Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Tom's Definitive 10.1" Netbook Buyer's Guide: Fall 2010


We run through an in-depth guide to 10.1" netbooks from Acer, Asus, Dell, Gateway, HP, Lenovo, and MSI. We even coded a special set of benchmarks. If you are in the market for a netbook, this guide gives you the performance and design cues you need.

Mobile systems have long been on our to-do-list. These days, nearly everyone has a notebook. However, picking the right notebook isn't like choosing a CPU, graphic card, or memory kit, where you can just simply swap out one piece for better performance.

While there are those rare few who upgrade, the options are still limited (hard drive and memory). For the braver few, a mobile processor might be on the menu. Yet, notebooks remain a special case where you buy something for the long haul. Motherboard and graphic upgrades are all but guaranteed to be nonexistent. For that reason, the total cost over the life of a mobile system can often exceed that of their desktop big brothers. It is also important to point out that no one really buys a notebook for performance alone. Form, style, build quality, and obviously battery life all are important, and in some cases may actually outrank performance.

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More often than not, mobile systems (specifically) are reviewed as a singular product. It has actually become the de facto standard. It is hard to justify our recommendations when we haven't looked at other products. This is despite the fact that they have been available at Best Buy and Newegg for months and share the same hardware specifications.

It is pretty easy to see the flaw here. If we review 15.6” gaming notebook x and give it a good review, what about the 15.6” gaming notebook y that is also currently available, but happens to be a better all-around buy? Both notebooks are likely to get a thumbs up, with notebook y popping up in a separate review two weeks later. Honestly, this has to be confusing to everyone. In this economy, it is hard to justify reviews this way when few of us are impulse buyers.

Systems are not bought with tunnel vision. So why review that way? We have set out to deliver something different; something that is more useful than a reaction that says, “that is an awesome notebook!” Though, we certainly will feature specific systems from time to time to showcase some awesome aspect of tech, like Thomas' recent foray into high-end mobile graphics. However, we also want to answer the bottom line: “which notebook should I buy?” As a result, we set out to deliver something of a cross between a buyer’s guide and a roundup.

During the shopping experience, it is easy to get lose the idea of “intended purpose.” Netbooks are not to be used as a primary computer, which is often the very reason they take flak. On the flip side, desktop replacements (DTR) are not meant to be highly mobile. So, when people complain about having a heavy DTR (usually with a 15.6” or larger LCD), it is more a lack of forethought than a poor product. This is a more common problem that you might think. Believe us--we've read the complaints in the many mobile-related forums.

Netbooks, though, are actually a more recent development of the ultraportable form factor. Pioneered by Asus with its Eee PC, these small, lightweight, and relatively cheap notebooks are great companion devices. They are excellent complements for those who need high mobility and the large computation power provided by an existing desktop or DTR.

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The two extremes--high mobility/low power computation and low mobility/high power computation--work better together than one might think. It's a lot like the benefits of buying an awesome camera and an awesome cell phone. A camera phone certainly would be easier to deal with, but for the same budget, it won’t take pictures quite as well as the camera or have the small profile of a non-camera phone. In a similar manner, the workhorse is going to be the “other computer,” while the netbook is going to be the device you bring out into the world to make edits to Word docs, check Web sites, and watch Flash videos on the flight.

Aside from being a companion device, there are a couple other situations where you might consider a netbook.

  • If you need a cheap desktop for Internet browsing, email, and watching Flash video (Hulu or YouTube), netbooks provide a cheap computer that can do dual-duty. Just hook up a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Unplug and you can still bring your work with you.
  • If you need a cheap computer for a child, a netbook is certainly something to consider. If it breaks, it’s less of a loss. Plus, this means little Timmy isn’t hogging the computer when he wants to watch Hulu and you need to work.


Our netbook roundup focuses on the smallest of the small and lightest of the light, which is why this selection is limited to netbooks with a 10.1” screen. Each system has its own quirks and we’ll try to outline each system’s advantages and pitfalls.


This is the only netbook in the roundup equipped with an AMD processor. That might be somewhat odd to many, considering that the two most popular netbook brands (arguably Acer and Asus) have always stuck with Atom CPUs for nearly all of their netbooks SKUs. Add to that the fact that AMD processors, even at the low-end, have never really stood a chance against the power-saving capabilities of Atom. It is easy to see why an 10.1" AMD netbook makes us intrigued.

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Announced a few months back, the AO521 was released alongside its nearly-identical 11.6" AO721 brother. This makes the AO521 the newest notebook in our showcase, sporting the recently-released Athlon II Neo K125. With a market price of ~$339.99, though, the AO521 is certainly one of the more expensive netbook options.

In return, you get two things not typical of netbooks--HDMI output and a more capable graphics processor. Understandably, Acer hopes this 10.1" netbook comes across as the powerhouse platform. This may be the right time too, considering the netbook market is saturated with buying options--10+ models totaling more than 100 submodels, the only gap has really been in a performance netbook and this is where Acer is now hoping to stand above the crowd.

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The sense of power that Acer is trying to bring to the table is certainly reflected in the feel of the AO521, mainly because of its weight. It also feels a bit beefier because of its 7.4" width, and the use of what seems to be a thick ABS shell. MSI's U150 actually comes in about .5" wider, but this is only because of a protruding battery back. The battery on the AO521 sits nearly flush, accounting for a good deal of its weight. But the small footprint is still typical of a netbook form factor.

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Open up Acer's Aspire One and you will find that the piano black finish on the display bezel matches the high-gloss surface of the display lid. Meanwhile, the ABS surface extends to the rest of the AO521, except for the palm rests and the touchpad, both of which seem to be made of polycarbonate. We found the location of the power button somewhat odd considering most people are right-handed, but this is really a minor concern for us.

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The keyboard is pretty typical of what we have seen from previous Aspire One netbooks; opting to forgo the use of a chiclet design isn't a downside by any stretch. Chiclet-style keyboards are more an issue of preference and aren't inherently superior to the standard keyboard, except in their lower profile and the ease of cleanup. According to Acer, this is a 93% keyboard, which is to say 93% of the size of a desktop keyboard. Understand, though, that this is in respect to the size of the entire keyboard, and says nothing about key size. So, this makes it easy to overlook the fact that the keys on the A0521 are very close to being desktop-sized. This is not the case for all 92% or 93% keyboards.

While space is constrained, key size helps make up for the small real estate a bit. The touchpad, like everything else on a netbook, is reduced. It is interesting to point out that Acer doesn't really consider this to be an integrated touchpad. We probably would describe this as "semi-integrated," since it is fabricated as a single piece along with the casing. We say "semi" because this is not a seamless transition from touchpad to case or vice versa. Instead, the touchpad is beveled slightly higher, but retains the same texture as you run your fingers over the rest of the silver polycarbonate panel.

