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Netbooks Need A Little More Work

I wanted to like the netbooks I tried out for today's column, I really did. But even if I'm spending "just" $300 or $400, I don't want to feel obligated to discard touch-typing habits I learned in high school just because a laptop designer wouldn't follow lessons that the rest of the world learned 25 years ago.

Or, to put this in another way, you can fix a bad software bundle, but you can't do anything about a bad keyboard unless you're really good with a soldering iron.

So I found myself recommending Acer's Aspire One netbook, even though other netbooks offered more expansion options and a wider choice of software. At least I could use this out of the box.

I had thought at first that Dell's Inspiron Mini 9 would get a thumbs-up instead. It runs Ubuntu Linux -- easily the best consumer version of that open-source operating system -- it looks sharp and it comes at a reasonable starting price. But I just can't get around that awful keyboard. It bothers me that Dell put such a flawed layout into production, and that it made the problem worse by leaving this keyboard surrounded by half an inch of plastic on either side (the company should have followed the example of the Acer or HP's otherwise flawed Mini-Note and let the keyboard span the full width of the computer).

Equally perplexing: Lenovo's botched keyboard on the S10. Shouldn't the people behind the ThinkPad series know how to do that kind of thing right?

The other netbooks had less surprising failings. The Asus Eee PC 900 showed few signs that the company learned much from the model I tried out in January -- if anything, the company has gone downhill since then, shipping a perplexing variety of Eee models while adding new flaws to its Linux interface (like, for instance, the "Eee Download" software site that doesn't actually provide software downloads that work on the Eee). And the MSI Wind had a bizarrely misconfigured copy of Windows XP (though at least its keyboard wasn't atrocious like everybody else's!).

All these obvious design flaws (to add yet another to the list, Acer, Lenovo and MSI need to explain why their power bricks, at 10 ozs., 11.5 ozs. and 11.75 ozs., weigh almost twice as much as the Dell's 6.6-oz. AC adapter) did at least solve of one complication of this review. That was the two radically different audiences for netbooks: those who use them as their sole computer for nothing but Web access, and those who employ them as a third or fourth computer for a variety of uses. I couldn't recommend most of these netbooks for either scenario.

Should I have tried out a different netbook? Or have you found that adapting to the flaws of one of those five I reviewed was worth the trouble? Let me know in the comments -- or in my Web chat today, starting at 2 p.m.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  December 4, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Computers , Gripes  
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Re: the MSI Wind, were you able to correct the "mis-configured Windows"? If so, how did it stack up to the others afterward?

Posted by: jgluke | December 4, 2008 1:14 PM | Report abuse

I want to get my hands on the Coby that all the blogs are talkin' 'bout -

Posted by: larrymac | December 4, 2008 1:21 PM | Report abuse

I do note from some experience with switching power supplies like the netbooks use that lightweight power supplies tend to be more prone to failure than heavier ones. One may have to put up with the extra six or seven ounces to lessen the chance of power supply failure.

Posted by: n8blk | December 4, 2008 3:29 PM | Report abuse

I don't think the author get the main purpose of netbooks. It is not meant to be a replacement of existing desktops/laptops. It is intended for basic tasks such as email checking, instant messaging. To do anything more, you need a regular notebook. Though the criticism on keyboard is valid.

Posted by: ppw8 | December 4, 2008 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for this review, Rob! I was waiting for your opinion before I made a decision to buy a Dell Mini, I think I'll wait some more, and see if a new version fixes that keyboard layout.

Posted by: --sg | December 4, 2008 9:14 PM | Report abuse

OK Rob

So in your view, how does the new Blackberry Storm stack up against the netbooks ???

Posted by: | December 5, 2008 1:26 AM | Report abuse


Thanks for your review on netbooks. I wish you'd included the HP mini and the Samsung NC10 in your review. The HP netbook is rated as having an outstanding keyboard, the best for the netbooks. The Samsung entry is also very highly rated by other reviews. Would love to have your thoughts on these two netbooks. Would also like to have your thoughts on how to make best use of the netbook - how could a netbook make me more efficient/productive in my work. I teach in GWU School of Public Health. Thanks.

Posted by: joeboys | December 5, 2008 9:38 AM | Report abuse

Hey Rob, we can't agree re the Lenovo S10 keyboard, for the size we think its superb! The slightly larger screen that the S10 supports makes for a far better typing experience than other Netbooks we have tried.

Have a look at our reviews. Getting some good comments on the blog.

Cheers, Ian Orford - Editor,

Posted by: ThinkPadTodaycom | December 5, 2008 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Early in September I bought an ASUS Eee 1000H (for $450), which came with Windows XP, so this is written with three months' experience. For using the Web, the existing keyboard is acceptable for entering my name and password and a few miscellaneous words, but for anything longer, the right-side shift key requires too much attention, so I bought a Logitech USB keyboard for about $13. (Maybe the netbook manufacturers could make an IBM-style "butterfly keyboard" available.) In practice, I keep the full-size keyboard in the location where I use the computer the most, because the keyboard is much wider than the netbook, and would be awkward to carry. I also bought a Logitech USB trackball, because I like it better than the keypad; the trackball fits nicely in my bag of accessories, so I consistently use it.

The screen is low and wide, compared with a typical standalone computer monitor, but for reading a news article or an e-mail message, the screen proportions are no problem. When using Photoshop Elements, I have to do more zooming and scrolling than I'd like, but that's not a show-stopper.

I've used battery power for over four hours, before recharging -- never pushing it to the limit. To conserve power, I keep the Bluetooth, WiFi, and webcam switched off when they're not in use.

Overall I'm glad to have and use the netbook, despite the limitations, and it's much easier to carry than a larger laptop.

Posted by: Mark-Laster | December 5, 2008 3:29 PM | Report abuse

I'm retired but take accounting courses at the local community college and need a laptop. I have read reviews by users on the Dell(forgot the series name) and the Gateway M series.
The Gateway has caught my eye, but some reviewers state that the coloring on the outside scratches very easily and the lettering on the keys wears off easily.
I'm very price and feature conscious and like others want the most for my money. I realize that I am in a Catch-22 position, you can never catch up with technology.
Merry Christmas everyone.

Posted by: Rcichocki | December 9, 2008 9:40 PM | Report abuse

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