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No small claims

No small claims
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First Published: Wed, Oct 07 2009. 12 30 AM IST

Updated: Wed, Oct 07 2009. 02 10 PM IST
The era of netbooks dawned upon us two years ago when Asus gave the world the first Eee PC. Its physical attributes suggested that such devices would mostly be intended for kids; as their first cheap-but-real portable computers. But they appealed to an older audience as well; serving the purpose of a secondary machine that could be back-packed anywhere. The “flaws” of the first generation were fixed in the second; screens became bigger, keyboards more comfortable to use, large-sized spinning hard-disks replaced measly-sized SSDs, Windows XP replaced Linux. The result is that the netbook has become acceptable to a wider variety of people. Those looking for a cheap portable PC to use their internet and productivity apps prefer to buy these over clunky cheap laptops.
There are three selling factors that tempt the audience; the size, the price and battery life. Also, netbooks can now pretty much do the same basic tasks as your desktop computer or laptop (although somewhat slower). We are now looking at the third generation of netbooks; they are growing out of their 10-inch screen size, becoming slicker and slimmer than before, and performing even better; especially in the graphics department. NVIDIA’s upcoming Ion platform is the testament to that. The Ion platform is basically an Intel Atom processor paired with an NVIDIA chipset that has a powerful GeForce 9400 GPU onboard.
Every major manufacturer has jumped on the netbook bandwagon. Thus, in this article we bring you an extensive comparison of netbooks currently in the market, to help you pick the best one for your needs.
For the ones that did not make it - before starting with the test, we had contacted most of the manufacturers currently selling netbooks in India to send us a unit for review. A few manufacturers, namely Acer, HP, Dell and Lenovo apparently did not want their machines compared to those from other vendors and did not send us samples. These brands are therefore not a part of this test.
Samsung NC-310
A curvy netbook for Generation Y.
•Hip-design, easy to carry around, bright screen, good keyboard.
•Build quality not up to the mark, status LEDs not visible when lid closed, web cam didn’t function in our test model, expensive.
This is Samsung’s attempt at catching the hip-crowd’s attention. The NC-310 has a curvy build throughout which make it easy to hold and carry around. It also makes the netbook look different. The uni-coloured exterior and black interior also add to the coolness. Some people might find the colours a bit tacky, but it’s a personal choice; either you like it or you don’t. The materials used to build it don’t give it a feeling of solidity. Not to say that it’s poorly built, but we wouldn’t dare to manhandle this one too much. We also wished the neck hinge was a bit stronger.
At 1.23 kg, it can be easily carried around. The glossy screen is adequately bright. Below it is the pebble-style keyboard. This offers an isolated key design; that is slight spacing between each square-shaped key. For typists used to standard keyboards, these could take some time to get used to. But it is worth persevering, and once familiarised, they are quite easy to type on. The only sore point is that the Page Up, Page Down and arrow keys are a bit too closely packed. This makes it too easy to hit the wrong key. The touch-pad also offers good accuracy.
Unfortunately, all the status LEDs are on the inside of the body, next to the touch-pad. Thus you can’t see them when the lid is closed. For example, with a closed lid you wouldn’t know if your netbook is running or not. The web cam on our unit simply refused to work despite repeated attempts. We therefore weren’t able to gauge its quality. Also, it wasn’t able to compute a graphics score in the PCMark05 test, thus not giving us a final PCMark score.
The speaker strip is placed above the keyboard on the lower body. It puts out pleasingly clear and unmuffled audio. Although the maximum volume isn’t very high.
Its 4-cell battery survived for two-and-a-half hours in our battery drain test. Thus it should give 3 to 3.5 hours of up-time under normal usage. The battery life can be termed as quite decent. It also faired reasonably well in our Wi-Fi test. For almost Rs28,000, the NC-310 is fairly expensive. It would be a pretty decent netbook to recommend, had the price been a few thousand rupees lower.
