Review: 4 'large' netbooks -- are they better or just bigger?

Netbooks have been the small wonders of the mobile world. But are the latest models getting too big to deserve the name?

When the first round of netbooks arrived on the scene in late 2007/early 2008, they were a breed apart. They featured small cases, tiny screens, a minimalist approach to hardware and, above all, small price tags that were easy to swallow. And they became very popular -- so much so that netbooks accounted for one in five notebooks sold in the first half of 2009, according to John Jacobs, director of notebook market research at DisplaySearch.

But now, the newest models are outgrowing the original netbook concept, he says. "The latest netbooks stretch the definition, with bigger cases and larger screens," Jacobs explains. For example, the original Asus Eee PC 701 that started the netbook craze in 2007 came with a 7-in. screen, weighed a little over 2 lb. and sold for $400.

Today, most netbooks fall under Microsoft's definition of what a netbook is (and what therefore qualifies for its Windows 7 Starter build). They have screens that are 10.2 in. or smaller, 1GB of memory or less, and 250GB of hard drive storage.

However, there are now devices out there that claim to fall under the netbook umbrella but boast 11-, 12- and even 13-in. screens, weigh upwards of 4 lb. and cost as much as $900.

To see how this evolving genre fits into the mobile landscape, I examined four of the latest and biggest netbooks: the Acer Aspire One 751h, the Lenovo IdeaPad S12, the MSI X340 and the Samsung NC20. The devices in this quartet weigh between 2.8 and 3.4 lb. and cost between $380 and $900; their screen sizes range from 11.6 to 13.3 in.

I've given each a thorough going-over that includes testing their performance potential, battery life and ability to perform typical mobile tasks. I also took each on an overnight road trip where I used it to stay on top of e-mail, write, play online videos, tune in Internet radio stations and give PowerPoint shows.

The larger size does have its advantages. These full-figured netbooks don't feel as cramped as their predecessors. Some have impressive battery life, surprisingly comfortable keyboards and advanced touch pads, while others have specialty connections for accessories.

But there's a price to pay for those who don't want to carry an extra ounce of gear in terms of size, weight and cost. In fact, Dell recently announced that it plans to retire its Mini 12 netbook because "10-inch displays are the sweet spot for netbooks." So the question is: Is Dell right? Are the larger netbooks too much of a good thing?

How we tested

To see how these four netbooks match up against one another, I started by measuring and weighing each, counting how many ports each has and looking into the features that each offers.

I then tested their performance and endurance. I started by timing how long it took to start up each system before I installed any extra software onto its hard drive. Then I ran the Passmark's PerformanceTest Version 7.0, which exercises all the major components and provides an overall score that indicates the netbook's performance potential. Finally, I timed how long it took to open a 2.2MB PowerPoint presentation from a SanDisk Cruzer flash memory key.

I also checked out each machine's Wi-Fi by connecting it to a Linksys WRT54G wireless router and loading an Internet radio station. Then I slowly walked away until the netbook lost its signal, which I recorded as its range.

After making sure the battery was fully charged, I installed and opened Passmark's BatteryMon, which monitors the battery discharge rate, and ran the battery down by playing an Internet radio station with the system's audio level set to three quarters.

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