by September 3, 2009 0 comments

From the processor to RAM, HD display, optical drive, connectivity ports,
things keep changing in the world of notebooks. And with the introduction of
Intel’s Atom processor in 2008, mobile computing devices have seen a new avatar
in the form of netbooks. We do a comprehensive lowdown on this most important
component for Mobile Computing, to help you choose the right one

Before we start dissecting the vital elements of a notebook, we want to
remind the uninitiated about the key difference between netbooks and laptops.
While both look the same, they are purposefully built for different needs.
Laptops are powerful computing devices and can be used for running heavy
software while netbooks on the other hand are meant to support basic
productivity tasks such as browsing, email, running office apps, etc. You can’t
run any complex application on them so if you are a professional working with a
large organization, these are not meant for you. With this important
clarification, we now get to the key parameters that should be kept in mind
before you shell out your money.

Screen size and weight
These matter only for laptops as netbooks usually are build to be carried around
easily and usually come with a screen size of around 10” with average weight
below 2 Kg. Notebooks on the other hand are available in different screen sizes,
ranging from 12.1” to 17” widescreens. The weight of a notebook is in direct
proportion to the screen size and so their average weight varies between 2 to
3.5 Kg. Another important point aspect is that the weight mentioned by the
vendor is the weight of the laptop alone without the carry bag, adaptor and
other accessories that you have to lug around. Also when buying a widescreen
notebook, check for its compatibility with external display devices such as a
projector or a monitor.

Battery backup
Battery backups of most notebooks vary between 2.5 to 5 hours with a 6-cell
battery which can further be increased with a 9-cells battery. It is advisable
to go for a 9-cell battery if you travel a lot. However, upgrading to a 9-cell
battery would also mean added weight.

I/O ports and optical drive
Other key considerations are the optical drive and the number and type of
connectivity ports such as USB, HDMI, etc. As netbooks miss out on an optical
drive, this feature is exclusive to laptops. Go for Blu-ray or DVD drive
depending on your needs, keeping in mind that a Blu-ray drive adds a lot to a
laptop’s overall cost. As for I/O ports, laptops should have at least three USB
2.0 ports, one FireWire, a VGA out, S-Video out, Ethernet (RJ-45), modem (RJ11),
headphone (line-out) and microphone ports.

A CD/DVD writer is being offered with all current models. In case you buy a
laptop that doesn’t have it, you can always attach a USB/FireWire based drive.
These days Blu-ray format for high-def video is making headlines. Some of the
high-end notebooks come equipped with a Blu-ray drive and vendors also offer it
as an option to buyers for extra cost. The added capacity that Blu-ray (25GB per
layer) discs offer over standard DVDs (4.7 GB per layer) shall be an advantage
for those who want their notebooks to be future ready.

Security features
Most notebooks have a feature or two for security and privacy. These could
be TPM (trusted platform module), biometric fingerprint or face recognition and
HDD security. As the name suggests, the finger print or face recognition system
stores the image of the finger or the face of the authorized user, which is used
to authenticate access to the notebook. These features can also be applied to
individual files/folders on a notebook. Some notebooks also have a one touch
data recovery button for retrieving lost data which could be very
helpful incase of data crash in the middle of travel or meeting.

TPM chip is a feature which can be used along with hard drive encryption
software such as Windows BitLocker, etc and can be used to store the public key
for encryption. This makes sure that the hard drive only works when connected to
the laptop with the key sitting inside the TPM chip. So if someone tries to take
out the drive and plugs it into a different machine it will not be readable.
Even changing the bus of the hard drive in the same machine will make the data

Points to keep in mind when buying netbooks
Netbooks have gained popularity ever since Intel Atom, the smallest processor
designed on 45 nm CMOS process. Though it’s based on an entirely new
architecture, Atom has been developed for low power consumption while
maintaining compatibility with Intel’s CORE micro architecture instruction set.
If you look at the trends in this proliferation of netbooks, you’ll find that
almost all notebook manufacturers have their own netbook models, but Atom is the
dominant processor in all of them. It’s only now that ARM is planning to
introduce an alternate processor. Moreover, even if you look at the form factor,
netbooks offer the same comfort as an ultra portable laptop minus the higher
cost and the rich features the latter offers.

A relevant question at this point is who have these laptops been targeted at?
The simple answer is anyone who wants a no-nonsense device that he can move
around easily with. Also, it is meant for people whose work revolves only around
Internet surfing, checking mail and basic office applications. Smart phones can
be an alternative as Internet surfing devices, but their screen is not optimized
for browsing; this enhances the appeal of netbooks. Another important factor to
keep in mind before buying these devices is that if you are designer or
developer who works on heavy design software like CAD or development IDEs like
Visual studio, then don’t even look at these! They are good for executives on
the go such as the sales force, as secondary computing devices for leisure and
travel, school and college students, etc. Because of their size, battery backup
and design, netbooks can easily fit in your backpacks, making them easy to lug

However, the biggest challenge for these devices is to create a space between
a smartphone and a laptop. In the subsequent sections, we look at all the
features you should keep in mind before buying one for your need.