Samsung NP-N120
A netbook that means business
•Bright screen, good Wi-fi performance, decent battery life.
•Pointy edges, the chrome sidings may not appeal to a few, slightly overpriced.
If the NC-310 was the netbook for the “young and the free”, the N120 offers a rather cut-throat “ meant for business” philosophy in terms of looks. It has a smooth black finish which is fortunately finger-print proof. The edges are quite pointy and the chrome sidings may be a turn-off for some people. This netbook is quite thin. Even with a slightly bulging 6-cell battery, it weighs an acceptable 1.28 kilos. The build quality is a little better than the NC-310, and the same goes for the screen hinge.
On the inside we have a bright screen. The keyboard is of typical design (not like the NC-310’s isolated keys). The keys are quite large and convenient to type on. However, like the NC-310 the direction keys and the Page up and down keys are small and squished together. This can be inconvenient from time to time. Unlike most netbooks that have speakers under their belly, here they are placed on either side of the screen. Thus they produce an unmuffled sound compared to most netbooks, which is adequately audible. Like the NC-310, it failed on the graphics part of the PCMark05 test, thus failing to give us a final score.
In the battery test, it survived a good 4 hours and 30 minutes. It also shined in our Wi-Fi tests, where it logged in faster data transfer rates even over longer distances from the router. The web cam delivered an average quality with a decent frame rate. The Samsung N120 is priced at Rs25,000. That’s slightly overpriced; as competitive models with very similar specifications are usually around Rs3,500 bucks cheaper. We wouldn’t mind recommending this netbook if it were competitively priced.
Asus Eee PC 1008HA
Slim wonder
•Ultra-thin and light, fabulous appeal, good keyboard, good battery life for a slim device, Wi-Fi 802.11n support.
•Screen brightness a bit low, non-removable battery, overpriced.
The 1008HA is part of Asus’s “Seashell” line of cosmetically-enhanced netbooks, that have the same guts as the older versions. This Eee PC has an ultra-sleek design. It is just 18 mm slim at its thinnest point. The beautifully-contoured body has a shell-like appearance and is covered in a piano black shade. The glossy body, as expected, is victim to fingerprints. At an ultra-light 1.1 kg, this is one of the lightest netbooks in this test. It can easily be slid away into the side-pocket of an overnighter bag. This is probably the first netbook that comes with a non-removable lithium-polymer battery; just like the Macbook Air or the newer Macbook Pros. This could prove to be a limitation for those who like to carry spare batteries along with their portables. To achieve the streamlined design, Asus has neatly covered all the ports, thus protecting them from dust.
Opening this baby reveals the typical 10-inch screen with a web cam atop. We felt that the screen lacked the brightness that most of the other brands gave. We wouldn’t really call this a deal-breaker though. The keyboard has large QWERTY keys that are good to type on. While trying to fit such large keys, the Up-Down, arrow and top-row function keys are shrunk considerably. We would have appreciated if at least the Up-Down keys were a little bigger. The touch-pad also receives the much-needed improvement over earlier models in terms of accuracy. Its dotted-texture also provides a better feel and grip while navigating. The real kill-joy for us was that the multi-touch scrolling option, available on many previous Eee PC models, has been replaced with the traditional side-scrolling mechanism.
On the inside, we find Intel’s new Atom N280 processor that has a 60 MHz speed bump over the N270s fitted in most of the models. We concluded from our tests that the N280 boosts performance by a slight margin. The speed-up is not really noticeable when using typical apps. Also, all the Eee PCs, including this one, support the latest Wi-Fi 802.11n standard, which is much appreciated.
The built-in battery raked out a nearly three-and-a-half hour battery life - this is good for such a slim device. Thus, under normal usage, it should give you more than four hours of juice. The web cam belted out decent quality but not exactly with a smooth frame-rate. The Rs27,000 price tag is the premium you’ll have to pay for this sleek beauty. We think its somewhat overpriced, but if the price were to drop to Rs25k or less, that would make it a worthwhile buy.
