Business netbooks: IT revolution or contradiction in terms?

InfoWorld sifts the wheat from the chaff in the current crop of enterprise-oriented netbooks

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Overall, the Wind U123 lives up to my initial assessment of the unit -- specifically, that it's a low-cost netbook with generic specifications targeted at budget-conscious buyers. However, the real question is whether a dollar saved up front in fact contributes to the long-term ROI of the purchase. In the case of the HP, features like 3D DriveGuard, an ExpressCard slot, and a sturdy aluminum case help to justify a roughly $70 higher price tag (the Mini 2140 is $449 when configured almost identically to the Wind U123). The MSI unit has no comparable value-add proposition. It is essentially a commodity device with minimal engineering, assembled using the cheapest components available at build time.

Then there is the issue of support. Vendors like MSI, though eager to make their mark in the broader system building world, are relatively new to the whole PC systems space. As such, they lack the established ecosystem of VARs and trained support professionals that help to define the boundaries between the first, second, and, in this case, third tiers of the computer hardware vendor landscape. Yes, the device is inexpensive. However, you pay for this advantage in other ways: namely, lower build quality and a less satisfying user experience.

A netbook of note: The HP Mini 2140

With a killer keyboard, stellar screen, and full suite of enterprise connectivity and expandability options, the HP Mini 2140 is the obvious choice for anyone serious about the business end of the netbook spectrum. The unit is rugged, with excellent build quality and a raft of reliability features (steel hinge pins, 3D DriveGuard) that instill confidence in IT support staff and end-users alike. Add to this a very palatable price tag, and you have a winning combination of form, functionality, and performance. My only gripe is with the track pad, which is still too short for extended use. Otherwise, the HP Mini 2140 is a nearly perfect business-class netbook.

Of the remaining competitors, only the Asus N10Jc deserves consideration as a business-class unit. Like the HP, it features exceptional build quality, though a bit less plastic would have been nice. The fact that Asus formally supports Windows Vista on the N10Jc is also a bonus, as is the integrated fingerprint reader -- an Asus exclusive in this category. Unfortunately, the system's price point of nearly $800 as tested makes it a hard sell when a superior solution is available for $300 less. This lack of value, coupled with a poor overall benchmark showing, renders the N10Jc a failed experiment.

As for the Acer Aspire One and MSI Wind U123, these units are merely repackaged consumer netbooks. Their lack of enterprise-class connectivity or expansion capabilities means they're ill suited to the rigors of corporate life. And with the HP Mini 2140 squarely in the same price range, it's hard to imagine choosing one of these glorified consumer toys to satisfy an RFQ sheet.

Comparing business-class netbooks

Price as testedPlatforms Pros and consBottom Line
Acer Aspire One AOD150$350Windows XP, Vista, LinuxLight weight. Good battery life. Inexpensive.   No ExpressCard slot. Poor build quality.The Acer Aspire One AOD150 is one of the more popular consumer-focused netbooks. But as a business-class device, it simply doesn’t measure up. The unit’s cheap overall build quality, coupled with a lack of enterprise-caliber expandability (no ExpressCard slot) or connectivity (no GbE port), make the Acer Aspire One more of a toy than a serious business computing device.
Asus N10Jc$799Windows XP, Vista, Linux Good build quality. Integrated fingerprint reader. ExpressCard/34 slot.   High price. Poor performance.The Asus N10Jc stretches the definition of a netbook by incorporating a discrete graphics processor (Nvidia 9300) and a fingerprint reader. Unfortunately, the unit lagged behind the competition in benchmark testing, and its build quality -- though better than average for a netbook -- is still inferior to the HP Mini 2140’s. Add to this an inflated price tag (nearly $800 as tested) and the N10Jc is tough to justify versus a traditional corporate notebook PC.
HP Mini 2140$449Windows XP, Vista, Linux Robust design. Excellent keyboard. IT friendly features.   Awkward track pad design. Only two USB ports.The HP Mini 2140 is a near perfect business-class netbook. Its excellent build quality inspires confidence, while a spacious keyboard (for a netbook) and WXGA screen (1,366 by 768) make it suitable for a wide range of mobile business productivity tasks. Add to this a plethora of IT-friendly features (3D DriveGuard, full-size ExpressCard slot) and it’s easy to see why the Mini 2140 is the darling of the emerging business netbook category.
MSI Wind U123$380Windows XP, Vista, LinuxLight weight. Good battery life. Inexpensive.   No ExpressCard slot. Poor build quality.The MSI Wind U123 is the spiritual cousin to the Acer Aspire One. Both are clearly consumer-oriented designs that use way too much plastic. They also both suffer from awkward keyboard designs -- in MSI's case, some funky layout decisions -- and neither provides the kind of expandability or connectivity features that separate true business-class units, like the HP Mini 2140, from the crowd.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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