Each netbook at this point comes loaded with Intel’s Atom processor with
minor differences in frequency and version. Therefore, most of these computing
devices perform almost similarly. And as these netbooks are meant for people on
the move, they are all portable. Let’s look at some of their key features:

Battery backup
Being powered with a low energy consuming processor with a small screen
size, the battery backup of netbooks is more as compared to conventional
laptops. They give a good battery backup of 5 to 8 hrs with a 3-cell battery,
therefore you should only go for a higher 6-cell battery if you are ready to
carry a few hundred grams more.

Today one can buy netbooks for 16k, but there are others whose price is
comparable and at times higher than laptops. A key point to keep in mind is that
netbooks are competing with smart phones on one side and laptops on the other,
making them price sensitive.

Going for high value netbooks does not mean a jump in performance as all are
Atom-based, the only difference would be in quality of material used in building
these devices and a few extra features.

A small form factor makes it imperative to check if you are comfortable
typing on it. Checking the touchpad response and comfort is also advisable. As
these machines would be used by professionals and students alike, check for

Features common to both laptops and netbooks
Despite being targeted at different class of users, there are a few features
common to both.

Webcam plus speakers
A good quality web-cam and optimally placed speakers are also important.
Both these options come handy not only as entertainment features but are also
critical for video conferencing, which in turn is an integral part of your
organization’s unified communication solution.

As netbooks have been built as Internet surfing devices, this makes
connectivity options an important pre-requisite. While buying netbooks and
laptops, check whether they are packed with a Gigabit LAN card for optimal wired
connectivity and whether they support 802.11n standard for high speed wireless
connections. Another issue to check out is WiMAX and 3G support in your netbook
as both these are slated to become quite popular wireless connectivity standards
in the near future. For local wire free data transfer, check out support for
latest version of the Bluetooth standard (Bluetooth 2.1).

HDD & RAM and expandability
Most of the netbooks we received for the shootout came with 160 GB of hard
disk space with 1 GB RAM. On the other hand, in laptops, HDD capacity can go up
to 500 GB while RAM support can go up to 4 GB. The figures for netbooks seem to
be enough for Internet surfing but as we all know, with time HDD space shrinks
(thanks to increasing data) and on top of it applications are becoming heavy. To
counter these issues check for expandability. See if you can upgrade your RAM
and if possible even your HDD for elongating your netbook’s life. There is no
point of buying a device which cannot be expanded to incorporate your needs as
expandability can save you a lot of money.

No matter how sturdy a notebook or netbook you might buy, with passage of
time you could face problems such as virus attacks to the OS or disk crashes and
other not so pleasant things. Just check on support provided by different
vendors. See if the warranty is onsite or if the manufacturer expects you to
carry it to the service center. Also enquire whether the service is restricted
to the hardware only or for the OS and other apps that it comes pre-loaded with.
Find out how much does the vendor charge for each visit after the product is
past its warranty and how much time do they take to respond. You could be better
off checking with your peers on the efficiency of support by a particular
vendor. Before buying, ask the vendor about the type of warranty and not just
its period. Is it on-site or carry-in? Does the warranty cover both parts and
labor charges if something goes wrong with the product? Also whether there are
options of extended warranties and insurance available for your purchase? Most
of this information can also be found on the vendor’s website.

Watch out for
LED backlight
Instead of the regular fluorescent lamps that serve as backlights for a
typical LCD screen, this new displays technique uses LEDs. The feature not
only enables manufacturers produce screens with brighter images but also
helps in enhancing the battery life.

Ultra low voltage processor
This is a class of processors that certain laptops come equipped with,
that increase the battery-backup provided by laptops, manifold. In fact Acer
Aspire 3810T with Intel’s Core2Solo processor (ultra low voltage processor)
SU3500 with LED backlight was able to give battery backup of a whopping 10
hrs! These processors might end up creating a new category between laptops
and netbooks, if they already haven’t. However, the flip side of such
processors is the resulting loss in performance.

Expert Advice on Laptop Purchase

CIOs look for a combo of cost, reliability, & comfort, accompanied with a
worldwide domestic service model. Mobility is a huge factor, so laptops should
be lightweight with great processing power.

N Nataraj, CIO, Hexaware Technologies

If you are on the move, buy a laptop with spill-resistant keyboard and
shock-resistant hard disk to ensure that your HDD doesn’t crash and cause data
loss if the laptop falls. Do check for writing speed in laptops that come with
DVD writers.

Soundararajan, Head-IT, Dr Batras’ Positive Health Clinic

Being a tech company, we need powerful laptops for our developers who run web
and DB servers on them. We look for lots of RAM, processing power, and high
speed HDDs. For other teams, mobility becomes priority, and we choose 13″
laptops that are lightweight and can run most office apps.

Warren Brian Noronha, CTO, Health Clinic

I consider weight, battery backup, processing power & other specs, warranty
and other support conditions/easy availability of support at the base location
of the user, OS, brand and finally price.

Vijay Sethi, CIO, Hero Honda

Usage profile is important. Sales people and other frequent travelers need
lightweight, compact laptops. Finance people and others who handle heavy amounts
of data need good processing power and memory. For special functions like video
editing, DTP and other graphic intensive applications, video memory, resolution,
display specs and large disk space become important.

Nilesh Sangoi, CIO, Meru Cabs

I consider price, processing speed, WiFi capabilities, size and weight,
battery life & warranty. It’s good to be with a reputed brand, so you don’t
worry about companies shutting down.

Anup Badhe, CTO, Yureekah Software Technologies

Next :

Shootout: 26 Netbooks and Notebooks for professionals

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