I am currently shopping for a netbook, which has me scanning blogs and web sites for advice on hardware and software features.  In this search I ran across a great post on Laptop Magazine‘s blog that set forth some very good pointers. although I do not agree with all of them.  As to hardware, they said:

  • RAM: Go for at least 1Gb.  I agree.  Many netbooks sport 512Mb, which may be all right for Linux, but definitely not enough for XP.  Even if you do get Linux, you will be thankful for the memory overhead;
  • Screen: Get a 10″ model, not the 8.9″.  If you are over 40, this is certainly good advice, if you want good screen readability.  Much larger than 10″, however, and you are defeating the purpose of getting a netbook;
  • Battery: Get a 6-cell battery, rather than a 3- or 4-cell one.  This can result in significantly longer battery life (4-6 hours rather than 2-3 hours), which is always a boost to the portability you are going for in a netbook; and
  • Hard Drive: The post espouses hard drives rather than solid state drives (SSDs) and ones with RPMs of 5,400 rather than 4,200.  This, they state, is because hard drives offer better write performance than SSDs.  As to the capacity of the drive, I would not look to get too much; less is better.  Remember, many people use netbooks for cloud computing with Google apps or other web-based solutions that do not result in much local storage. along with web browsing and e-mail.  Again, you are using this for work, which produces documents and spreadsheets that do not take up nearly the room of photos, video, or music (which are not the recommended use of netbooks).  In short: netbooks are not intended for a lot of local data storage or huge client applications.  Get the memory you need, but do not go overboard.

Where I really disagree with the post is on the issue of the operating system you choose.  They do warn you off Vista (which is good advice), but they steer you towards XP over Linux (which is not necessarily the best advice).  They mention software compatibility as a reason, but you must ask yourself this: if you are just using the netbook for e-mail and for web-based solutions, why is XP necessarily better?  Linux does the same thing with no compatibility issues (so you might have to learn to use Firefox, Opera, or Chrome rather than IE; big deal), and runs faster on the same hardware.  For most tasks, OpenOffice is just as good as Microsoft Office when Google Docs won’t do or you don’t have access to the Internet.

As for compatibility with peripherals, you just need to ask yourself what you will be attaching to this highly portable machine, which may seldom be used in your office.  Linux works well with USB mice and drives, but how often will you print from (or scan to) the machine?  Upload photos from your camera?  Sync with your iPod?  Although I believe that Linux can do these tasks, I just don’t see it as much of an issue on a netbook, which is often being bought as a secondary machine to people who already have bigger, more conventional laptops.   This type of advice introduces the FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) Factor into the netbook shopping experience.  Linux has received quite a bit of positive reviews regarding netbooks for its lean, fast, stable, and secure performance.

A great article on Wired magazine’s blog made an interesting observation:

It used to be that when you went to an electronics store to buy a computer, you picked the most powerful one you could afford. Because, who knew? Maybe someday you’d need to play a cutting-edge videogame or edit your masterpiece indie flick. For 15 years, the PC industry obliged our what-if paranoia by pushing performance. Intel and AMD tossed out blisteringly fast chips, hard drives went on a terabyte gallop, RAM exploded, and high-end graphics cards let you play Blu-ray movies on your sprawling 17-inch laptop screen. That dream machine could do almost anything.

But here’s the catch: Most of the time, we do almost nothing. Our most common tasks—email, Web surfing, watching streamed videos—require very little processing power. Only a few people, like graphic designers and hardcore gamers, actually need heavy-duty hardware. For years now, without anyone really noticing, the PC industry has functioned like a car company selling SUVs: It pushed absurdly powerful machines because the profit margins were high, while customers lapped up the fantasy that they could go off-roading, even though they never did. So coders took advantage of that surplus power to write ever-bulkier applications and operating systems.

Don’t let the FUD Factor (or a hardware manufacturer’s marketing department) tell you what you need; make that decision for yourself.  You just need to take a hard look at what you really (not might) be using the machine for in order to make an intelligent decision about the operating system. Less is more when it comes to a netbook; just buy what you need.