Do Netbooks Deserve a Place at Your Company?

eWEEK Labs provides some evaluation criteria for determining whether the lightweight, low-cost netbooks are a good fit for your users' computing needs.

During the past several months, it's been pretty much impossible for anyone keeping tabs on IT to ignore the Rise of the Netbooks. Despite a weak overall market for notebook computers, netbook sales have been growing at a healthy clip.

There's no secret to the appeal of netbooks: The systems combine mobility and low cost, both of which are very attractive qualities that, until recently, were mutually exclusive in notebook makers' product lines. Ultralight notebooks have been among the most costly machines in any OEM's product lineup, while the least costly options have been hefty, unwieldy beasts with desktop-class processors.

Despite the distinctive moniker-which suggests that the systems are suited only for browsing the Internet, updating status on Twitter or tapping out brief notes on Google's Docs and Spreadsheets service-netbooks really aren't so different from notebooks.

Individual netbook models have their own performance, form factor and expandability characteristics, and it's through the evaluation of these factors (among others) that organizations and individuals can decide whether a given netbook can suit their needs.

To be sure, a netbook that you buy today will deliver significantly less performance than a full-sized notebook of the same vintage. However, as chip speeds have risen over the past few years, and dual cores have become common, the processing power requirements of operating systems and applications haven't grown at a similar rate.

I use both a netbook-an MSI Wind U100 with a single-core 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor and 1GB of RAM-and a full-sized notebook-a Lenovo ThinkPad T60 with a dual-core 2.16GHz Intel T7400 processor and 3GB of RAM-on a daily basis. Both systems run Ubuntu 8.10, both with encrypted hard drives.

I've done some casual benchmarking of the two systems, using the open-source application HardInfo and have found that my MSI Wind netbook turns in benchmark scores that average about 40 percent of what my T60 can muster.

I don't do everything on my Wind that I do with my ThinkPad. I don't run virtual machines on the Wind, for instance, but for my browsing, spreadsheet and word processor needs, I don't notice a significant performance difference between the two systems.

When using a netbook-or evaluating whether to use a netbook-physical characteristics will loom much larger than performance. As John Dodge explains in his reviews of the Lenovo IdeaPad S10, Asus Eee PC and HP Mini, a keyboard that is too small or just right can make or break a netbook. If you do nothing else to size up a prospective netbook, you must put your hands on its keyboard and give it a run.

Another physical factor to pay attention to is the netbook's display resolution. Less than 1,024 pixels across will mean horizontal scrolling on Web pages-a personal pet peeve of mine. Many netbooks are limited to fewer than the 768 pixels with which the 1,024-wide displays are usually paired. This can have unpredictable results for application interfaces.

One way to test your applications for their tolerance to differently pixeled displays is to load up a virtual instance of your chosen operating system in a desktop-based virtualization application such as VirtualBox or VMware Workstation and size your VM's window to match the resolution you wish to test.

Almost as important as the keyboard and display is the pointing device that your netbook features. In this area, however, netbook makers have made our evaluation easy, since all built-in netbook pointing devices seem to be equally bad.

The small amount of space that netbook makers have to work with would seem to call for a pointing stick, but even the Lenovo S10 ships with a small trackpad for mousing. Regardless of the netbook you choose, you'll mostly likely end up pairing it with a separate USB mouse for computing sessions of any significant length.

Along similar lines, the small size of netbooks necessitates a host of other USB peripherals, including external CD-ROM and hard drives and various sorts of connectivity cards. For this reason, it's important to keep an eye on the number of USB ports that your prospective netbook offers, and to pursue USB port conservation by seeking out built-in Bluetooth or WWAN adapters, media card readers and Webcams if those features are important to you.

eWEEK Labs Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at [email protected]