A road warrior's guide to netbooks

The netbook is one of the most interesting categories on the market. These small laptops can do most of the jobs of their big brothers while costing under US$500. For some people, such as students, a netbook can be a primary computer. For a business user, it might be a second PC for use when traveling or commuting. Here are five tips to help pick the right one for your needs.

1. Choose your operating system wisely. Depending on the vendor, netbooks are usually offered with Linux variants, Windows XP or Windows Vista. For the most part, I'd ignore the Linux devices. True, they're cheaper (since there's no need to pay for a Windows license), and they're usually loaded with open-source software, so things like an office suite, instant-messaging client and other applications are available from the get-go. But most users will struggle to add new applications to these machines, and the latest and greatest hardware peripherals usually aren't supported.

I'd avoid Vista as well. For the most part, netbook hardware is too slimmed-down to run Vista well. Most users will do best sticking with good old Windows XP. Microsoft recently allowed OEMs to continue to offer XP on netbooks, and that's a good thing. XP brings the breadth of Windows applications and devices, and it's been around long enough to work well on this class of device. The downside: Windows XP netbooks usually come with XP Home or XP Pro, but that's something that's easily fixed.

2. Avoid the SSD. It's cool to have a solid-state drive instead of magnetic media, but I'd avoid SSDs for now. The price/performance benefit isn't there just yet, and that's especially true for machines that cost under $500. At that price, you can expect to max out at perhaps 16GB or 20GB for an SSD, but at 120GB to 160GB for a hard disk drive. Even if your storage needs are modest, you'll want the larger drive. And if you're looking at the netbook as a primary device, it's a no-brainer.

3. Screen size matters. You can find netbooks with 7- or 8-in. screens, but I'd recommend a 10-in. screen. You need a resolution of about 1,024-by-600 to run Windows well, and that just renders too small for most folks on anything tinier than a 10-in. display.

4. Look for six-cell and not three-cell batteries. What's the fun of having a ubiquitous computer if you constantly need to look for a power outlet? Most three-cell batteries will last around three hours, with reasonable screen brightness and wireless use. A six-cell battery extends that to get you through a cross-country flight or most of the day out of the office.

5. Invest in sync software. The power of a second computer is achieved only when you have access to the data and information you need. Keeping files in sync across multiple machines can be hard to do, and done badly it can result in data loss. It's a good idea to invest time and money in setting up a sync service to keep everything in order across devices. SugarSync is probably the best pay service, with support for both Macs and PCs, but there are others, including Live Mesh from Microsoft (which is free and in beta). Keeping more information in the cloud, through the use of services such as Google Docs, can also help keep things in order.

The idea of a second or even third PC makes a lot of sense these days, especially when the prices are low and the features are as deep as they are. The trick is to separate the best products from the toys and gadgets flooding the low end of the market.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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