Asus Eee PC 1005HA
Well-priced workhorse
•Good keyboard, Very good battery life, Wi-Fi 802.11n support, Well priced.
•Screen brightness a bit low.
On the heels of the slim ‘n’ sexy 1008HA is its slightly chubby sibling, the 1005HA. Its top shares the same shell-like look of its thinner cousin. It may not be very thin, but it is certainly sleeker and attractive compared to earlier iterations of the Eee PC. The 1005HA has a non-glossy base, unlike the fully-glossy body of the 1008HA. Other than that, both the models are the same internally.
Citing one of the few differences between the two, the 1005HA has a removable 6-cell battery that delivers a really good battery life; close to six hours in our stress-test. Thus, this model can survive close to an eight-hour working-day without a charge - if you’re not going to do resource-intensive work. Amongst the bundle of apps that Asus packed with this model, we liked the Parental Control and the Font Resizer.
Other than the non-removable battery, the 1005HA also shares the cons that we’ve mentioned in the 1008HA write-up above. The web cam performs similarly to the 1008HA model. The Wi-Fi performance in general on all Eee PC models was average using 802.11g mode. When testing with the 802.11n mode using a compatible router, we saw that the performance jump was about 15-20% over 802.11g. The Eee PC 1005HA is priced quite reasonably at Rs21,500. This model will give you pretty much everything from the 1008HA model for Rs6,500 less. So, if you want a decent netbook and can sacrifice the ultra-thin measurement of the 1008HA, this is the model you should consider.
Zenith Premium Z-book
Cheap, in every sense of the term
•Good quality bright screen, sturdy build, cheap price.
•Average keyboard and touchpad usability, measly battery life.
The Zenith Z-book has a slightly small footprint and isn’t really eye-candy compared to the others in our test. The device feels quite compact to hold and has quite a solid feel to it. The screen hinge offered more-than-adequate resistance.
Opening this netbook reveals a very bright screen. We tried watching a few 720p hi-def videos on it and realised that the screen delivered quite admirably. The contrast-ratio, as seen by our tests, was also very high. But this is where praise for the Z-book ends. The keyboard is cramped compared to the well spaced ones on other models. The only good thing about it is that it has media playback shortcuts on its function keys. Even the touch-pad left-and-right click buttons are flimsy. The Z-book does not impress as such in the performance figures. The battery died out after 1.5 hours. It should give approximately 2-2.5 hours of time under normal usage; this is quite a measly performance for a netbook. The web camera’s output was quite grainy and dark and the frame-rate was also pretty average.
Other than the surprisingly-good screen and a decent build, there is nothing about the Z-book that we would write home about. It is by far the cheapest netbook we’ve seen at just Rs16,500. That’s almost 20% cheaper than the next cheapest netbook. For the price, you compromise a bit on the usability and performance but it’s still a very usable piece of hardware.
Asus Eee PC 1101HA
Breaking the 10-inch barrier
•11.1-inch screen size, excellent battery life, comparatively sleek, comfortable keyboard.
•Screen brightness a bit low, under-powered processor.
The first Eee PC to break the 10-inch screen barrier, the 1101HA has a slightly larger footprint in order to accommodate the 11.6-inch, 1366x768 pixel screen. It has kept its thickness under check, and the overall machine is quite portable. Sharing the Seashell-branded appearance of the family, the cool-looking white model that we received reminded us of the older Macbooks.