It is good to see that the AO521 has an unpolished finish on the touchpad surface. When it comes to touchpads, polished is more a detriment because it is easier to feel any accumulation of skin oil. This doesn't necessarily come from eating while computing, but rather the buildup from everyday contact. Polished surfaces make this sensation noticeable rather quickly. This is what makes it disappointing to see Acer also include high-gloss touchpad buttons. While they have good tactile feedback and depression space, it would have been preferable to see the company match a multi-gesture touchpad with either matte or textured buttons.

From the original developers of the netbook, we have the 1001P Eee PC in the lab. This is basically an upgrade of the Diamondville platform on the 1005HA model from a while back.

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It may be daunting to figure out which netbook to buy if you’re looking at the Eee PC lineup. Of the Pineview-based Atom processors, we count at least seven different 10.1” Eee PC models currently on the Asus Web site. However, this doesn’t even include the long list of submodels. For example, our $299.99 1001P-MU17-BK comes with a matte screen and Windows 7 Starter, even though the 1001P is listed with a glossy screen (Color-Shine) and Windows XP. Oddly enough, we can pick up a slightly cheaper $279.99 1001PX from Best Buy that has the same specs, but adds 802.11n support.

You need to know there is very little difference between Eee PCs at the internal hardware level; in some cases they share the same motherboard just with different processors. In fact it seems that between the seven different models, there are three motherboards designs.

The other differences between the submodels include:

  • chiclet vs. traditional keyboard
  • hard drive sizes
  • 802.11n or draft-n support
  • Bluetooth support
  • 1.3 vs. 0.3 MP webcam
  • DDR2 or DDR3
  • touchpad style
  • battery pack
  • glossy vs. anti-glare/reflective
  • case design
  • different OS
  • USB 3.0 support
  • Port options

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The 1001P lies at the entry-level of the Eee PC lineup, and shares the same case design as the 1001PX. There has been a lot of fanfare over this design because it looks similar to carbon fiber. Asus has never actually claimed this is a carbon fiber design, but other people have, and it snowballed from there. We should make clear this is a “carbon fiber weave design.” It is molded ABS that gives the texture of a carbon fiber weave surface. However, it is not carbon fiber.

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If you look at the weight specification of this notebook and the price, they don't add up to even a CF composite. That aside, the weave texture gives the 1001P an excellent surface for gripping and hiding fingerprints. It is also important we point out that this texture doesn’t extend throughout the entire system design. It is only found on the display lid and the palm rests. The display bezel is a piano black. while everything else is the matte finish.

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The keyboard on this particular version of the 1001P is the standard keyboard with which Asus basically started the Eee PC line. It has solid back support from the tray so tactile feedback is uniform. Note all Eee PC keyboards are 92% keyboards, but the large size of the keys here helps in the constrained space. If you include the beveled edges, the keys are the same size as those found on the 93% keyboard of the AO521 and LT2120u.

The touchpad is fairly unique. This is what Asus considers its standard Eee PC touchpad, despite the fact that it is fairly integrated into the surface of the casing. If you examine it closely, it seems as if the entire section was fabricated as a single piece. The touchpad’s surface, though, can be identified by the fact that the rest of the chassis has the “carbon fiber weave design.” This is another multi-gesture touchpad that has good feedback, but we have a minor complaint about the button bar, which makes using the touchpad sometimes tricky.

There is a very thin (~1 mm) border of the “carbon fiber weave design” that separates the touchpad from the touchpad’s button bar. The outline, in our opinion, is too thin to serve any purpose. When you are doing drag and drop operations, you hardly notice it, and as a result you can unintentionally lose tracking. Ideally, it should be edge-to-edge here.

The single rocker-style button is made of plastic with a metallic finish that sits slightly recessed below the casing. Our main complaint comes from the very shallow click we get. Separate left- and right-click buttons (instead of a single rocker-style design) aren't necessarily better, but there has to be good click depression and feedback for the design to work. There is good strong feedback, but the degree that the button goes down seems low considering that it is already recessed. This is exactly what makes it hard to tell if you are making a left or right click, unless you are doing so at the very far ends of the bar. If you click near the middle, there are two possible outcomes: either nothing happens or you achieve a click on a single side, depending on the angle. This is part of our complaint, because there is nothing that clearly separates the functionality. It is a minor annoyance, but hopefully we see an improvement in future Eee PC designs.

Update: Dell sent us a Mini 10 at the eleventh hour, and we have been scrambling to make this addition so you can mull over your holiday buying options.

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Dell’s naming system actually makes it fairly easy to keep your netbook buying options straight. Last year, it was the Mini 9 (Diamondville). Add one for the current generation, and you get Mini 10. Keep in mind that the Mini 10 is also affected by the DDR2 and DDR3 revision split, but the company largely keeps the two versions separate via its submodel names--1012 and 1018.

The differences between the two models are minor, but they add up. They do not share the same motherboard, but the internal design is still very similar.

1012 vs. 1018

  • DDR2 vs. DDR3
  • Webcam: 1.3 MP vs. 0.3 MP
  • HD option with Broadcom Crystal HD on 1012
  • Bluetooth option on 1012
  • 3 x USB 2.0 & microphone jack vs 2 x USB 2.0 & no microphone jack
  • Color options on the 1012 vs black 1018
  • 2 x 1.0 W vs. 1 x 1.0 W speaker
  • different touchpad designs


Battery configurations
1012

  • 3-cell 28 Whr (limited models)
  • 6-cell 56 Whr (all current shipping models on Dell.com and Best Buy)
  • 6-cell 60 Whr (limited models)


1018

  • 3-cell 24 Whr (one of two currently shipping models)
  • 6-cell 48 Whr (one of two currently shipping models)
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It isn’t obvious on its Web site, but all Dell Mini 10s use a TrueLife display (Dell’s branding for a glossy display type). We have yet to see an available 1012 shipping with either the 28 Whr or 60 Whr battery, but the difference in capacity between the 1012 and 1018 makes it obvious that the batteries are not cross-model compatible.

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It is interesting to point out that the 1018 is supposed to be Dell’s budget netbook lineup, while the 1012 is positioned as the premium model. Yet, every Dell Mini 10 at Best Buy is a 1012. In fact, on a good week, you can find the 1012s priced better than the 1018s, which is something you should keep in mind when you are ready to head to the virtual (or physical) checkout counter.

In what feels like a fully ABS-encased netbook, the 1012 has a completely high-gloss exterior, akin to lacquer finishing. This is obviously a fingerprint magnet, but the darker color schemes will show them off better than lighter ones. For example, our sample unit’s white finish requires a certain angle to see all the accumulated finger oil. Meanwhile, the 1018’s jet black makes it visible from nearly any angle. We should note, however, that the gloss doesn’t extend to the bottom half of the unit on the 1018.

Open up any Mini 10 and you will find that the high-gloss finish extends through the rest of the display bezel. Meanwhile, the casing surrounding the keyboard and palm rests comes in a texture similar to the “carbon fiber weave design” on the Asus 1001P. However, on the Dell Mini 10, there is a polished feel that makes it hard to give a thumbs up or down. It seems as if Dell took a polished surface and gouged some patterns in it for texture. So, half of the surface feels polished, and the other half unpolished. I can’t recall seeing “half of a fingerprint magnet,” but the Mini 10 has it.

