Business netbooks: Revolution or contradiction?

Call it an enigma. Few concepts have generated as much internal IT controversy -- or caused as much vendor handwringing -- as the "business class" netbook. The idea that the traditionally consumer-focused netbook platform, with its underpowered CPU and toylike form factor, has a place at the enterprise IT table seems almost preposterous. Yet a quick glance around the Web reveals a groundswell of support for using netbooks as companions to -- and in some cases, replacements for -- traditional business PCs. It seems that many end-users have become enamored of the netbook's light weight and all-day battery life, and are now quite willing to turn in their more powerful, yet less convenient, corporate laptop PCs in order to reap the rewards of ultraportability.

Of course, the netbook craze places tremendous pressure on enterprise IT shops, many of which have stringent hardware certification requirements that disqualify most consumer-focused devices. Fortunately, a few prominent netbook vendors are working to address this concern by creating a new class of devices that marries the best of the consumer netbook space with additional capabilities to satisfy the wants and needs of IT. These so-called business-class netbooks retain the popular small form factor of their consumer brethren, yet incorporate additional features -- like larger keyboards, integrated fingerprint readers, and ExpressCard expansion slots -- to make them palatable to an often reluctant IT management caste.

[ Discover what's next for netbooks in InfoWorld's special report. | Keep up with the latest desktop computing developments in Randall C. Kennedy's Enterprise Desktop blog. ]

In this roundup, I take a look at four competing business netbooks: the Mini 2140 from HP, the N10Jc from Asus, the Aspire One AOD150 from Acer, and the Wind U123 from MSI. All fill the bill as netbooks per Microsoft's recently revised Windows licensing definitions, yet only the HP and Asus sport the significantly up-rated hardware that qualifies them as business class per my own (unofficial) definition. And when the dust of benchmarking and torture testing finally did settle, a clear winner emerged to serve as the ultimate standard bearer for this emerging product category.

Acer Aspire One

If the race to dominate the emerging business-class netbook market was determined by sheer popularity, then Acer would be the hands-down winner. With 38 percent of the netbook market, this Taiwanese heavyweight is truly the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Other vendors can only sit and watch with envy as Acer's branding becomes synonymous with the categories that its products occupy. Even market pioneer Asus (now with a 30 percent share), which invented the netbook platform with its groundbreaking Eee PC, has to concede that it is no longer the volume leader.

Unfortunately for Acer, IT shops don't pay much attention to consumer popularity. Rather, speeds and feeds ultimately determine whether a product is suitable for a specific business computing scenario. And in this regard, Acer's popular Aspire One model is perhaps a bit too Costco and not enough Office Depot for serious enterprise use.

For starters, the Aspire One has a terrible keyboard -- easily the worst I tried in this roundup. The keys are tiny, with the entire deck measuring just 9.25 inches. That's nearly an inch narrower than the HP's uniformly excellent keyboard, and the net result is a tactile nightmare. The Aspire One keyboard's only redeeming value is a full-size right Shift key that extends to the very edge of the deck. Otherwise, the implementation is a disaster. There is simply no way an adult human can comfortably touch-type on this keyboard.

Test Center Scorecard

Acer Aspire One

Build quality (20%): 6

Performance (20%): 7

Usability (20%): 6

Expandability (15%): 6

Manageability (15%): 6

Value (10%): 6

Overall score: 6.2 (fair)

ASUS N10Jc

Build quality (20%): 7

Performance (20%): 7

Usability (20%): 7

Expandability (15%): 8

Manageability (15%): 8

Value (10%): 6

Overall score: 7.2 (good)

HP Mini 2140

Build quality (20%): 9

Performance (20%): 9

Usability (20%): 8

Expandability (15%): 8

Manageability (15%): 9

Value (10%): 9

Overall score: 8.7 (very good)

MSI Wind U123

Build quality (20%): 7

Performance (20%): 7

Usability (20%): 7

Expandability (15%): 6

Manageability (15%): 6

Value (10%): 6

Overall score: 6.6 (fair)

My next beef is with the Aspire One's build quality. Like the MSI Wind U123 -- also a consumer-focused device -- the Aspire One features way too much cheap plastic. The case feels flimsy and the hinge action nearly gave me a heart attack when the lid flopped open rather violently during an ill-advised leg shifting exercise on a crowded train. The icing on the cake was when my test unit's hard disk decided to go belly-up in the middle of my evaluation. Fortunately, I was able to extract a complete set of benchmark results just prior to the failure. However, when combined with the unit's poor overall construction, the death of the Aspire One's hard disk did little to boost my confidence in its business suitability.

