/ 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Within a year it had been superseded.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.


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…..

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.


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.

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!

Graham says:
25 April 2011

Does the new Samsung NS310 change the view on Netbooks?


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.

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.


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.

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.


A 10″ screen?

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


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.


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.

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.


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.