The CPU plays a big part when shopping for a netbook

Netbooks are small, portable and inexpensive computing devices that are typically suitable for surfing the Internet or composing basic documents. Most netbooks come with a 10.1-inch display, although it is possible to find some with 11- or 12-inch screens. While some netbooks are nearly as competent as full-size laptops, many have fairly limited capabilities.

Netbook performance is dictated by price and processor speed. Advanced models with the AMD E- or E2-Series Fusion dual-core chipsets can do almost anything an entry-level laptop can -- including photo editing, high-definition video streaming and basic 3D game playing -- and more powerful second-generation Fusion processors have been introduced. However, few netbooks carry Fusion processors. Some netbooks in this class use a 1 GHz AMD Fusion Dual Core C-60 processor instead; though a step down in power from the company's E-series processors, the AMD C-series processor outperforms other netbook processors, including those in the Intel Atom family. The big advance in AMD's Fusion technology is its superior graphics capabilities, and that is readily apparent in reviews of netbooks that use these processors.

In the middle are notebooks with dual-core Intel Atom processors. These processors make multitasking possible, but they don't offer a huge boost in performance over single-core Atom CPUs. Some experts do see a slight speed improvement, but nothing that the average user would notice day-to-day. Netbooks with Intel N2600 Atom Cedar Trail dual-core processors are starting to become available, but once again, they offer little day-to-day performance gain over netbooks with basic Atom processors. One exception is Cedar Trail's ability to play 1080p HD video -- but that's something that netbooks with AMD's Fusion APUs and C-series processors also do well.

The cheapest netbooks use a single-core Intel Atom processor. Combined with minimal hardware (1 GB of RAM, small hard drives, etc.) that leads to pretty paltry performance. However, if all you want to do is read email, surf the web and compose documents, it might be all that you need. Expect video streams to stutter, however.

Experts recommend keeping the following factors in mind when shopping for a netbook: 

  • Battery size is crucial. Smaller batteries might make the unit lighter and easier to carry, but larger batteries allow for longer runtime when you're away from an electrical outlet. Six-cell batteries are most common and are recommended, while cheaper netbooks usually have three- or four-cell batteries, which don't last as long between charges.
  • Check out displays and keyboards. While smaller netbooks tend to be more portable, they're not always as functional. Some users find that tiny keyboards and screens can cause too much strain and frustration to make up for the decrease in price and bulk.
  • Look at onboard storage and RAM. Products with limited onboard storage space may require peripheral devices such as SD cards or a subscription (free or paid) to an online file storage service. Netbooks with smaller amounts of RAM could run more sluggishly than those with more memory, especially when running more than one program at a time. Most netbooks come with at least 1 GB, but you can upgrade to 2 or even up to 8 GB on some models.
  • Consider the operating system. Most higher-end netbooks now run full versions of Windows 7, while midrange models frequently use Windows 7 Starter Edition. Some netbooks offer Linux as an option. All but the most budget of netbooks technically have the hardware to run Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8, but don't expect netbooks to run that cutting-edge operating system very well.
  • Glossy screens are common. Just as on full-size laptops, glossy displays are becoming ubiquitous on netbooks. They may make colors look more saturated, but glossy screens can also increase glare and reflections. A few netbooks are available with matte displays, and reviewers generally give them high marks.
  • Choose the netbook to handle the tasks you want to perform. Many value or budget netbooks aren't equipped with enough horsepower to handle gaming or streaming videos from the web. If budget is an issue, experts recommend keeping your expectations in check and using your netbook for surfing the Internet or sending emails. A full-size cheap laptop is another alternative; see the separate ConsumerSearch report for the available options.

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