/ Technology

Netbooks belong in the technology junkyard

Laptop over netbook

OK, netbooks are cheap and portable and the all-day battery life is nice, but that’s all they have going for them. They’re slow, have rubbish screens and there are better and cheaper alternatives to be had.

I remember reviewing the first netbook. The Asus EeePC 701 had an 8.9-inch screen and an 800 x 600 resolution. It ran a customised version of Linux. It was small, it was light, and it was cheap. At the time, it was a revelation.

Within a year it had been superseded. Netbooks settled on larger 10-inch screens and slightly faster processors, but that was three years ago. The netbooks of today have barely changed since then. Netbooks are the very antithesis of modern technology. They haven’t evolved, they haven’t improved. They’ve stagnated.

Slow and awkward

Despite their beginnings with light, nimble Linux-based operating systems, modern netbooks are lumbered with a ‘cut down’ version of Windows 7. It was never designed for use on netbooks, and it shows. It’s slow to boot, slow to load programs… it’s just plain slow.

Then there are the screens. With one or two exceptions, most netbooks feature a 1024×600 resolution – so restrictive it’s like peering though a letterbox.

It’s particularly annoying when using web browsers, as the tabs and toolbars take up precious space. Trying to use a modern computer application on a netbook screen is an exercise in infuriating compromise.

Better alternatives to netbooks

What seals the fate of netbooks in my mind, though, is that better, cheaper alternatives exist. In response to the popularity of netbooks, manufacturers have produced numerous cheap yet functional ultra-portable laptops. For as little as £350 you can pick up a decent 11.6-inch laptop (I recommend the Dell Inspiron M101z) with a nippy dual-core processor.

These small laptops aren’t crippled like netbooks, yet they demand only a modest premium. They have slightly larger screens, but are infinitely more practical, and have the processing power to tackle image editing, internet video streams and other ‘normal’ computing tasks. The better ones match netbooks in the battery life stakes, too.

Then, of course, there are tablets. Apple’s £399 iPad 2 is as good a riposte as any to the netbook. I’m writing this article on one, on a train sitting outside Waterloo. While it has its compromises, the iPad 2 is better at browsing the internet, and basic tasks (e.g. image editing) than any netbook.

If netbooks have a purpose now, it’s in offering children and third-world nations a cheap, accessible entry into computing – that’s it. But, otherwise it’s time to cast aside your netbook for something a little more adventurous. It won’t cost a fortune, and you won’t regret it.

Comments
Profile photo of alistair
Member

I bought a Dellnetbook running XP. It is painfully slow, I only use it when I have to. However it was only £150 new from PCW, so it was, and still is worth it…..

Member
Mark says:
22 April 2011

Arguably tablets are taking over the role of netbooks. I say “arguably” because I can’t imagine being able to, nor wanting to, do any significant amount of work using a touch keyboard. This is why I think Chrome OS actually has a chance if Google can release it at budget price point.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

I don’t know about other tablets, but keyboards are available for those who want to type on their iPad.

Netbooks are so crippled that I would rather carry around a laptop.

Member
Fred says:
23 April 2011

I bought a netbook prior to spending 6 weeks in hospital, in fact it was the one ‘tested’ above. With a Vodaphone dongle managed to keep in touch with all those at home 250 miles away, surfed the net listened to podcasts etc. the only thing I couldn’t do was use iplayer.

Have really been converted to Linux, takes up so little space and does pretty well all that I ever wanted Windows to do, just wish I could download books for the Kindle on it!

Member
Graham says:
25 April 2011

Andrew,
Does the new Samsung NS310 change the view on Netbooks?

Profile photo of Andy Vandervell
Member

Not at all. It’s still got an Atom processor on Windows 7, and it’s still got a restrictive 10-inch screen. Nice design is great, but functionally it’s still the same old product underneath.