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All of the 1012s and 1018s utilize the same 92% keyboard. There is a long depression depth in comparison to other netbooks, which is going to be a matter of preference. The depression depth only affects tactile feedback in the sense that there is a lot of it, and unexpectedly so for a keyboard that shares a surface texture with that of the Acer AO521 and Asus 1001P--what I would consider similar to extra-fine sandpaper.

The touchpads on the 1012 and 1018 differ. Where the entry-level 1018 uses the traditional touchpad with two separate buttons, the 1012 goes for a touchpad somewhere between a chiclet (Lenovo S10-3) and integrated (Gateway LT2120u) design. There is a definitive border, but it is very thin.

This is somewhat of a multi-touch touchpad, as you can use multiple fingers to navigate, provided the spatial relation between the points of contact remains constant. Given the small space, you can’t realistically use more than two fingers, though.

This isn’t the worst touchpad we have used, but it is quirky. Integrating the buttons into the touchpad makes it easier to optimize a netbook for real estate, but it has to be done right. The design on the 1012 falls a bit short here. This is not a multi-gesture touchpad, but that isn’t our complaint. In fact, in many cases, MG touchpads are more of a nuisance. Instead, we found drag and drop operations to be a bit challenging.

The buttons are segregated, so there is no way to click in the middle. Each button occupies a ¾” x ¾” square on each corner of the 3” x 1½” touchpad. If you make a drag and drop or selection operation that takes your selection finger into one of those button areas, the cursor goes a bit nutty. Since the touchpad is fairly thin in comparison to other netbooks we have seen, it feels like navigation real estate is a bit cramped.

Given that the display doesn’t go a full 180 degrees (only about 120), Dell could have pushed back the display and keyboard to provide more touchpad space. Hopefully, we will see a more careful layout in terms of ergonomics in the Mini 11.

Honestly though, we could live with both of these two issues. The biggest problem we have with the 1012 is in the buttons. They simply have too much resistance. This acerbates the interface experience. After full day, you feel as if you fingers have had a workout. There is very little depression depth to the buttons and what little there is feels like you need to press twice as hard in comparison to other netbooks, especially when you need to hold a button down. It could be best described as a very stiff clutch for those of you who know how drive stick. Dell could easily solve this by raising the touchpad a bit or just falling back to a traditional touchpad design.

While Acer and Asus have multiple Pineview-based netbook models floating around, Gateway has two: the LT21 and LT23 series. There is basically no difference between them, other than maybe color options. In fact, it seems that they even share the same motherboard, but it is important to point out that neither is using DDR3 Pineview-based Atom processors. We have been told by Gateway that the LT21 will be in stores at least until the end of the year. So, since it shares the same specs with the LT23 series, find out which one is cheapest if you are weighing your 10.1” Gateway netbook options.

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The entire LT21 series starts at $299.99 and differs very little except for the following:

  • 802.11n support
  • 160 GB vs 250 GB
  • three color schemes: Red/Black, White/Silver, and Black/Black
  • Windows 7 Starter vs. Windows XP Home
  • 5600 mAH or 5800 mAH 6-cell battery

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The Gateway LT2120u feels a bit beefy, even though it has a similar weight profile to the rest in the roundup. We say beefy mostly because of the prodigious use of ABS plastic where we don’t expect it. The Asus 1001P is all ABS, and this also goes for the LT21 series. However, once you open up the system, you find that the high-gloss display bezel is almost twice as thick as what you find on other systems. This makes for a very sturdy display, but it also means that the LCD screen is a further recessed.

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There are other surprises here. The power and “pseudo” wireless buttons are integrated into the hinge as "peddles." It is a bit deceptive, but the wireless button isn’t a button at all. It is simply an LED. Honestly, this seems like a missed opportunity. Gateway should have made this a WiFi button for symmetry. At the moment, the wireless enable/disable functionality is provided via Fn+F2.

The excellent layout design that Gateway implements here shows up in the large touchpad real estate. I just wish there was some more tactile feedback in the power button; otherwise, overall it is an excellent layout.

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You’ll find basically the same 93% keyboard on the LT21 series as you do on many of the Aspire One netbooks. It has good tactile feedback and key size, but this isn’t what we are going to rave about. Instead, the real winner here is the integrated touchpad. This looks similar to the touchpad on the Asus 1005PE, which we have yet to try, so its hard to compare. On its own merits, this is the best touchpad of the six netbooks we have in the lab and netbooks we have used in the past.

In what feels like either ABS or a possibly a polycarbonate/ABS composite, the upper casing of the LT21 feels unpolished to the touch. The simple dots on the case mark off where the touchpad starts and ends. The dots seem to be almost painted on. They are most definitely not dimples, but we aren’t quite sure if this part of the fabrication process or if they are added on later. Honestly, the texture of the dots is as perfect as you can get. There is enough texture to get feedback and contrast with the rest of the case, but it in no way feels distracting or unnatural.

There is a separate scroll bar, which feels more intuitive than the use of this touchpad’s multi-gesture functionality. However, this area does not pull double-duty as touchpad navigation. What makes the touchpad even better is the use of a well-designed button. The rocker-style button is made of what seems to be polycarbonate in the guise and texture of brushed aluminum. This long button sits slightly beveled against the front edge of the notebook, but there is excellent feedback and depression space. The fact that Gateway chose to make this a longer bar helps avoid the middle-click confusion. In fact, you can’t actually make a middle click. The button is designed so that you need to be at least 45% to either side to perform a click operation.

HP has two netbooks out there in the 10.1” form factor: Mini 110 and Mini 210. It is important to note that the Mini 110 has undergone a redesign, while keeping the same name. Based on our usage, it seems that the newest Mini 110 and Mini 210 HD are basically identical down to the motherboard and speakers. Honestly, at the component level, we can’t really find a difference except different screens, touchpads, and that they share incompatible batteries. What makes this more confusing is that it seems like there are more than 50+ SKUs of the Mini 210 floating around.

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The only consistent difference seems to be that the Mini 110 doesn’t have a multi-gesture touchpad, it offers two color options, and uses a matte anti-glare LED screen. On some models of the Mini 210, you can get the LED screen in a matte (anti-glare) or one with BrightView Infinity, which is just HP’s fancy way of saying you get a glossy screen (BrightView) with the glass panel (Infinity), making the glossy screen flush with the lid (BrightView + Infinity). This is the same thing as what see on MacBook Pros.

