What Consumer Reports didn't tell you about netbooks

I'm a big fan of Consumer Reports magazine, having been a subscriber for many years. However, when it comes to computers, their reports often disappoint. The review of netbooks in the June 2009 issue is such a case in point.

There are three reasons people buy netbooks: portability, price and Windows XP. Nowhere does the article mention that netbooks run Windows XP Home Edition rather than Vista. Certainly the familiar environs of XP play a part in the popularity of netbooks. For many, XP is what they know and they want to stick with it. Vista is very different and not everyone wants to undergo the learning curve it entails. At retail, netbooks are the only machines offering XP.

There is a factual error regarding Internet access. The article says that without 3G communications "you'll need a Wi-Fi connection to get online". In fact, every netbook includes an Ethernet port.

The Asus Eee PC 1000H on the cover of the magazine has a left and right mouse button under the trackpad. Nowhere does the article warn that some netbooks place the buttons on each side of trackpad or that others have a single bar under the trackpad  rather than two distinct buttons. I think its fair to say that two buttons under the trackpad is the best approach.

While Asus giveth, they also take away. The 1000H also has a glaring deficit. If you look closely, you'll see that the right shift key is in the wrong place. No one knows why. Touch typists probably couldn't use the machine.

BATTERY LIFE

Consumer Reports claims that battery life is "surprisingly good ranging from 3 to 9 hours".  I disagree at both ends of the spectrum.

At the low end, I own two netbooks whose battery life is best measured in minutes rather than hours. The Averatec machine they reviewed has a battery life of 2 hours and 15 minutes (doesn't anyone proofread?) and they also rate the HP model under three hours.

At the high end, the claim of a 9 hour battery life on the Acer Aspire One AOD150-1165 is suspect. The machine comes with either a 3 cell or 6 cell battery. Consumer Reports tested a model with an "extended battery". Exactly what that means they don't say.

Acer claims "up to" 6.5 hours of battery life "depending on configuration and usage" for the 6 cell battery and "up to" 3 hours for the three cell battery. Everyone knows that vendor claims are at the upper end of optimistic.

So how does Consumer Reports get 9 hours of battery life on a machine where the best case from the vendor is 6.5 hours? 

What Consumer Reports didn't mention is something that Laptop magazine reported on in February:

... the first batch of Aspire Ones—including review units—inadvertently shipped with a 5800-mAh (milliamp-hour) six-cell battery ... Turns out, the Aspire One was supposed to ship with a six-cell, 4400-mAh battery, which means it stores much less energy than the 5800-mAh battery ... While Acer estimates that the 4400-mAh battery will get about 6 hours, our own data suggest that it may be anywhere from 4.5 hours to 5.5 hours ...

those who can snag one of these Aspire One’s with extra-long endurance will have something of a collector’s item on their hands. Since there’s no way to know ... how many 5800 mAH batteries are out there, it’s sort of a crap shoot as to whether you’ll get one. For those that do, though, you’ll be able to brag that you have the longest lasting netbook to date.

But even the mistakenly supercharged review unit that Laptop magazine tested got just under 8 hours of runtime. So how could Consumer Reports possibly get 9 hours?

They don't say.

Normally, a reputable review that reports on battery life tests, explains the methodology involved. This is crucial, as some people (Walter Mossberg being one) try to stress the machines to get the worst case, while others try to simulate normal usage.

The Acer Aspire One is coming soon to AT&T and Costco. Don't buy one expecting 9 hours of battery life.

KEYBOARDS  

Consumer Reports thinks that portability (as opposed to price or operating system considerations) is the key reason for choosing a netbook, so they don't give ergonomics much weight in their evaluation. This strikes me as a mistake. After having used a handful of netbooks, the thing that made the most lasting impression on me was the keyboard. There is a huge difference in keyboards.

I, for one, can attest to the annoyance of the right Shift key being in the wrong place on early Asus netbooks such as the 1000H on the cover of the magazine. The newer Asus chicklet style keyboard moved the right Shift key, but it has a drastically different feel than the older keyboard. Perhaps most striking is that the keys are flat rather than sculpted. Personally, I can't use a keyboard with flat keys. The Acer Aspire One has excellently sculpted keys, but they were too small for my adult hands.

At least the Asus chicklet keyboard has a space between the keys. Other netbooks don't, they feel like you're typing on a table top.

SCOPING OUT THE MARKET

The netbook article failed to spell out many of the choices and options consumers face in the netbook marketplace.