Member
YouKnowWho says:
26 April 2011

£399 iPad 2 is….. ….twice the price of my MSI Wind, which works just fine, and if it were to get dropped/lost/stolen – no great loss, but a £400 ipad?
Also the ipad has only half the RAM and only one tenth the storage!

Easypeasy works well too, booting from a USB memory stick.

Profile photo of Scott Murphy
Member

I’ve got a rebadged MSI Wind (1.6Ghz, with RAM upgraded to 2Gb). Its light, ultra portable and I’ve managed to load Windows 7 Ultimate on it after some tweaking. I do however use it in tandem with a gaming laptop. In comparison to tablets I find I can do SO much more with it, and, despite its diminutive size (and older processor!) I get it to run 720p HD video quite comfortably. Even older games (when loaded from a pen drive) run quite well. I’ve had Call of Duty 1 & 2 and even far Cry run nicely on it. I paid £100 for the netbook second hand and since I’ve had it I’ve not had a single problem with it. People have rasied the whole “The IPad has a keyboard” – no sorry it just doesn’t. I’d much rather type for hours on a real keyboard than numb my fingers on a tablet screen.

On the screen front – yes 1024×600 is restrictive, and yes at times websites look very bunched. But for seamless operating away from your desk a netbook wins hands down every time.

Member
Geoff Uttley says:
26 April 2011

Bought a Tosh NB305 a year ago (airside, qquite cheap) while on my way to Chicago where I saw the launch of the iPad; was a bit worried that I’d bought too soon. A year later I’m still chuffed to bits with it; long battery life, good screen, keyboard, easy to swap files to and from my main laptop using a stick or email. Does exactly what I bought it for, and will save wear and tear on my main laptop too.

Profile photo of chris
Member

A 10″ screen?

I had a bigger one when I programmed my first Sinclair Spectrum in 1980

Noooooooooooooooo.

Member
Mr Iain says:
26 April 2011

It’s horses for courses. Andrew’s article is arrogant and unbalanced in the extreme, and it seems to undermine Which?’s unbiased perspective in reporting, although it is no doubt intended as a stimulation for comment and reaction. While it is fair to point out that there are a range of options available for mobile and/or budget computing, each have their own merits – including netbooks. I’m not even sure it’s fair to say that netbooks haven’t evolved at all, given that they have been very much at the sharp end of improving battery life (and they still rule the roost here), and we have seen models incorporating touchscreen technology and ruggedised drives.

Profile photo of skoda
Member

I had been waiting to buy a tablet, already having an iTouch. Then I analysed what I actually needed!
So a month ago I changed and bought the latest new dual core Atom powered Samsung N150plus netbook for only £229. LED matt screen, good keyboard (the touch keyboard on the iTouch is a pain) and battery life claimed at 8-10hours. I actually get nearer to 7. The b-g wi-fi range is amazing, much better than my old HP notebook.
This model is not yet on the Samsung website, but is available from eBuyer, Dabs etc. My own hybrid PC, built for simulations, consumes 400watts – the netbook uses 38/40watts, so is quite a saving on my energy bills. Best of all, I can plug this straight into my 1680×1050 monitor, keyboard and mouse and have a perfect working full size PC! I could not do that with a tablet.
If you use a browser like Opera (I have tried them all on the netbook) and press f11 you can browse full screen and have ‘flash’ running, unlike the iPad! The new Opera is very quick too.
I even tested the N150+t on Steams CounterStrike game which it runs very smoothly, also on the full size monitor. So, no I think it is a case of ‘horses for courses’ and believe that some people will tire of the awkwardness of holding tablets when using them.

Member
Dick Poulter says:
26 April 2011

What utter tosh and downright snobbery; I purchased an Acer Aspire one D522 with a dual core AMD Processor, 250 GB 1GB DDR3 RAM (Upgradeable to 2GB I believe. Wifi & Bluetooth from QVC with +2 years extended warranty + 1 years AVG Internet Security (Up to 3 separate comuter licence) @ 10.2 is plenty large enough for standby portable/mobile system. Unlike your Technical Editor I have over 30 years experience of IT and its development(s). Golden Rule make the Technology Fit your requirements and don’t be blinded by a lot of superfluous “Bells & Whistles you’ll pay for (one way or another) and never use.