Among the different Mini 210 models differences are

  • chiclet keyboard vs. traditional
  • 3-cell vs. 6-cell battery
  • Bluetooth support
  • 802.11n support
  • matte anti-glare vs. BrightView Infinity
  • Differing hard drive sizes
  • native res. of 1366 x 768 (210 HD editions) vs. 1024 x 600
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We should point out that the 2009 Mini 110 is not the same as the one from 2010. When HP upgraded from Diamondville to the Pineview processor, the system underwent a physical, as well internal, redesign. Meanwhile, all 210 models found at Best Buy are BrightView Infinity non-HD (both DDR2 and DDR3 versions). The DDR2 model of the Mini 110 runs $249.99 (Best Buy)--about $30 less than the DDR3 version on HP.com. The performance difference is basically nill, so just go with whatever is cheaper. If you are looking specifically at the 210 models (including HD), they start at $329.99 (DDR2 or DDR3).

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Similar to Express Gate found on some Asus Eee PCs, HP is using a customized cut-down version of the Splashtop Linux distribution on certain notebooks, marketed as HP QuickWeb. The software boots into the Mail, Web, and Music interface. It is supposed to function as an instant-on solution that will time out if you want to get to Windows 7 (consumes 200 MB partition, loads in eight seconds on our machine).

It can be disabled if you prefer to just boot directly into Windows. HP has a short PDF outlining features here. More program details and instructures on how to disable can be found here. Honestly, we prefer just to boot directly into Windows. It is a nice interface for those who don't want to wait and can get by with the included apps, but booting into Windows offers additional functions other than just limiting ourselves to Web browsing, checking email, and listening to music. Yes, it supports Flash video, for those curious.

The construction of the 210 HD is pretty solid. Even though other netbooks in this showcase use 6-cell batteries, it is important to point out that not all 3-cell battery configurations even sit flush like the 210 HD. But given the BrightView Infinity screen and the near uniform thickness, the flush design helps the 210 HD achieve a sleek clamshell profile. The design on the outer casing (top and bottom) imbues a certain texture that you can only detect if you run your fingernails over, but it feels as if HP used very thin wires here to achieve the design markings.

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The casing has a smooth feel, but it is not glossy, as fingerprints are not readily apparent. There is a downside here, though. The use of what seems to be a buffer-smoothed polycarbonate shell still accumulates skin oil like nothing else. Compared to the popular high-gloss finish, the build-up sensation is more noticeable, and it tempts us to reach for a Pledge wipe more often. If the polished feel was only on the shell, it wouldn’t actually be that bad. However, the keyboard and touchpad both share the same texture.

The fact that the casing matches the chiclet keyboard makes for a more uniform interface experience, but the smooth polished surface detracts because of the quick oil buildup. Other than that, the 92% keyboard has good back support so that tactile feedback is uniform. It is interesting to note that in order to save space here, the power button is a retractable switch on the right-hand side. Make no mistake, this is intended as a “multimedia netbook.” If there are any doubts about this, look at the first row on the keyboard. You need to use the Fn key to get FX functionality.

The 210 HD uses another one of those multi-gesture touchpads (Synaptic ClickPad), but it falls short of being a perfect design. The two buttons are integrated seamlessly into the touchpad and are marked off by grey lines. The advantage is that the whole area can be used as a touchpad if you are not clicking. However, it feels far too easy to click the left touchpad button while also pressing down on the right side. In fact, we feel that we have to go the extreme corners to get decent button feedback. We understand that integrated touchpad buttons save space and provides more room for navigation, but this needs some fine-tuning.

We should point out that the touchpad sits actually on a minor incline because of the integrated touchpad buttons. As a result, if we press anywhere 90% south from the top edge of the touchpad, the whole touchpad goes down like one big button click. This actually causes both buttons to be pressed down as a result. Even though nothing happens, it can be bit distracting if you aren’t conscious of where you are clicking.

Second, if you are performing an operation that requires clicking and dragging/selecting, you need to be a bit careful. Since this is a multi-gesture touchpad, the system is constantly trying to detect gestures versus navigation commands. When you are dragging and selecting, you need to make absolutely sure that your clicker finger is well within the button borders and not near the edge. Otherwise you will get a very unpredictable cursor. If your dragging/selecting finger comes close to the button finger, say as you drag something to the lower-left corner of the screen, the system goes a bit erratic because it perceives this as a two-finger gesture. I want to point out there is almost no way to avoid these problems. Even if you go into the settings to disable all multi-gesture functions, the system is still trying to make heads or tails of what fingers are where. The only difference is that you can now navigate with multiple fingers if you desire, provided the distance between those multiple contact points doesn’t change. Otherwise, the touchpad will just lock up.

Born from Lenovo’s Ideapad line, the S10-3 follows in the general Ideapad mantra: business form factor with a consumer flare. However, the S10-3 is actually the only netbook in the pure sense of the phrase from Lenovo.

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Lenovo also carries the S10-3t, a tablet version of the S10-3, which costs $200 more than the S10-3’s market price, but we’ll get to that in another review. If you are thinking about netbooks and Lenovo, the S10-3 is really the only model you need to consider. Like the HP Minis, the S10-3 comes in the two versions: DDR2 and DDR3. Priced at $299.99, the S10-3 runs a strong race against other netbook offerings.

Once in your hands, the S10-3’s outer casing stands out among the pack. Similar to the Asus 1001P, Lenovo’s checkered texture on the display lid feels oddly reminiscent of those micro-texture lines on a hologram mousepad. The lack of a fingerprint magnet design feels appropriate for a notebook maker who prides itself on a closer association with the business community. Any direct light doesn’t show fingerprints, and very little is reflected back.

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The bottom casing feels like the generic hard ABS plastic seen in many notebooks. However, open up the S10-3, and you see something different. The casing around the island keyboard, including the touchpad, seems to be polycarbonate that has been given the look of brushed aluminum (but not the feel). Meanwhile, the casing around the display is in that high-gloss piano black, which makes it somewhat distracting for all the fingerprint accumulation. Personally, we kind of wonder if continuing the brushed aluminum look might actually make everything look better.

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The S10-3's keyboard and touchpad are particularly different. The keyboard is probably the closest you are going to get to a full-sized keyboard on a netbook, coming in at 98%. As a space trade-off, the power button, Quick Start, and recovery keys have all been relocated to the display bezel, but this seems like a logical and well-reasoned move. It certainly is reflected in general feel. Everything about the S10-3 feels less constrained. It doesn't feel like you are being forced to work with a “micro-keyboard.”

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As a result, we are consistently hitting about 85% to 90% of our typical desktop typing speed. Compare this to 75% on other netbooks, and it is easily see why the larger keyboard helps. Remember that Lenovo still has the Fn key in the lower left-hand corner, so this may take some getting use to if you are moving from a non-Lenovo notebook or desktop system.

While the keyboard seems well-rounded, the touchpad is real letdown. The touchpad is similar to the Mini 210 in that it is continuous with the buttons and suffers from the one-click phenomenon, and this is where the similarities seem to start.

