What is a Netbook?
Simple question you might argue, but an important thing to cover given the variety of options on offer. Now, we've already offered our view on what a netbook should be in our The Ultimate Netbook piece, but what we'd like and what we get are two very different things. In fact, while we're still pining after the perfect 8.9in netbook, manufacturers and users seem keener on the 10in form factor.
And this, we would argue, should be the absolute maximum size of a netbook. Anything with a screen larger than this shouldn't really be considered a netbook, even if it does use an Atom processor or some other equivalent. Ironically this was a limit originally imposed by Microsoft for the use of Windows XP, other limitations including a low-power single-core processor, a maximum 80GB hard drive, 1GB RAM and limits on SSD sizes.
Earlier in the year some of these restrictions were relaxed, with the upper limit on hard drives increasing to 160GB and screen size to 14.1in, but the others remain. Thus, rightly or wrongly, it's Microsoft of all companies that's dictating the standards for netbooks. This obviously spells trouble for anyone wishing for a dual-core Atom netbook given that no manufacturer seems brave enough to abandon Windows altogether just yet. Nonetheless, in the context of netbooks most of these limitations are pretty sensible really, since one thing a netbook really ought to be is portable and cheap.
What can you do?
Seeing as netbooks are exclusively small, light and lower power, there are fairly severe limitations on what you can do on one. Of course a clue is in the name: it's a netbook people, it's meant for browsing the Internet! But this isn't all they're capable of, not by a long shot.
Their size also makes them ideal portable media players. Even a 10in netbook can be easily used in cattle class on planes and trains and whether you have a small SSD, or a massive 160GB hard drive, it's easy to carry around with you a pretty sizeable collection of videos and music. Likewise, if you're a keen photographer, all that storage space can be well utilised for backing up your memory cards and uploading photos to Facebook, Flickr or another online service.
This is another reason why HSDPA, popularly known as mobile broadband, is such a logical accompaniment to a netbook. If you're constantly on the go then matching a highly portable and inexpensive machine with Internet access, often at very high speeds, anywhere a mobile phone signal can be found is a very attractive idea.
What can't you do?
In short: lots. Very basic image editing, such as cropping and re-sizing, can be performed in small numbers but batch processing is something of a no-no. Likewise video editing, unless from one of the many "YouTube" camcorders, is out of the question. Ultimately while netbooks are dominated by the single-core Atom processor, such intensive tasks aren't feasible.
This obviously rules out gaming short of the occasional game of solitaire, a flash game or maybe an ancient point and clicker or two - did someone say Grim Fandango? Multi-tasking is also a bad idea, not least given the usual 1,024 x 600 resolution screens that make using multiple applications awkward to say the least. It might be fine for looking at web pages, but roomy it certainly isn't. This resolution restriction also makes the likes of Excel spreadsheets problematic given most seem designed for desktops the size of a small town.
All the above means you have to think carefully about what you want from your netbook. If you have a desktop or large notebook PC at home and just want something to throw in a bag from time to time a netbook is great, but if it's going to be your only or primary PC you've got to think carefully before buying. Indeed, what follows is focussed on what each netbook does best, rather than which one is the best, so read on for all the information you need to make an informed decision.