Profile photo of wavechange
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Sorry Dick but I reckon your golden rule is years out of date. To get the best value for money it is essential to think what your requirements might be during the working life of the equipment. There is not a lot of scope to upgrade the hardware of netbooks and laptops, so it might be worth spending a little more at the time of purchase. If it’s software, the ‘bells & whistles’ can be added later if needed.

Andrew’s introduction is deliberately provocative, to elicit discussion, but your comment is rather patronising.

Profile photo of wavechange
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My message relates to Mr Poulter’s posting, but like many other users I have been victim of inappropriate automatic censorship.

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Dick Poulter says:
27 April 2011

So my comment is “Patronising” and yours isn’t? Who are you – Andrew’s little brother?
I stand by the Golden Rule, you on the other hand would buy the latest technology simply because its there, because everyone’s using it regardless of whether you could actually benefit from its use – muppet.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

I don’t buy old technology, but neither do I buy the highest specification. My current laptops both have built-in cameras which I have not used frequently, but I make good use of the other hardware features. The three laptops that I have retired each served me well for around five years.

Profile photo of Hannah Jolliffe
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Hi Wavechange – apologies about the censorship – we know how annoying our profanity filter can be! I’ve changed your comment now.

Great to see you debating this subject, let’s just remember we’re all entitled to a different view!

Member
Tom says:
4 May 2011

I thought Which? was meant to be about the CONSUMER! For many people, unlike journalists who are constantly blagging stuff for free, there’s quite a financial gulf between a £150 netbook and a £400 iPad. THAT is the issue. I can assure you, if they were the same price, I would immediately surrender the contents of my wallet to Steve Jobs’ colleagues.

Profile photo of Patrick Steen
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Hi, for everyone who is a fan of netbooks, I thought you’d be interested in our latest Conversation by Chris Christoforou who also disagrees with Andy. For him, netbooks are here to stay: https://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/netbooks-here-to-stay-tablet-ipad/

Make sure to join in!

Member
peter says:
6 May 2011

i am an IT dummy. i only know how to use a pc, not even a smartphone.
not easy for someone who is over 70 to learn new things and to remember them.
i store all my files in my pc. i do not know how to use “cloud”.
for about 208 pounds I can buy an ASUS 1015px with N570, or about 288 pounds for a 11.5″ Lenovo s205 with E350. (I am not living in UK).
when I searched the web, I understand these 2 processors are quite fast, though these 2 netbook/mini laptop can never be as fast as an ipad
even if I disregard the difference in prices, what worries me is how can I easily transfer the files, about 8GB, from my pc to the ipad so I can use them in a long travel away from home.
Dear Andrew, please advise what should I buy. netbook/mini laptop or ipad.
Acer has a tablet W500 running windows 7. will it be just as slow as the Asus 1015px or Lenovo s205 ?
many thanks for your advice

Member
Chris Keating says:
22 May 2011

Just bought a netbook – guided by Which’s best buy recommendations – and have to say I’m loving it.

I was thinking about an iPad, but then I realised they cost twice as much, half the internet doesn’t actually work on them because of their lack of Flash, and they don’t even come with a USB port.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

I don’t own one but I am very impressed by the iPad. I had assumed that iPlayer would not work because it is Flash-based, but it works very well indeed. I know a dozen people with iPads and I have not heard any of them complaining about the lack of USB ports. There are other ways to move files around and solutions to other limitations too. I know a dozen iPad users and all they complain about is not having an iPad 2.

The iPad and netbooks are designed for different purposes, different budgets and different users.