We understand the design here. The touchpad is almost chiclet in design to match the keyboard. While this makes it easy to clean, it is basically fails in function. It is all but impossible to perform any operation that requires clicking and dragging/selecting. In order to be certain of clicks, you need to go to the far left and right-hand edge of the touchpad button regions. For example, if we select multiple items on the desktop, our clicker finger has to be in the right spot, otherwise the selection box goes haywire. This is because the multi-gesture touchpad perceives this as possibly two fingers. Disable all multi-gesture function and you still need to be careful. You literally need to be touching the edges of the touchpad and nothing more for dragging and selecting operations so the cursor doesn’t behave in an erratic manner.

MSI’s new Wind 160 (160-007US model in the labs) is based off of its U135/L1350 platform.

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There are really only two differences with the previous generation:

  • new touchpad design
  • a higher density 6-cell battery


Note that the U135 and U160 share almost exactly the same specifications, minus the aforementioned. Despite identical specs, the U160 features a complete redesign at the internal hardware level, which is apparent in the port arrangement. However, the internal components (LCD panel, WiFi card, and so on) largely remain the same.

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Along with an internal rearrangement, the physical appearance underwent a slight refresh. The construction of the notebook is still based on a high-gloss fingerprint-loving concept. The entire notebook seems to be made of ABS, which is common given the price range of netbooks. There are a few noticeable changes though: the display hinge is now based on a rod design, the matte frame around the display, the reposition of the microphone to the left side of the screen, and the borderless touchpad.

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The chiclet design of the keyboard is pretty common these days, but the keyboard here has a texture similar to that found on Dell notebooks. It is something that MSI definitely has gotten right, though the size of the keys on this 93% keyboard seem to be the smallest in this roundup selection. This isn’t necessarily a penalty, but is noteworthy considering other chiclet keyboards, on average, have larger keys.

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We have some misgivings about MSI’s version of an “integrated touchpad:” mainly, the idea is that there is nothing to delineate where the case starts and where the touchpad begins. The only thing that gives away the touchpad's location is the small raised bumps. Whereas Gateway took its chassis and added texture-sensing points on its LT21 series, MSI fabricated the bumps with the enclosure, so everything is high-gloss, which serves as a detriment. There simply isn’t enough of a texture difference, and as a result, tracking seems somewhat “slippery.” A matte finish similar to the border around the display would have been preferable. Plus, the use of noticeably raised bumps makes the entire navigation process feel oddly unnatural. MSI should take a cue from Asus and Gateway if it wants to see how integrated touchpads can be well-designed and well-received.

The touchpad button, like the U135, remains a high-gloss metallic finish on a narrow plastic bar. Honestly, this could use some rework alongside the touchpad to match a decent keyboard. Other netbooks in this roundup have more real estate given the same form factor, and MSI likewise should look to do the same. The depression space is fairly low and the bar suffers from middle-click confusion.

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We should point out that MSI is still a relatively new player in the mobile market and it is out to show its chops. The U160 shows MSI’s improving eye toward quality, but it’s often the small details that matter. There are two specific things here that stand out. First, we noticed the wireless toggle jiggles. It is loose and isn’t up to par with the quality we are seeing from the top four system vendors. Second, the left side of the hinge bar has an unsecured plastic cap. Where the right side is fully secure and has a flawless center cutout for the power button/LED, the left side seems to fall off if you apply some friction. We aren’t even so sure the cap on the left side is made of the same material, but it might just feel this way because we can’t compare it to the right-side cap. Some epoxy here will save grief later down the road if MSI hasn’t fixed this issue by the purchase time.

To be fair, MSI explains the latter as a batch-related issue, because units in its warehouse don’t seem to exhibit this defect. If this isn’t batch-related, we may just be nit picking over how much force is needed to loosen the cap. However, this shouldn’t have been implemented as a twist-off part in the first place. In the day-to-day hustle and bustle of things, this could still eventually fall off in some inconspicuous location. Honestly, small pieces of a highly mobile system that aren't meant to be serviceable should either be fabricated as a single piece or glued down with some “super adhesive” like epoxy.

Brand
Acer
Asus
Dell
Gateway
HP
Lenovo
MSI
Model
AO521
1001P
10 (1012)
LT2120u
210 HD
S10-3
U160
Weight w/ Battery (lbs)
2.79
2.82
3.10
2.67
2.61
2.58
2.72
Battery Weight (lbs)0.665
0.69
0.725
0.675
0.37
0.655
0.69
Ac Adapter Weight (lbs)0.41
0.54
0.42
0.41
0.62
0.54
0.63
Adapter Output
40
4030
40404030


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The Lenovo S10-3 is the lightest of the bunch, but every notebook here is under 3 lbs. With these netbooks, we are talking about ounces of difference.

Pound for pound, you will see higher battery life with the Gateway LT2120u and MSI U160 netbooks simply because they use higher-density batteries (2.9 Ah cells).

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People don’t usually consider adapter profiles. With netbooks, we are looking at small power bricks. This makes cord management somewhat ugly, as you can see. The two standouts here are Acer and Gateway. They operate under one parent company (Acer Global), but they still have separate notebook design teams. Power bricks don’t factor into design, so it isn’t surprising to see identical power bricks across the two brands. What I like is the simple cord management. The AC plug is actually a separate module that locks in at 90° or 180°, which means that it shouldn’t obstruct the use of other appliances.

Subpar multimedia playback is perhaps the biggest complaint netbook makers are hearing, specifically as it relates to Adobe Flash and high bitrate video files (HD content). This was a big problem with the Diamondville-based platform, though we see some moderate improvements on the current Pineview generation. For system vendors, there are alternative solutions with Nvidia's Ion or AMD graphics (like Acer's AO521). For those brands sticking with an Intel-based netbook, the short-term solution is Broadcom's Crystal HD, which is kind of interesting considering we see Broadcom video processors in many of Apple's CE devices.

In a nutshell, this is a miniPCIe card that takes the decoding burden off the CPU via a dedicated playback processor. Now, while it is possible to view semi-fluid HD H.264 content on a vanilla N450/N455 system, the software decoder needs to be highly efficient. The downside is that software decoding tends to be resource-intensive and takes system responsiveness down about three pegs. This has driven people to buy the Crystal HD card on sites like Ebay, just so they can get fluid playback of HD content with lower CPU and memory usage.

There are a couple of hiccups with this solution. In general, it is a great idea, but driver compatibility remains a problem. As Thomas has noted in his gaming notebook reviews, "each notebook customizes its graphics driver to fit the unique designs" of the implemented graphic solution.

Following Nvidia's example, AMD offers universal driver support for its mobile products. However, these are not always guaranteed to work. In some occasions, you can't install the universal mobile drivers unless you use a driver hack. Why? The main reason for custom drivers has to do with quality assurance. These drivers need to go through the pipeline to make sure they do not increase system instability, decrease performance, or overwhelm the form factor's thermal limitations. The primary reason is almost assuredly heat-related. System vendors often clock their graphic solutions short of what you may see on AMD or Nvidia's reference designs because their notebook design can't handle heat over a certain threshold. In a rare event beyond that line, you may get BSOD, burning plastic smells, high system instability, or damage to system components.

