom Crystal HD - nice to get critical, hands-on info without the marketing BS. That said, AMD's Nile platform is seriously spanking Intel.

    I recently tested the HP Pavilion dm1z with the dual-core K625. Only slightly heavier/bigger than the 10" HP 210 Mini, but far superior when it comes to performance:

    http://lgponthemove.blogspot.com/2010/09/first-impressions-hp-dm1z-notebook.html
  • 0 Hide
    lashabane , October 5, 2010 7:35 AM
    Huh, never knew that a full propane tank weighs ~38 lbs.

    *Ninja edit*

    Super good roundup/review. I'm in the market for a netbook this season and this review helped a lot.
  • 0 Hide
    braneman , October 5, 2010 7:47 AM
    I actually found that on my last netbook (toshiba satalite, amd based) with a ram upgrade the only game it couldn't play passably on lowest settings(resolution included) was red faction guerrilla, even then it was graphical errors, you could even bring Crysis up to MEDIUM on some settings. meh now I got an m11x, it's very nice.
  • 8 Hide
    KingArcher , October 5, 2010 7:52 AM
    OMG this review is like drugs for the technically inclined.
    Good....no, Excellent job Andrew Ku. Amazing stuff. Really learned something new.
    I look forward to reading more reviews from you. :bounce: 

    P.S. Editors, give this man a raise ;) 
  • 0 Hide
    super_tycoon , October 5, 2010 8:02 AM
    If you're doing a 12 inch in the near future, I hope you include the Asus 1215n. I've had mine for three weeks and it's brilliant. ION2 and Optimus are easily worth whatever I paid for them. Playing any HD youtube video yields unicorns and butterflies while my friend's gateway (the one reviewed here) only gets the look of disapproval.

    My concern is that drivers for ION2 are a bit -fast- slow and loose now, the stock asus drivers were crap, the Nvidia update at launch was crap, but about two weeks ago there was a major update that requires manual installation. It gets roughly double, yes double, the fps of the old pos. Now I didn't write the thing, but it felt like it addressed the PCI-Ex1 link narrowness. (After all, what else could it be? It's just a 210m at it's core, but whatever's drawn on the Nvidia gpu also has to go back down the PCI-E link to be written to the Intel gpu vram (Optimus))

    Anyhow, forget the broadcom thing, my friend (a different one, I promise they're real and actually have these things!) has the dell and it's pretty bad. Even I couldn't get that stupid thing to work reliably except for WMP. At least he got his with his new xps 16.

    TL;DR I've actually used the gateway and dell netbooks reviewed here and they're both crappy. The gateway gets good battery life though and feels nicer. I love the asus 1215n with it's ION2 gpu and Optimus, and you should too.
  • 4 Hide
    enewmen , October 5, 2010 8:08 AM
    Great article!

    I think the performance of the Acer is a sign of things to come - except with even an even lower TDP..
    In 2011, netbooks may change completely. Might even find a 3DMark and Crysis benchmark?? I'm expecting a lot of good things next year :) 

    Please keep it coming!
  • 4 Hide
    jsowoc , October 5, 2010 9:06 AM
    Awesome review. I think all "complete systems" (be it notebook or pre-configured desktop) review should be done as round-ups. This way we have a direct comparison to what is out there.
  • 4 Hide
    acku , October 5, 2010 9:38 AM
    jsowocAwesome review. I think all "complete systems" (be it notebook or pre-configured desktop) review should be done as round-ups. This way we have a direct comparison to what is out there.


    I'm glad you agree. :) 

    Andrew Ku
    TomsHardware
  • -1 Hide
    ta152h , October 5, 2010 12:37 PM
    10 inch systems are a nightmare. You have to be a real pencil-neck to use the keyboards without wanting to end your life, and the screens are just too small for anything near good resolutions. I don't know how they sell at all, at least to men.

    They need to move to 11" or really 12" displays so they can get a proper keyboard in there. There are too few of these out there, and artificially limiting the size of netbooks is like car companies putting ugly plastic on their low end models. Getting the keyboard big enough for normal men is a better starting spot then making it tortuous. Hopefully, more larger screen models will come out, and with matte screens. The makers of the cheap glossy screens seem to lose sight of the fact that most people use these things in varying light conditions - they are ultra-mobile.
  • 2 Hide
    Onus , October 5, 2010 1:14 PM
    Very interesting. That Acer may be what I'm looking for to replace my Dell e1505.
  • 0 Hide
    whiz , October 5, 2010 1:29 PM
    Hey guys what's with the photo quality? Are you using a 6 year old 3mp digital camera that was lying around in the drawer? Get yourselves a G10 or something similar and a decent lightbox - it will save you a lot of photoshop afterwork as well.
  • 3 Hide
    Tamz_msc , October 5, 2010 1:38 PM
    Great review!
  • -2 Hide
    frederico , October 5, 2010 1:55 PM

    Guys..

    Hold off, new Samsungs are coming this month - combination of dualcore/ION and apparently great battery..

  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , October 5, 2010 2:01 PM
    yo, look what i found, sandy bridge is here since may or maybe early

    http://qdms.intel.com/MDDS/MDDSView.aspx?mm=868042

    type in 0688 at the search MM number there

    906884 Yes SANDY BRIDGE-HE-4 3192-1.1 AV8062705008382Q 0AB Q0AB FC-BGA10 03/05/2010
  • 2 Hide
    nevertell , October 5, 2010 2:21 PM
    I'd love to see some ION netbooks with great battery life. I think ION is really important, because how the hell are you going to crack wpa with an atom ?
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