The “HD” resolution display has a 16:9 aspect ratio; great for watching movies without those black borders. A short-length 720p test video looked pretty good and ran quite smoothly. Although we felt that the screen brightness was not up to the mark. The display wasn’t vibrant enough compared to some others in our test. But for typical work such as internet surfing and document editing, it’s quite sufficient. The keyboard is well spaced and easy to type on. The touch-pad is similar to the 1005HA and 1008HA model. This model comes with a low-power Atom Z520 processor running at 1.33 GHz. From the synthetic tests, it is clear that the 1101HA’s performance is even lower than the low-scoring Zenith Z-book, but in real-life, we didn’t notice a lag when running basic applications. But a two-hour long 720p Hi-def movie file lagged a lot during playback. Even though Asus advertises its “HD” display so profusely, we consider that this machine is not suitable for watching HD videos.
A low-powered processor is bound to have a positive impact on the battery life, and we measured an astounding figure of close to seven hours in our battery drain test. Thus, if used under light-load, it could very well last you more than eight hours. The web cam quality is again similar to previous Asus Eee PC models; i.e. decent. Quake 3 refused to run on this machine. Thus we couldn’t measure its fps score.
At Rs26,000, the pricing for this model is quite appropriate. For somebody who wants a netbook but feels that 10-inch screens are a bit too small, this model is a good option to consider. We would recommend it for people who just want to use the Internet, office suites, standard-res videos and other non-resource-heavy apps. Just remember that you are paying close to Rs5,000 extra for 1.5 inches of extra screen size and one hour more battery life (compared to the 1005HA).
Sony Vaio W
Overpriced, but a good netbook
•Sleek and attractive design, high-resolution screen, comfortable keyboard, fast Wi-Fi 802.11n performance.
•Expensive, only 2 USB ports.
After its daring attempt with the Vaio P “Lifestyle PC”, Sony is using the tried-and-tested netbook formula with this model. The Vaio W is a typical 10-inch netbook. It does maintain Sony’s signature style-statement all over; with the Vaio logo atop its glossy covering and the wireless and power switch on the edges. The top fortunately does not attract fingerprints. Overall, look-and-feel wise, Sony does make a mark. This baby will be noticed wherever you carry it. The build quality is also quite decent. It’s fairly light at 1.2 kg and thin enough to be carried around easily.
Opening the lid reveals a 10.1-inch screen bearing a higher-than-usual 1366x768 “HD” resolution. In our opinion, this resolution makes any text content appear a bit too small for convenience. We found it necessary to use a quick fix (a higher font dpi setting) to take care of that. However, we liked watching hi-res 720p videos on this machine. A pebble or segregated-style keyboard, typical of most Sony laptops we see nowadays, is fitted in this one. All keys are sized well and are really soft to type on, once you get the hang of them. The touch-pad is also adequately large. The machine comes with the new Atom N280 processor that offers a minor speed-up compared to the N270. In our battery drain test it touched almost two hours. Thus, one should get roughly three hours of normal usage; this is quite fair for a three-cell battery. We were also impressed by its transfer speeds using the Wi-Fi 802.11n mode. The Vaio W’s only two USB ports might be too few for people who attach a lot of peripherals to their PCs at a time.
Its web cam is accompanied by a nifty app which allows for face detection. This zooms into your face and tracks it even if you change your position. It can also do other cool effects such as face-blurring, eye-mask, warp, etc. Overall, the Sony Vaio W is a good netbook to consider, but it’s going to cost you Rs30,000. This high-margin price difference between the Vaio W and the others is what we could perhaps call the “Sony tax”. We would have gladly recommended this model, had the price been even a rupee below Rs25,000.
MSI Wind
Ultra-light netbook with few shortcomings
•Light-weight, bright screen with great contrast.
•No bluetooth, no OS pre-installed, only 80 GB hard disk, low battery life.
The MSI Wind U100 is the first netbook from the MSI stable. The white colour with a minimally-designed top makes it look neat. The build quality is quite decent. It may not be as ultra-thin as the Eee PC 1008HA, but at 1kg, this is certainly the lightest netbook we have in this test. The keyboard is also quite easy to type on, except for one anomaly. The Fn and Control key on the left corner have interchanged places.