By adding universal drivers, the software itself may do something strange that would increase clock speed (to reference default) or provide enough of a performance gain in the software that it generates more heat. Hence, the reason the official party line at a company like Dell is "use our drivers." In fact, in our discussions with all of the manufactures, we were informed that tech support would instruct customers to use their supplied drivers for troubleshooting. They do not provide support for drivers not on their support page, even if they are new official versions at competing vendors or on the graphics vendor's Web site.

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We bring up the issue of graphic drivers because it relates to the Broadcom Crystal HD situation. Two netbooks in our showcase use Crystal HD to improve playback: HP Mini 210 and Dell's Mini 10 (1012). This shouldn't come as a surprise, since both are marketed as "multimedia-friendly" netbooks. However, HP's newest driver (at the time of review) was 3.3.0 compared to Dell's 3.1.9. Yet, the newest available version on Broadcom's Web site is 3.5.0. This is made a little more complicated by the fact that HP uses an embedded version of the BCM970015. So, to be thorough, we tested both systems.

Because we are testing systems (versus a specific tech), I am personally inclined to test with vendor drivers. However, since I tested the AO521 with the newest Catalyst build, I felt that we should do due diligence to figure out the whole Broadcom fiasco. I say fiasco, because, depending on the driver, you can actually break playback support. With the seven netbooks in the lab, hours of testing, and discussions with Dell and some Adobe people, I am confident this is a driver issue.

Half the problem is detection and the other half whether decoding is actually done by the Crystal HD processor. Keep in mind that it is supposed to be an all-or-nothing event; any detected content should be decoded by the Crystal HD processor.

System
Crystal HD model
Driver
HP Mini 210
BCM970015
3.3.0
HP Mini 210
BCM970015
3.5.0
Dell Mini 10
BCM970015
3.1.9
Dell Mini 10
BCM970015
3.5.0
WMP12 DX50
Detected
DetectedDetectedDetected
YouTube 360p
-
---
YouTube 480p
-Detected-Detected
YouTube 720p
-Detected-Detected
YouTube 1080p
-Detected-Detected
Hulu 360p
-Detected-Detected
Hulu 480p
-Detected-Detected
H.264 480p
DetectedDetectedDetectedDetected
H.264 720p
Detected
DetectedDetectedDetected
H.264 1080p
DetectedDetectedDetectedDetected


Detection is given via the DTS_info utility. However, we decided to confirm this by looking at CPU usage under various scenarios to make sure there wasn't a disconnect somewhere. We tested with the newest version of Adobe Flash 10.1.85.3.

System
Crystal HD model
Driver
HP Mini 210
BCM970015
Disabled
HP Mini 210
BCM970015
3.3.0
HP Mini 210
BCM970015
3.5.0
WMP12 DX50
~24 FPS
CPU Usage: 29%
~24 FPS
CPU Usage: 24%
~24 FPS
CPU Usage: 55%
YouTube 360p
19.5 FPS
CPU Usage: 75%
19.2 FPS
CPU Usage: 82%
19.6 FPS
CPU Usage: 77%
YouTube 720p
10.9 FPS
CPU Usage: 87%
10.5 FPS
CPU Usage: 88%
14.6 FPS
CPU Usage: 88%
YouTube 1080p
2.4 FPS
CPU Usage: 94%
2.4 FPS
CPU Usage: 95%
15.3 FPS
CPU Usage: 86%
Hulu 360p
7.6 FPS
CPU Usage: 90%

11.7 FPS
CPU Usage: 80%
11.5 FPS
CPU Usage: 90%
Hulu 480p
7.5 FPS
CPU Usage: 83%
9.1 FPS
CPU Usage: 83%
8.3 FPS
CPU Usage: 94%
H.264 480p
(~2.5 Mb/s)
~24 FPS
CPU Usage: 36%
~24 FPS
CPU Usage: 21%
~24 FPS
CPU Usage: 20%
H.264 720p
(~7 Mb/s)
<20 FPS
CPU Usage: 81%
fluid
CPU Usage: 27%
fluid
CPU Usage: 34%
H.264 1080p
(~11 Mb/s)
<10 FPS
CPU Usage: 99%
fluid
CPU Usage: 28%
fluid
CPU Usage: 34%
System
Crystal HD model
Driver
Dell Mini 10
BCM970015
Disabled
Dell Mini 10
BCM970015
3.1.9
Dell Mini 10
BCM970015
3.5.0
WMP12 DX50
~24 FPS
CPU Usage: 72%
~24 FPS
CPU Usage: 42%
~24 FPS
CPU Usage: 57%
YouTube 360p
17.7 FPS
CPU Usage: 83%
18.3 FPS
CPU Usage: 84%
18.1 FPS
CPU Usage: 83%
YouTube 720p
8.8 FPS
CPU Usage: 89%
15.1 FPS
CPU Usage: 74%
12.4 FPS
CPU Usage: 96%
YouTube 1080p
2.3 FPS
CPU Usage: 94%
15 FPS
CPU Usage: 73%
12.4 FPS
CPU Usage: 87%
Hulu 360p
7.5 FPS
CPU Usage: 86%
9.8 FPS
CPU Usage: 80%
13.5 FPS
CPU Usage: 92%
Hulu 480p
6.2 FPS
CPU Usage: 86%
7.7 FPS
CPU Usage: 84%
8.7 FPS
CPU Usage: 87%
H.264 480p
(~2.5 Mb/s)
~24 FPS
CPU Usage: 78%
~24 FPS
CPU Usage: 72%
~24 FPS
CPU Usage: 46%
H.264 720p
(~7 Mb/s)
<20 FPS
CPU Usage: 85%
fluid
CPU Usage: 38%
fluid
CPU Usage: 48%
H.264
1080p
(~11Mb/s)
<10 FPS
CPU Usage: 99%

fluid
CPU Usage: 42%
fluid
CPU Usage: 39%


As you can see, there is one case detection occurred, but no acceleration was performed (BCM970015 w/3.3.0 drivers @ YouTube 720p). There are other scenarios where detection doesn't occur, but there seems to be some acceleration. WMP12 bobs the video, which makes it hard to acquire an accurate FPS count. Normally, we would just switch to another media player, but the Crystal HD has limited software support (no VLC as of v.1.1.4). For the moment, we are confident that a video file from our DivX movie library is fluid at 24 FPS across the board. Furthermore, we do see some improvement on the 3.5.0 drivers for both modules. The two different Atom processors here account for the some variance in the two disabled scenarios.

It is interesting to see that there isn't a linear scaling of performance in all scenarios. In fact, with the BCM970015 on the HP Mini 210 (N475), we only see obvious decrease in CPU usage in H.264. For Flash, we do get a noticeable improvement in 720p and 1080p, but there is little to no slack cut on the Atom's workload. Even stranger, we got higher CPU usage during generic DivX playback with the new drivers.

