Product review: Netbooks for business

Pint-sized, ultralight, and ultra-affordable, a new class of portables woos the mobile professional. We put an Asus Eee PC and HP Mini-Note to the test

The original Asus Eee PC took the hardware world by storm. Small, lightweight, inexpensive, yet running a full-fledged OS, this tiny device offered laptop capabilities at near-PDA pricing. Asus has since expanded its Eee PC line with models of varying capabilities, and competing devices are now arriving from other manufacturers, including Acer, Dell, HP, and MSI, among others. Collectively, these devices have come to be called "netbooks."

So far, netbooks have been marketed primarily to students, hobbyists, and cost-conscious consumers, but their unique characteristics make them attractive to many professionals, as well. I decided to find out how well they would stand up to an average business workload.

As I mentioned, the netbook category is rapidly expanding. The two devices I looked at -- the Asus Eee PC 901 and the HP 2133 Mini-Note -- don't represent the entire market. Other current or forthcoming devices may suit your specific needs better. But between these two machines I was able to get a rough impression of the options available from most manufacturers, their relative advantages, and the trade-offs involved.

[ What if laptop vendors thought outside the boring old box? InfoWorld did. See what we came up with in "The best laptop money can't buy." ]

Pack a bag

Asus and HP both offer Linux pre-installed, but with business travelers in mind, I tested the Windows versions instead. A proper test naturally meant air travel; so I stuffed both machines into a standard carry-on bag with room to spare and booked my ticket.

Don't be surprised if you're interrupted by curious onlookers during your flight. These micro-sized PCs definitely get noticed -- something that business travelers may want to consider. The HP 2133 looks steely, sleek, and space-age; the Eee PC, like an overgrown makeup compact. If first impressions matter, the HP projects a more professional image.

HP markets the 2133 to business users, but like the Eee PC, it's really best suited to Web browsing, e-mail, and light office tasks. Don't expect an entertainment center, either; netbooks have no optical drives, so you won't be watching DVDs on long flights, and both models I tested even struggled to play MPEG-4 video from the internal drives.

Overall, these machines are purpose-built with a limited range of applications in mind. If it's a full-featured notebook you want, stop reading: Netbooks aren't for you. If, on the other hand, you can see the utility in a compact, lightweight, inexpensive secondary PC, a netbook could be the ideal travel companion.

They're no powerhouses

Just how timid are these netbooks? The Eee PC 901 was the first device to ship with Intel's new, mobility-minded Atom processor, and at 1.66GHz I could definitely tell the difference between it and a desktop Pentium. Launching programs and switching tasks, in particular, seemed sluggish -- though it was hard to tell how much of that was attributable to drive performance (more on that later).

The HP 2133 model I tested used a Via C7-M mobile processor running at 1.2GHz. Performance was acceptable but not impressive, which could partly be the fault of the OS. The 2133 shipped with Vista Home Basic, which seemed like extreme overkill. Vista Business is also available, but XP -- which ships with the Eee PC and seems much more appropriate -- is not an option.

The 2133's Windows Experience Index was a measly 1.7 (owing to the CPU), and Vista's tendency to maintain lots of background processes runs contrary to the netbook concept. HP is reportedly switching to the Atom CPU for future Mini-Note models, but unless it loses Vista I wouldn't expect much of a speed bump, based on the Eee PC 901's performance.

What you lose in performance with these devices, however, you gain in battery life. Despite weighing just 2.63 pounds, the HP 2133 gets a decent 2.5 hours of run time. Asus, on the other hand, claims a whopping 7.8 hours of battery for the 2.43-pound Eee PC 901, thanks to the extremely low power requirements of the Atom chip. That claim is exaggerated, but in real-world use I managed a very respectable 5.5 hours with Wi-Fi enabled.

Kid-sized cases

The Eee PC's tiny keyboard is its biggest drawback. All of my test subjects struggled with its Chiclet-sized keys. Touch typing is extremely difficult. But my own, unorthodox hunt-and-peck method served me adequately, and before long I could maintain a rapid rate with few errors. If you can, definitely try it yourself before you buy (and note that some Eee PC models now come with larger keyboards).

I did like the Eee PC 901's hotkeys for applications and power-saving functions, and its iPhone-like multi-touch trackpad made zooming and scrolling easier -- though the trackpad functions weren't as responsive as they could be.

By comparison, the Mini-Note's keyboard raises no eyebrows. HP claims that it's 92 percent of standard size, and that feels about right. The silver keys are comfortable and have good travel, and most users should take to them without difficulty. The trade-off is that the Mini-Note's chassis is wider than the Eee PC's by more than an inch.

Tiny screens could also be a problem for some users. Of the two devices I tried, the HP 2133's screen had higher resolution, but that just made fonts harder to read. At the same 8.9-inch size, the Eee PC's screen seemed crisper, brighter, and more legible overall. I also appreciated the keyboard hotkey that flips the Eee PC's screen sideways for reading documents in portrait mode.

For presentations, however, the screens are a non-issue. Both devices also include standard audio jacks and a VGA port, making them practically ideal for PowerPoint.

The solid-state advantage?

The Eee PC's SSDs (solid-state drives) are one of its more intriguing features, but in practice I found them to be a mixed bag. Asus boasts of fast boot-up times, but the SSDs definitely write more slowly than traditional hard disks. When downloading large files, for example, drive I/O is the bottleneck, not network bandwidth.

What's more, the Eee PC 901 actually ships with its storage divided across two SSDs: a 4GB boot drive and a separate D: drive. Running Windows XP in 4GB without running out of space takes care and vigilance. If you're tasked with maintaining these devices, expect to devote a lot of time to freeing up megabytes that the OS has mysteriously swallowed.

My HP 2133 model used a standard hard disk (SSDs are optional), so it had storage space to spare. But compared to the Eee PC it booted slowly, and its internal fans were much noisier. Hard drives are also less rugged than SSDs; but then, neither of these machines is exactly built for combat. I haven't much faith that either machine could survive any major blows.

Cost vs. benefit

So are netbooks worth it? Whereas early Eee PC models were notable for their rock-bottom pricing, Asus seems to be distancing itself from the notion of the Eee PC as a "disposable laptop." The latest models feature improved build quality but higher price tags, with the 901 listing at $599. And HP's 2133 Mini-Note line is even more expensive, at $499 for a stripped-down configuration running Linux.

Even at $750 for a well-equipped model, however, the 2133 retails for a fraction of the price of earlier ultralight notebooks, yet delivers most of the capabilities. If you value performance over size, standard-format notebooks can be had even less expensively; but in the ultralight category, the Eee PC and the HP 2133 are both incredible bargains. Either should come as a breath of fresh air to weight-conscious customers, who have traditionally paid a premium to lighten their carry-on bags.

When I say not to expect too much of these machines or their forthcoming competitors, then, "too much" is really the operative phrase. Long-term use will surely be fatiguing, and lack of an optical drive could make netbooks a hassle to configure and maintain in department-wide deployments.

Still, these are real PCs -- not toys -- and they pack more than enough juice for word processing, presentations, spreadsheets, and Web-based apps. If you can accept their limitations, netbooks are an exciting, breakthrough category for mobile customers who are willing to trade processing performance for a lighter load (and who don't want to break the bank to do it).

InfoWorld Scorecard
Portability (20.0%)
Battery Life (15.0%)
Configuration (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Ease of use (20.0%)
Performance (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Asus Eee PC 901 10.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 6.0 5.0 7.8
HP 2133 Mini-Note 10.0 6.0 7.0 8.0 8.0 5.0 7.5

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.