Netbooks are small, lightweight and (usually) inexpensive laptop computers. They have less processing power, less memory and fewer features than regular laptops. As a result, most netbooks aren't the best choice for playing games, watching high-definition video and movies, or working with photo and video files. However, netbooks are fine for basic word processing, streaming video and web surfing. Most netbooks weigh less than 4 pounds, with screen sizes ranging between 10 and 12 inches. The fact that the screens are small is the whole point of this PC class -- a smaller screen means better battery life and lighter weight.
Netbook sales and availability have dwindled in recent years, as many people have instead turned to tablet PCs for basic, portable computing needs. Nevertheless, netbooks are still popular with some consumers, such as traveling businesspeople, who need a physical (and not a touch-screen) keyboard. Also, netbooks typically run a basic version of Windows 7, which gives them full access to the same PC programs and applications available on desktops, while tablets only have access to the apps available for their operating system, such as the ones in the Google Play Store and Apple's iTunes App Store.
If you don't need to do a lot of word processing or typing, a tablet might be more up your alley; our tablet computers report has more information. Or, if you need a full-sized physical keyboard and more computing power (but slightly less portability), our report on cheap laptops covers several notebooks that cost less than $500.
As tablets pick up in popularity and cheap laptops come down in price, manufacturers have begun slowly reducing the number of their netbook offerings, with some pulling out of the market altogether. Many formerly popular netbooks have been discontinued and haven't been replaced. That being said, some worthy netbooks are still out there.
The 2.7 pound Asus Eee PC 1025C (*Est. $300) earns praise for its low price, attractive design and multiple color choices. Experts also praise its portability and hardy battery, which clocks in at nine hours in professional testing. Laptop Magazine reports that figure trumps the average netbook by more than three hours. Like most netbooks, the Eee PC 1025C is only good for basic tasks; experts say the Intel N2600 Cedar Trail CPU can play movies with few hitches, although navigating the Windows 7 operating system can be sluggish. Reviewers say the display is reasonably bright and clear with good viewing angles, but its low resolution forces additional scrolling on most sites. The Eee PC 1025C sports three USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI port and a 320 GB hard drive. There's no optical drive, though, and only 1 GB of RAM onboard.
The Asus Eee PC X101CH (*Est. $270) packs in the same basic components, features and performance as the Eee PC 1025C, but it has fewer color choices and one fewer USB port. Additionally, its battery life is rated at less than half of the 1025C's all-day capabilities. If those trade-offs are acceptable to you, the X101CH can be had for less than the Asus Eee PC 1025C.
The 11.6-inch HP Pavilion dm1z (*Est. $430 and up) is highly regarded and often cited as one of the best netbooks available. The dm1z has a larger hard drive and more RAM than basic netbooks, though dm1z netbooks are also pricier than most. While older configurations with first-generation AMD Fusion processors remain available, the series has undergone a refresh that included an upgrade to AMD's second-generation Fusion APUs.
No professionals review the new-look dm1z netbooks, but since the only major changes are improved processing and graphical capabilities, and a larger hard drive, expect them to be able to handle productivity tasks and play video at least as well, if not better, than their predecessors, and to continue to offer notably better performance than budget-priced Intel Atom-based netbooks.
The Acer Aspire One 722 (*Est. $330 and up)f is available in a number of configurations based around AMD C-60 processors. AMD C-series processors aren't as capable as the AMD Fusion processors used in the HP Pavilion dm1z, so performance won't be as good. However, it still outperforms netbooks using dual-core or single-core Intel Atom processors. Depending on the configuration, RAM ranges between 2 GB and 4 GB, and hard drive sizes range from 250 GB to 500 GB. The keyboard has some flex, but the 11.6-inch display is large and bright for a netbook -- overly bright, some users say -- and user reviews at Amazon.com and Newegg.com are positive, regardless of the exact configuration.
Acer also has rolled out a sister netbook, the 10.1-inch Acer Aspire One D270 (*Est. $280), which is powered by Intel's Cedar Trail Atom CPU. The only professional review to examine the netbook is Germany's NotebookCheck.net, which covers a European model. The Intel CPU plays video capably, but reviewer Konrad Schneid finds that in all other tasks the D270 performs slower than netbooks that use AMD's Fusion processors. However, the energy-efficient CPU gives the Aspire One D270 a tested battery life of around nine hours, something AMD's power-hungry processors can't achieve.
Dozens of Amazon.com and Walmart.com users rate the Acer Aspire One D270 very highly. They praise its portability and long life, though most caution that you'll need to remember that this is a netbook and not a notebook; they say it's good for web surfing, video watching and lightweight productivity tasks, but that's about it. One Amazon.com user suggests using a 4GB flash drive to take advantage of Windows 7's ReadyBoost feature, which lets the operating system use flash drives as additional RAM and compensates for what users say is the D270's biggest drawback -- its paltry 1 GB of RAM.
Business netbooks typically include more powerful processors and beefier components than consumer-focused netbooks, although most still fail to offer as much performance as a full-fledged laptop.
One business netbook that receives an above-average rating is the 10.1-inch Dell Latitude 2120 (*Est. $420). PCMag.com praises its design, exceptional (for a netbook) speakers and built-in webcam. Unlike some netbooks, this one isn't crammed with bloatware. However, the last-generation Intel Atom processor fails to match the firepower of rival AMD's Fusion processor. That lack of oomph, combined with the netbook's diminutive touchpad and relatively small hard drive, tempers the praise of some reviewers.
The 11.6-inch Lenovo ThinkPad X130e (*Est. $500 and up) is more widely reviewed -- and praised. Reviewers say the netbook's rugged portability and top-notch components (again, for a netbook) set it apart from the competition. Powered by an AMD E-300 Fusion processor and 4 GB of RAM, the ThinkPad X130e outperforms many netbooks. Versions of the ThinkPad X130e with an upgraded E-450 Fusion processor, a full-fledged Celeron or an Intel Core i3 CPU are also available -- but you'll pay more for the added performance.
The ThinkPad X130e also wins kudos for its best-in-class keyboard and TrackPoint controller, although there are some complaints that the touchpad is a little too touchy and too small. Battery life is between seven and 11 hours, depending on usage. Connectivity options include Bluetooth support and an HDMI connection -- something other netbooks don't offer. If you need the portability of a netbook, reviewers say the Lenovo ThinkPad X130e is definitely one of the best around, but they also say full-size laptops can be had for similar prices.
Both the number of netbooks and the breadth of critical coverage fell off a cliff in the wake of the success -- though some add hype -- tablet computers have enjoyed. Some technology sites still cover what few netbooks come out, however, most notably PCMag.com, Britain's TechRadar.com and Germany's NotebookCheck.net. ConsumerReports.org, Laptop Magazine, TrustedReviews.com, Liliputing.com and CNET cover a few recent models as well. User reviews at Amazon.com, Newegg.com and Walmart.com are helpful, but they aren't as numerous as the reviews for tablets and laptops.