It is a similar scenario on the Dell Mini 10 (1012) HD. From disabled and unplugged, the use of Crystal HD does yield noticeable improvements on H.264. Hell, we even see performance gains in Flash with the older 3.1.9 drivers that we didn't see with 3.3.0 drivers. Yet, the performance gains are tempered. Again, we do not see the linear scale down in CPU utilization as we did with H.264.

More alarmingly, if you look at the new 3.5.0 drivers, they do not necessarily bring better performance. In some cases, you actually see the same (or possibly worse) with higher CPU utilization. This is all a driver issue on the Broadcom side. You will notice that Hulu 360p is detected, but YouTube 360p content is not. It turns out the decision for Crystal HD seems to be largely codec-dependent, which makes complete sense. When people talk about HD today, they spend so much time bickering about resolution. For those of us that actually create 2D/3D content, it's the bit rate and codec efficiency that matters, not how many pixels run across the screen. As a result, we're fairly confident that Adobe Flash has little to do with this. We even used the older (but fairly recent) 10.1.82.76 version of Flash, and we got the same results. It isn't a surprise that Dell and HP are reluctant to qualify drivers that bring worse performance, and the slow dev here doesn't really help the matter, considering this has been on the market for sometime now.

How sure are we this is codec-dependent? What about bit rates? Well, we went further to look at different Flash websites on the Dell Mini 10 with 3.5.0 drivers. Look at the breakdown.

Web Site
Quality
Resolution
Video
Bit rate (Kb/s)
Flash Codec
Detected
YouTube #1
240p
400x170
253
H.263
N
YouTube #1
360p
640x272
565
H.264
N
YouTube #1
480p
854x362
1002
H.264
Y
YouTube #1
720p
1280x544
1977
Max: 4769
H.264
Y
YouTube #1
1080p
1920x816
3482
Max: 8750
H.264
Y
YouTube #2
240p
320x236
243
H.263
N
YouTube #2
360p
392x288
801
H.264
Y
DailyMotion
-
848x480
700
H.264
Y
DailyMotion
Ad
-
400x300
600
VP6
N
Vimeo
#1
"SD"
506x380
497
VP6
N
Vimeo
#1
"HD"
640x490
1110
VP6
N
Vimeo
#2
"SD"
640x360
602
Max: 1416
H.264
Y
Vimeo
#2
"HD"
1280x720
1999
Max: 4332
H.264
Y
SpikeTV
-
640x480
636
VP6
N
Youku
#1
-
432x324
238
H.264
Y
Youku
#2
-
448x336
218
H.264
Y
Sevenload
#1
-
320x176
740
H.263
N
Sevenload
#2
"SD"
448x256
711
H.263
N
Sevenload
#2
"HD"
1280x720
1850
Max: 3359
H.264
Y
Sevenload
Ad
-
640x480
800
VP6
N


Crystal HD refuses all Flash encoded with H.263 (Spark) and On2 VP6; it must be H.264-encoded. This isn't a problem if you stick to the most popular sites. But some sites use VP6, in which case you are going to be sorely disappointed with Broadcom. If you look at Vimeo Sample #2, DailyMotion, and both YouTube samples, it seems that decoding could be bit rate-dependent. However, this is tricky because all of the H.264 videos we have seen have almost always have higher bit rates than the other two codecs. In fact, almost every streaming video Web site we tried to hunt down for samples used the Spark encoder for lower bit rate files. But once we added the Youku Flash videos into the mix, it became clear this was largely codec-dependent.

Granted, there are different resolutions and frame rates to take into account, which we did using bit per frame * pixel. In doing so, we found the discrepancy with the two YouTube 360p samples seems to be due to bit rates. These two samples used Main@L2.1 compared to High@L.3.1 and Main@L3.0 we were seeing in other files. This other format seems to undergo some bit rate discrimination, but in view of the other data (not all posted), the math seems a bit odd.

I put the additional emphases on function because there are some other noteworthy oddities. The Crystal HD is a single process and thread processor. For example, you can’t accelerate Flash and H.264 at the same time, which isn’t really a problem at face value. The first content detected is able to open a thread on the Crystal HD processor. The second, third, and so on are passed off to the CPU. Keep in mind this means you can't have a browser open on a Flash-based Web site and then open up a H.264 video and expect the latter to be accelerated by Crystal HD. We ruled out a bandwidth/processing load issue on the Crystal HD processor, because even if you pause the first content instance, the thread is still open, and so all subsequent content instances cannot utilize Broadcom’s multimedia processor (perhaps this is why Apple does the tabbing the way it does). The problem is in the way Broadcom’s driver detects and handles content. The thread needs to be closed correctly. This usually involves exiting the program or clicking on a non-Flash-detected page. However, if the browser or player closes incorrectly, the thread is halted, but Broadcom’s driver seems to believe it still exists and doesn’t allow for other instances to use the incorrectly-freed resource. Closing incorrectly also isn’t the problem. The issue is that there seem to be at least a couple of ways this can happen during everyday use. It is deceptive as well, since DTS_info reports all clear. But once you go onto your next piece of multimedia content, it isn’t detected. We need some error handling here, because the only current way to solve this problem is restarting.

As an aside, I really have to question the logic behind Crystal HD. And while I give kudos to Nvidia for an excellent Ion platform, that has more to do with nettops than it does for netbooks, where six out of seven of the latter don't come with HDMI. Relegated to VGA output at best, and a 10.1" at worst, I don't find it realistic to expect anyone to consistently use anything above 720p H.264. There is no practical reason to view 1080p on a netbook (except for a few exceptions, such as presentations). For a device that keeps you mobile, quick content delivery is what to you need, and the typical difference between 480p and 720p is minimal on screens this small. Even if we put aside battery life issues, we should also mention that the Broadcom chip gets hot (>110 degrees F) if you give it a good 10 minutes.

For those folks considering a self-mod, you need to ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish. Your ~$50 dollar investment (or possibly more, given the winning bids I’ve seen) into a card that may or may not void your warranty still won't give you fluid Flash 10.1 playback. In some cases, performance is going to be driver version dependent. At the moment, you can reasonably watch YouTube 720p and Hulu at 360p in windowed mode (we tested in fullscreen).

Now you are probably thinking, “if Crystal HD can do H.264 acceleration, I’ll just use HTML5.” Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this won’t work because Crystal HD doesn’t detect HTML5 video elements. Believe us--we tried just about every variation of Web site, browser (including beta builds), and driver imaginable. This may or may not be a simple implemation. Given the problems we have seen with Flash, we’re hopeful, but we aren’t holding our breaths. If you are looking for a powerhouse netbook, the Acer AO521/AO721 is a more tried and true approach (no weird software interaction to worry about), and has HDMI output for further justification.

Going forward, we should naturally expect to get fluid playback at high bit rates from even low-end systems as an eventuality, but we aren't at that point yet. When it comes as a free feature void of problems, we will be ready. For now, there is no reason to demand it or shell out extra dough for it. For those netbook owners holding hardware one generation back (Diamondville), based on our experiences with the current generation of hardware, I am a bit weary recommending this as a possible upgrade solution to solve choppy video playback.