In the days when 160 GB has become quite common for netbooks, the MSI Wind’s 80 GB hard drive space feels rather cramped. Also, the model that we received came with SuSe Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 pre-installed instead of Windows XP. Lastly, the battery life did not fare so well, clocking in at 1.5 hours. At Rs20,000, the MSI Wind’s pricing is fair. But other than the great screen, it does not have anything special that would inspire us to recommend it. At just Rs1,500 more, you can get the Eee PC 1005HA that trumps this model on many counts.
Intex N101W-C1100
Tacky-designed, nothing extraordinary
•Decent web cam and battery life.
•Tacky design, no OS preinstalled.
Intex has taken a different approach in terms of design with its N101W netbook. It is designed to resemble a book; suggesting that it is targeted at the youth. Also, due to its design, the screen cannot be tilted beyond roughly 120 degrees. The build quality is quite acceptable, but this device is not very thin. On the inside, we have a 1024x576 pixel display; just four vertical pixels shy of the typical 1024x600 resolution. The keyboard is good in terms of typing comfort and the direction keys are a wee bit smaller than usual. The touch-pad sensitivity is about average, although the odd button placement might not be convenient for some.
Many of us are aware that installing Windows XP (especially using a USB flash drive) is a lengthy and difficult procedure. The least Intex could do is sell the N101W with a Linux OS. After installing XP ourselves, we ran it through our battery of tests. Of them, we couldn’t get Quake3 to run on this one. The same was the case with our test to judge screen brightness and contrast ratio. The battery lasted an acceptable two hours and twenty minutes. Thus we should expect around three hours of normal play-time with this model. The web cam delivered a clear image with a decent frame-rate.
At Rs19,000, the price seems to be quite fair. But its design philosophy and average usability does not help us recommend this model.
Connoi Tablet PC
A good companion for kids
The Connoi Tablet PC is based on the Intel Classmate PC concept. As we will see further in this review, this model is specifically targeted at school-going kids. For one, this netbook looks a bit kiddish, but its plastic body is built decently. The manufacturers claim that it is sturdy enough to survive drops and water spills. It has a (removable) handle for carrying it around like a mini-briefcase. At 1.35 kg, it’s not overly heavy and shouldn’t add substantial weight to a kid’s already-heavy school- enabled model amongst all those in this test. The screen has a 180-degree tilting mechanism that converts this typical netbook into a stylus-operated tablet. You can even use it in vertical mode like an e-book reader.
The screen is slightly small at 8.9 inches, but bears a standard 1024x600 pixel resolution. Although the screen accepts stylus input fairly well, the underlying software (and Windows XP) is not finger-optimised. Thus, kids will need to whip out the stylus or try to use their fingernails to operate this device. The keyboard under the screen is somewhat cramped for adults with large fingers. But, since this machine is intended for kids, this shouldn’t really be a problem. The touch-pad sensivity is also good. Spec-wise there are a few differences from the rest of the herd. For one, this netbook has a 1.8-inch 60 GB hard disk; which might prove to be insufficient in today’s world.
Performance-wise, it worked at a decent pace. The performance bottle-neck in this machine proved to be its slower 1.8-inch hard drive. We also hoped for a little more than 2.5 hours from its 6-cell battery. In terms of software, it comes with a number of usable apps. The best had to be ArtRage2, a touch-friendly version of a Paint app. Even the handwriting recognition tool is quite accurate, after a brief training session. At. Rs24,500, it is priced appropriately considering that it is a netbook-cum-tablet PC. This makes it quite a sweet deal and would be a good choice as a first PC for kids. It will help them jump onto the electronic revolution at an early age.
Conclusion
After our exhaustive testing, we come to the conclusion that the Eee PC 1005HA bags the prize as the best performer. It has the right mix of components coupled with an elegant design and a perfect price; given its functionality. Coming in close at second place is the other ASUS Eee PC 1101HA. The Sony Vaio W follows. Other than the ultra-high price tag, we found nothing to complain about this model. If Sony slashes the price by at least Rs5,000, we’ll be glad to recommend it.