For a long time the Acer Aspire One was popular as a 9 inch model and many netbooks are still offered with a 9 inch screen. In terms of length and width, a 9 inch screen is approximately 7.5 by 4.5 inches, a 10 inch screen is 8.5 by 5 inches. I'd avoid 9 inch screens, unless size and price are prime considerations.

Netbooks also vary in screen resolution. While 1024x600 is the unofficial standard, a handful of models, such as the reviewed HP 1030NR, offer even fewer vertical pixels. And only someone with the eyesight of a hawk or a magnifying glass should consider one of the few models with a higher screen resolution.

Screens also come with either a matte or glossy finish, and the difference can be huge. To get a feel for the difference, see Choosing a Netbook -- a picture can be worth a thousand words.

Some netbooks have Bluetooth, some do not.

A few netbooks have an ExpressCard slot, most do not.

Some electrical plugs have two prongs, others have three. Three may be better, but do you want to carry around an adapter?

While most netbooks have standard 2.5 inch SATA hard drives, some have Solid State Hard Disks (SSDs). SSDs may sound great, at first, but the SSDs included with cheap netbooks are slow. In my experience, annoyingly slow.

If you want a fast SSD, you should probably buy a netbook with a standard hard drive, then replace it with a Solid State Hard Drive. It's likely that the SSD will cost as much as, or more, than the netbook.

Some netbooks can speed up when you need the best performance or slow down and dim the screen when you need to extend the battery life, just by pressing a certain key on the keyboard.

Some can easily toggle trackpad on and off.

Most have analog VGA output for connecting to an external monitor or projector. Missing however, are the two screws on each side of the VGA port. So if you're using a netbook connected to external video, don't knock the video wire.

The ratings table indicates that the HP Mini 1030NR has no VGA output. It doesn't have HDMI or DVI either. I checked HP's web site, and the machine doesn't seem to have any way to connect to an external monitor.

No netbooks have a PCMCIA slot.

No netbooks have a modem for dial-up Internet access.

SHOPPING TIPS

An informed netbook consumer should be aware that some netbooks are sold based on looks rather than specs. For example, take the posting about the sale on the Asus Eee PC 1002HA that Brad Linder wrote about recently.  

The Asus Eee PC 1002HA is sexy, the 1000HE that he compares it to, is not. The 1002HA has a brushed aluminum case, and what Linder called an "overall more professional looking design". In contrast, the 1000HE is a blob of black plastic (my term, not his), bigger and heavier than the 1002HA. If you want sexy, you'll pay about $430 for a machine that Linder says is lucky to get four hours of battery life. If you want specs, you'll pay $388 for a machine whose battery lasts 7 to 9 hours (his claim).

If you are shopping for a netbook for a child, I suggest going for Linux.

Like Apple's OS X, Linux is immune to almost all malicious software. But, it's better at self-updating itself than OS X. On a Linux machine, all the software gets automatically updated; on a Mac, Apple only updates their own software. Linux netbooks are much cheaper than Mac laptops and the small keyboards, a disadvantage for an adult, are an advantage to a child. Firefox and Open Office should get any child most of where they need or want to go.

LATEST UPDATES

Consumer Reports very much liked the Samsung NC10. I've used one and I agree that it is an excellent machine - among first generation 10 inch netbooks. But the market is ever-changing and Samsung has newer models that are particularly interesting.

The N120 has a full sized keyboard to go along with its 10 inch screen. It might be the first netbook you could comfortably write a term paper on (I haven't tried). If you find the 10 inch screen limiting, Samsung just introduced a netbook with a 12 inch screen, the NC20.

Twelve inch netbooks could very well change the entire laptop landscape in a big way. As a new ThinkPad X series user, I can attest that a 12 inch screen is a huge improvement over 10 inches.

At $550, the Samsung NC20 is expensive for a netbook, but is it really a netbook, or something new? In comparison, the cheapest X series ThinkPad is $1,169 (plus $79 if you want Windows XP). The cheapest 12 inch laptop from Fujitsu is the P8020 at $1,799. 

According to DigiTimes Asus will release an Eee PC with an 11.6 inch screen later this month. Acer will soon offer the Aspire One 751, which has an 11.6 inch 1366 x 768 pixel display and a claimed battery life of 8 hours in the UK, for the equivalent of $521. Dell already offers the Mini 12 with a 12.1 inch 1280 x 800 screen.

Makes you wonder if any hard-copy magazine can possibly keep up with a field that changes so quickly.

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