When Asus announced the Eee PC back at Computex 2007, a few people doubted it would spark off a whole new trend in mobile computing. With the economy the way it is, netbooks offer a cheap way to stay connected while you are on the move. They are often the cheapest of the cheap computers even when considering desktops.

Price tags on the last generation of Atom-based netbooks (N2XX) are almost neck and neck with the current generation. If you are in the market for a netbook, make sure you are getting the Pinetrail (Intel) or Nile (AMD) platforms. The last generation of netbooks only makes sense if it comes at a serious price discount (<$175 in our opinion).

Market Price
$339.99
$299.99
$349.99
$299.99
$329.99
$299.99
$374.99
Brand
Acer
Asus
Dell
Gateway
HP
Lenovo
MSI
Model
AO521
1001P
10 (1012)
LT2120u
210 HD
S10-3
U160


The new Intel and AMD offerings shouldn’t change the landscape too much. Remember thin and lights are another category entirely. So the holiday buying season is going to be ripe for some good deals--at least ones much better than the market prices we are seeing on these netbooks now.

Here are some of my recommendations:

1. Business notebook:

  • Lenovo's S10-3 has a good mix of correct color, battery life, and arguably the best keyboard available. At 98%, it keeps you keeps your typing speed up. I only wish the company offered a better touchpad. If typing is your thing, this is the netbook you want above all others. The fact that Lenovo is understating S10-3's 6-cell battery capacity should be another plus.
  • Gateway LT21 series (LT2120u) has the best touchpad, hands down. Interfacing is such a crucial component that I cannot stress enough the excellent touchpad design. The fact that this packs a high-density battery makes it an even better shopping option.
  • The Asus 1001P is probably one of the few netbooks out there that offers a matte display as well as a decent keyboard. Business users tend to dislike the glossy displays due to overhead lighting reflections. If you need matte, the Asus, Acer, and HP are the only companies that seem to be offering this option among their different netbook SKUs.


2. Music and Media

  • The HP 210 Mini HD is probably the only netbook available that is specifically designed as a “multimedia”-centric netbook. If you are going to be spending most of your time playing video content, this is good choice. The speakers are well positioned toward the front lip, which keeps distortion at a minimum. HP released a new iteration of its Mini netbooks while retaining model names. The performance is the same as the one featured in this showcase. It seems to actually use the same motherboard. The only difference is that the company no longer offers the 3-cell battery on the newer models. The system is now designed to hold the 6-cell battery flush, so this means you are going to get a beefier system.
  • The Dell Inspiron 10 (1012) is a decent choice for the videophile, as well. There is a good balance of color and white to the display, and it sports a better battery than the 210. I've seen this floating around at Best Buy for sub-$250 prices, so it is a good idea to check every now and then for deals. Just a few days ago, Dell had a "non-HD" option of the 1012, but on September 28, there seems to have been a change in the buying options (along with a simpler shopping interface). All 1012s from Dell.com are now running native 1366 x 768, but have dropped the "HD" suffix. This is rather inconsequential. The thing that I find bothersome is the higher starting price (previously $399.99), while the 1018s take the budget spot at $299.99. These two have a lot of crossover competition, which is probably why Dell decided to restructure the pricing. I generally put less stock into MSRPs because I care about the dollar you actually spend and not the dollar the company wants. Hopefully, we'll see Dell use its immense distribution network to keep their low retail prices. We should also expect some good price slashing on the MSRP (or at least some decent sales prices) as we approach the holidays on Dell.com. Under the current price structure, we can't recommend the 1012 at the Dell.com's $469.99 starting price. For now, we will give Dell the benefit of the doubt by listing the Mini 10 (1012 non-HD) with the price we are seeing at Best Buy.


3. Battery Life

  • The MSI U160 and Gateway LT21 are neck and neck when it comes to battery life, thanks to their high-density battery cells. They only weigh a few ounces more, so this might be a worthwhile investment for those that want to stay away from the wall socket as long as possible.


4. Performance

  • Acer has had quite a slew of popular Aspire netbooks based on two generations of Intel’s Atom processor. The company is trying something different with the AMD-based AO521, and there is a lot to like (including the price). While AMD’s Nile platform consumes a good deal of power, Acer offsets that concern with a decent battery pack. If you plan on doing any amount of serious computing while you are on the go, this probably the best choice. To top it off, this is the most capable 10.1” netbook when it comes to any form of gaming (or heavy multimedia for that matter).


No one shares the same shopping criteria, so look through the system profiles and benchmarks before you make a decision. Obviously, MSI’s U160 and Dell’s Mini 10 (1012) are a bit of a stretch, simply because they fetch higher prices (MSI’s poor wireless strength doesn’t help).

There are a plethora of models and SKUs out there, and we can't possibly cover them all. Buying a notebook is always a bit give and take; most often between battery life, performance, and price. We recommend shopping with clear priorities so that you don't end up regretting your purchase down the road.

There are a few things to keep in mind across all brands:

  • Remember that a multi-gesture touchpad does not mean multi-touch. These touchpads still force you to use only one finger to navigate. If you use multiple points of contact, the touchpad locks up or goes completely bonkers. Multi-touch is what you get on Apple notebooks.
  • DDR2 vs DDR3 is meaningless
  • Don't get hung up on Crystal HD. For the most part, Pinetrail-based netbooks can play Youtube 360p (Fullscreen), Youtube 720p (Windowed), Hulu 360p (Windowed), and H.264 480p (Fullscreen) just fine.
  • At retail prices, netbooks shouldn’t fetch beyond $330, unless you are getting something spectacular to justify the higher price tag.
  • Chiclet keyboards may look nice and offer a smaller profile, but traditional keyboards offer better spill protection. If you just dumped coffee, it can be a tricky all-or-nothing game with the chiclet keyboards. In many cases, you can replace traditional keyboards by yourself without voiding warranty. This isn’t so with the “island” keyboards.
  • At the moment, increasing system memory is the only near-universal user-accessible upgrade available. Hard drives are sometimes out of the question. So make sure you get the capacity you want or a model that offers the option to upgrade before you click the “buy” button. Otherwise, you might have to void your warranty to put in a larger drive. In fact, only four out of the seven netbooks we have seen in the lab (Acer’s AO521, Gateway’s LT2120u, Dell's Mini 10 [1012], and Lenovo's Ideapad S10-3) allow you upgrade the hard drive with minimal effort.
  • Anytime you see a netbook claim over 10 hours of battery life based on current tech, take it with a grain of salt. This is a highly inflated number based on an idle benchmark, usually with WiFi off, and the lowest brightness setting. In real life, people actually perform tasks with wireless networking enabled and a display set brighter than a lunar eclipse. If the fine print says they used BatteryMark, take the number and cut it down by 50%. Though, that new number is still an optimistic idea of battery life. If the fine print says MobileMark 2007, take that number and cut it down by 1/3 and now you have a fair estimate.



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