Circling back to the topic of speeds and feeds, the Aspire One is again a kindred soul of the MSI Wind U123. Both systems feature 802.11b/g support (versus the HP Mini 2140's a/b/g and draft-n), and both have the slower 10/100 Ethernet port (the HP has a GbE connection). There's no ExpressCard slot. And, of course, the Aspire One's hard disk would no doubt have benefited from the inclusion of a free-fall sensor like the one in the HP; I was left with the sneaking suspicion that the previous reviewer might have inadvertently dropped the unit during their evaluation engagement.

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In terms of performance, the Aspire One was roughly on par with the MSI Wind, turning in an OfficeBench completion time of 117 seconds. Battery life during OfficeBench rundown testing was approximately 5.5 hours with the six-cell (46 watt) battery, which was somewhat disappointing in light of the 6-plus-hour showings of the other units. Acer does offer a larger, 57-watt battery.

One surprising feature of the Aspire One is its multitouch touchpad. Unlike the other roundup participants, the Aspire One supports touchpad input using more than one finger -- for example, pinching to zoom in. But my favorite side benefit is circular scrolling. I got hooked on this capability with the Dell Precision M6400. Basically, it allows you to scroll vertically in a Web page or document by simply "drawing" in a circular pattern on the touchpad. To scroll down, you move your finger in a clockwise direction; to scroll up, you move it counterclockwise. It's a huge time-saver and makes working with long documents or pages on the Aspire One's tiny 1,024-by-600-pixel screen that much easier.

Another selling point for the Acer Aspire -- though one of dubious value to corporate IT -- is the availability of bundling plans with various wireless providers. AT&T, for example, is offering the Aspire One for as little as $99 with the purchase of a mobile broadband card and activation of one of the company's data plans. (Verizon offers a similar solution featuring the HP Mini 2140's consumer cousin, the Mini 1000.)

For smaller organizations with a highly mobile workforce, the existence of these bundle offers may prove to be an incentive to pick the Aspire One over a full-priced competitor. However, larger IT shops would do well to ignore these "deals" and instead focus on true suitability to task. And in this regard, the Aspire One comes up woefully short. Its horrific keyboard, coupled with a lack of enterprise-class expandability (that is, no ExpressCard slot) and wired/wireless connectivity, should be incentive enough to send your RFQ elsewhere.

Business netbooks by the features

Processor

Acer Aspire One AOD150: Atom 270 (1.6GHz)

ASUS N10jc: Atom 270 (1.6GHz)

HP Mini 2140: Atom 270 (1.6GHz)

MSI Wind U123: Atom 280 (1.66GHz)

RAM

Acer Aspire One AOD150: 1GB DDR-2

ASUS N10jc: 2GB DDR-2*

HP Mini 2140: 1GB DDR-2

MSI Wind U123: 1GB DDR-2

Disk

Acer Aspire One AOD150: 160GB 5400RPM

ASUS N10jc: 320GB 5400RPM

HP Mini 2140: 160GB 5400RPM

MSI Wind U123: 160GB 5400RPM

Wireless

Acer Aspire One AOD150: 802.11b,g

ASUS N10jc: 802.11a,b,g,draft-n

HP Mini 2140: 802.11a,b,g,draft-n

MSI Wind U123: 802.11b,g

NIC

Acer Aspire One AOD150: 10/100Mbps

ASUS N10jc: 10/100/1000Mbps

HP Mini 2140: 10/100/1000Mbps

MSI Wind U123: 10/100Mbps

ExpressCard

Acer Aspire One AOD150: None

ASUS N10jc: 34mm

HP Mini 2140: 55mm

MSI Wind U123: None

Display

Acer Aspire One AOD150: WXGA (1024x600)

