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Minggu, 14 Agustus 2011

a netbook for business trips


David Peate and his wife want a simple, lightweight netbook for use on business trips, but would they be better off with one of the emerging class of mini-laptops?

My wife and I run a small agency. We are considering investing in a simple, lightweight netbook for use on business trips. Is there something in the £220-£300 bracket that would do? We are looking for the usual things: Wi-Fi, USB ports etc.
David Peate

This is a core market for netbooks, and if you pick a popular one with a pin, it will do what you say what you want. However, after a couple of boring years, netbook designs are finally showing enough changes to make some models worth a bit more attention. Indeed, some of the market may be moving away from the standard Intel Atom design to an AMD Fusion platform.

The previous generation of netbooks used single-core Atom processors, but today, you should buy one with a dual core chip. This will give about 50% more performance and smoother operation without busting your budget. Most netbook suppliers now have models with the dual core 1.5GHz Atom N550, and this is a good choice. New versions are appearing with a 1.66GHz N570 chip, which is slightly faster, However, while you can measure the difference, it won't feel any faster in use, so it's not worth paying much extra to get one.

This type of netbook used to cost between £299 and £349 but if you shop around, you can get them for less. Examples include the HP Mini 110 and 210, Samsung NF210 and NC110, and the MSI U160DX. I suggest you go for either the Asus Eee PC 1015PEM or the Acer Aspire One D255. The Asus 1015PEM is currently selling for £229.92 at Amazon.co.uk, compared with an SRP of £299.99. Amazon.co.uk lists the Acer Aspire One D255 for £293.99 in black but only £220.65 in purple. There are many other retailers, so shop around.

These two netbooks have very similar specifications, with 10.1in screens, Intel 3150 graphics, 1GB of memory, 250GB hard drives, Wi-Fi b/g/n, USB ports etc. The main differences are that the Asus has a matte rather than a glossy screen, while the Acer is very slightly smaller and has a better webcam. It would be a good idea to get hands-on experience, to see if you find one more attractive than the other. Otherwise, the Asus lets you can upgrade the memory by unscrewing a panel on the bottom; with the Acer, you have to lift out the keyboard.

This matters because PC manufacturers are only allowed to ship 1GB of memory if they choose to install the cheap 32-bit Starter version of the Microsoft Windows 7 operating system. Starter was created for and can only be purchased on a netbook. Since 1GB is the bare minimum – frankly, I wouldn't even run Windows XP in 1GB nowadays – netbooks are typically sold with cheap 2GB memory sticks. Replacing the 1GB stick with 2GB provides much better performance when running more than one or two programs.

You can also upgrade a netbook's Windows 7 Starter to Windows 7 Home Premium in a few minutes. Unfortunately, Microsoft's price for this in-place Anytime Upgrade is £70 or $80, which is roughly twice what I think it's worth.

The main drawbacks with Windows 7 Starter (see comparison table) are that it doesn't have the Aero Glass appearance (including Taskbar previews and Aero Peek); you can't have a picture as a background; and you don't get Windows Media Center for watching videos or playing DVDs. (Netbooks don't have a built-in DVD drives.) However, Windows 7 runs perfectly well without Aero Glass: indeed, it runs slightly faster. There are ways to get round the desktop background limitation – see Seven Forums for a step-by-step guide – and there are several free alternative video players. You can, for example, download either VLC or the K-Lite codec pack including Media Player Classic.

The problem is that if you feel you need to upgrade a netbook's memory and operating system, then you might be better off buying a mini-laptop with a bigger screen and a faster processor. I answered a question about this in November, Choosing a netbook or mini-notebook for travelling, and recommended the Celeron-based £299 Dell Inspiron 11z over the Asus Eee PC 1015PN and Acer Aspire One D255.

The advantages of a mini-laptop over a netbook are the better screen resolution (1366 x 768 pixels instead of a letterbox-style 1024 x 600), plus 2GB of memory and Windows 7 Home Premium (ideally the 64-bit version) as standard.

Several companies, including Sony, are introducing mini-laptops or "premium netbooks" using AMD's Fusion platform instead of Intel Atom chips. These don't appear to provide any more processing power, but they do offer better graphics. This makes them more suitable for watching movies and perhaps for playing low-end games. However, you may lose out on battery life, and they may run hotter. (The AMD E-350 is rated at 18 Watts where the Atom N550 is only 9 Watts.)

Have a look at the Lenovo IdeaPad S205 (code M632KUK) mini-laptop. This has an 11.1in screen, 1.6GHz AMD E-350 processor, 2GB of memory, 320GB hard drive and Windows 7 Home Premium for £299.99 at Amazon.co.uk, which is good value. There's also an earlier model (code M632JUK) with a 250GB hard drive for £279.99.

In the US, the IdeaPad S205 has competition from machines such as the HP Pavilion dm1z and Lenovo ThinkPad X120e. However, the dm1z hasn't yet appeared in the UK, and it looks as though the X120e won't appear here at all. Whether Fusion will make a long term impact or get squeezed between faster Atom chips and the far superior Intel Core i3-UM (Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge) processors remains to be seen.

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