Going by sheer numbers, the Zenith Premium Z-book takes the Best Buy Award thanks to its ultra-low Rs16,500 price tag. Although it has the same internals as most of the models out there, it somewhat lacks in terms of usability. We feel you should spend a few thousand rupees more to get the Eee PC 1005HA.
Another model we would like to highlight is the Connoi Classmate PC. This netbook is designed with the idea that computers are going to be a big part of children’s education, and not just another subject in the curriculum. Its touch-screen abilities bring out many unique features that children can use. Also, this is a real PC, with a familiar operating system that provides a plethora of usability options. If you are willing to invest Rs25,000, this could very well be a great gift for your child.
How we tested
•Most netbooks came with Windows XP Home Edition SP3 pre-installed. On those that came with Linux or no OS, XP was installed along with drivers for running the Windows-based benchmark tools.
•All pre-installed software (except for drivers) were un-installed. Automatic updates, remote desktop and system restore were turned off.
•The system was set to “Best appearance” mode. Screensavers were turned off, all power-saving settings were disabled and the screen was bumped to maximum brightness.
•The tests and assessments that we used:
•Synthetic benchmarks including PCMark05, 3DMark05 and SiSoft Sandra 2008. Other than that, we included a battery of real-world tests to determine the performance of the various components and features of the netbooks.
•Build quality was assessed, included the type of materials used and the sturdiness of the screen hinge.
•Ergonomics, included the usability of the keyboard and touch-pad, also the accessibility of ports.
•The battery life test, using the looped-playback of our test video file with the volume turned to maximum
•The wireless test was performed by directly connecting a Wi-Fi Router to our test PC. We then paired the netbooks to our router, thus enabling them to access the contents of our Test PC. A 100 MB test file was copied back-and-forth between the netbook and the test PC at two different distances. For the “Short Distance” the netbook was kept next to the router. With “Long Distance”, the netbook was at a point outside the test PC’s closed room, around 20 metres away.
•The display was tested for brightness and contrast ratio using a Spyder3Elite calibration tool.
•We used DivX Pro v.7.0 to encode our 100 MB test VOB format video file into the DivX format.
CONNECT
Fujifilm takes camera to a new 3D plane
Fujifilm recently launched its new FinePix REAL 3D W1 (Rs42,999), the first camera which can capture and display images in 3D. It features two lenses that mimic the distance between human eyes. The best part is that the LCD panel at the back of the camera can display 3D images, so you can actually live-preview the image you are taking in 3D without requiring any special glasses. The camera offers point-and-shoot functionality for capturing 2D or 3D images, or videos, and manages almost everything automatically.
Samsung touch-screen costs below 10K
Samsung has launched an under-Rs10,000 touch-screen handset, the S3650 Corby (for Rs9,600). The 2.8-inch TFT displays 256k colours at a resolution of 240x320 pixels, and comes with a smart lock feature. However, the lack of an accelerometer to auto-rotate the screen won’t go down well with most people. While it does have a 2-megapixel fixed-focus camera, there is no LED flash. The phone supports all popular multimedia formats for both audio and video files, and comes with a player for this, but the lack of a 3.5mm audio jack puts a question mark over its music capabilities. Corby is available in five colours.
Touch-screen furniture
The Surface Tension Arcade Table is an innovative approach to furniture. Surface Tension manufactures tables with a large touch-screen interface and a computer built into the table. The Arcade edition of this coffee table (Rs2,39,690) has two sets of full-arcade controls and comes with at least 60 retro games. You can install any game that is compatible with Mame (multiple arcade machine emulator). Windows XP is used on the machine, so you can install any software and use it as a regular computer. For details, visit www.surfacetension.net
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First Published: Wed, Oct 07 2009. 12 30 AM IST
More Topics: Asus | Windows XP | Linux | NVIDIA | Samsung NC-310 |