ASUS N10jc: WXGA (1024x600)

HP Mini 2140: UXGA (1366x768)

MSI Wind U123: WXGA (1024x600)

Graphics processor

Acer Aspire One AOD150: Intel GMA 950

ASUS N10jc: Intel GMA 950/Nvidia 9300M GS

HP Mini 2140: Intel GMA 950

MSI Wind U123: Intel GMA 950

OfficeBench (seconds)

Acer Aspire One AOD150: 117

ASUS N10jc: 123/115**

HP Mini 2140: 113

MSI Wind U123: 118

Notes: * Tested with 1GB RAM. ** Results under Intel GMA 950 and Nvidia 9300M GS respectively.

Asus N10Jc

The Asus N10Jc is the latest in a burgeoning line of quasi-netbook PCs from the company that created the netbook market just 18 short months ago with the launch of the original Eee PC. As anyone who follows technology for a living will tell you, a lot can change in a year and a half.

For starters, your novel idea of a cheap, ultrasmall mini-notebook running Linux can be co-opted by some of the biggest names in the PC industry and transformed into the new hot trend in hardware design. Meanwhile, your once pioneering lead in an otherwise wide-open emerging market can quickly vanish as the major players catch scent of the money trail you blazed and start rushing competing solutions to market, often at price points you can't touch.

But just because you're feeling squeezed out doesn't mean you have to roll over. In Asus' case, the company is fighting back by cramming more and better technology into its designs in an effort to regain mind share among netbook buyers, all of which is having the unforeseen effect of blurring the distinction between these underpowered -- yet superconvenient -- mobile PCs and their more robust notebook cousins.

[ InfoWorld editors designed a laptop with the cutting-edge features we'd like to see. Then readers responded with their own suggestions. See "The best laptop money can't buy." ]

After all, netbooks aren't supposed to have fingerprint readers or discrete graphics processors, nor should they sport HDMI outputs or base configurations that feature Windows Vista and 2GB of RAM. Yet these are the very real specifications that make the Asus N10Jc stand out from the crowd (at least on paper). In fact, if it weren't for the underpowered Atom CPU and cramped screen and keyboard, you'd be hard-pressed to distinguish the N10Jc from any number of thin-and-light notebooks. For a netbook, its specifications are quite unusual.

But first, the basics: The Asus N10Jc is an Atom N270-based netbook with both integrated Intel GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) 950 and discrete Nvidia 9300M GS graphics. This switchable graphics option (there's a slider control on the left side of the chassis) is supposed to be one of the major selling points for the N10Jc. However, benchmark testing under OfficeBench showed the unit lagging behind the HP Mini 2140 even with the more powerful Nvidia adapter selected.

Switching to the integrated GMA 950 adapter caused the N10Jc to fall even further behind the HP Mini, prompting me to repeat the tests several times to confirm the original results. No matter how I tweaked it, the N10Jc was simply slower than the competition, which was all the more surprising since the unit I tested sported 2GB of RAM. The 320GB hard disk seems out of place in a netbook form factor; most have a 160GB or smaller disk. Likewise, the N10Jc's fingerprint reader, though a welcome addition and one that security-conscious IT shops will no doubt appreciate, was unexpected on an entry-level system. But then again, nothing about the N10Jc's marketing pitch feels low end. In fact, Asus seems to have gone out of its way to distinguish the corporate N10 series from its more consumer-focused Eee PC lineup.

Unfortunately, the company only partially succeeded. Yes, the N10Jc projected the image of a serious PC, right down to the faux chrome accents and the understated silver-on-black color scheme. However, I quickly discovered that the corporate makeover is only skin deep. For example, my test unit's case featured way too much cheap, hard plastic, and its screen hinges seemed flimsy compared to the HP Mini 2140. I found the quirky keyboard layout quite frustrating -- due to an undersized right Shift key competing with the up arrow and a redundant second Function key -- and the overall tactile experience, though better than that of the Acer Aspire One, was nonetheless disappointing when contrasted with the near-perfect HP configuration.

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