Member

I am new to Which? and am trying to decide on netbook/ultra-portable laptop or ipad. My sister and I who are both 60 ‘something’ are taking our first long-haul trip (without the family) and had thought to buy a netbook between us so we could stay in touch by e-mail/Skype and send photos home. So far so good – we thought. What a minefield!! I just came across Andy’s article from April 2011 and first of all – speaking as a non-tech person, I actually understood it and thought it made sense. Don’t buy a netbook. Then I read all the conversations and by the end of that I still don’t know!! HELP!! I am going out tomorrow with my money in my hot sticky little hand and I don’t know what I am going to buy! Any advice? Please don’t blind me with science!

Profile photo of Patrick Steen
Member

Hi Jean, if you really are set on a netbook, then go for it. You can get something decent for the money these days.

A tablet isn’t for everyone! Then again, I’d personally go for a small laptop, as you’ll be able to do more on it, type comfortably and it’ll be more powerful.

Here’s two guides that you should find useful – a buying guide for netbooks and one for laptops:

http://www.which.co.uk/technology/computing/guides/how-to-buy-the-best-netbook/
http://www.which.co.uk/technology/computing/guides/how-to-buy-the-best-laptop/

And here are our reviews of all the netbooks and laptops out there:

http://www.which.co.uk/technology/computing/reviews/netbooks/
http://www.which.co.uk/technology/computing/reviews/laptops/

Good luck and let us know what you picked!

Member
David W says:
9 November 2011

I find this a really interesting discussion. I’ve used laptops for years and been pretty happy with them. Recently I was given an iPad as a birthday present to replace a fairly old small laptop. The iPad is brilliant at many things. UNFORTUNATELY the lack of ability to run flash has had a bigger impact than I expected, especially for work use and I’m now looking at having to buy another small laptop/netbook to use for running training courses. Not only does the iPad not run flash but it is not possible to connect it to an external display/projector AND charge it at the same time. This means if I’m using it for a day long training course I have to continually unplug the projector and plug in the charger at any sort of break. I’m therefore now looking for a simple, cheap netbook. If I had the decision to make again I would certainly not go for the iPad from a work perspective.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

The iPad can be criticised for many things but not battery life. I can’t see why you need to keep unplugging the external display/projector. If necessary, charge it over lunch and decrease the brightness of the iPad. It’s good that the iPad does allow connection to an external display/projector but a laptop has a lot more versatility.

I see an iPad as complementary to a laptop and both have distinct advantages. Maybe a netbook could take place of both but I would not thank you for one.

I believe that there is an iPad browser that can be used for websites with Flash content, though I have not investigated this. What I am glad of is that the iPlayer can be used on the iPad, despite being Flash-based. I don’t know why this works but it works beautifully.

Member
Brian-Henry says:
19 November 2011

Help please, folks. My local Probus club wants a simple and inexpensive computer to drive the projector for twice-monthly morning presentations. All it has to do is to accept a PowerPoint presentation via a memory stick and deliver this through Powerpoint Viewer without dropping off into screen-save after two minutes. Nothing else. The slide change can be done at the machine, it does not need a remote. Any suggestions?

I would add that my house has a multitude of desktops and laptops with wireless connectivity, so I understand and agree with the posted comments above about dated specifications, but this request is about the other end of the specifications spectrum, about which I know little.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

Altering the settings will prevent any computer showing the screensaver or going to sleep.

Member
Geoff Uttley says:
15 January 2012

Hi,

I use my Tosh netbook to run our projector at our Rotary club. It has never failed me; bought it on the way to CoL 2010. Long battery life means I don’t need to carry the power lead around, and it has a socket for the projector. I also use it on committee and council nights and do the minutes as the meeting happens. Saves time and potential problems. Easily runs powerpoint programs from a memory stick, and can use the wifi at our meeting venue too.

Member
Matt Long says:
15 January 2012

I have a netbook and as I only really use it for web browsing, writing simple docs and watching movies, I replace Windows with Linux (Ubuntu). It now boots and runs much quicker.