Save money with a netbook

Netbooks, which are much like laptops, only smaller and less powerful, are becoming more and more common these days. And they can save you a bundle over the cost of a full-featured laptop.

Many are discovering that netbooks provide all the computing power they need. And they start around $300. That combination has made them incredibly popular.

Dell, HP, Asus, MCI and Acer are just a few companies selling netbooks. You won't have as many options as with laptops, but shop carefully, and you'll find a netbook that suits you just fine.

Choose Windows

The most important consideration is the operating system. You can choose between Windows XP and Linux.

With Linux, you get to learn a new operating system, but you also may get software and hardware compatibility problems.

Maybe you want a familiar operating system. If so, get Windows XP. XP is no longer under mainstream support from Microsoft, but don't let that deter you. You'll still get security patches. That's really all you need.

The upcoming Windows 7 will run on netbooks. However, you may find it limiting. For example, you can only have three windows open simultaneously to avoid overtaxing the netbook's processor. Windows 7 won't be available until later this year.

Don't worry about processors

When it comes to netbook processors, you have one real choice. That's Intel's Atom. It practically defines netbooks.

The Atom is an energy-efficient, low-cost chip. It is also surprisingly fast. Some netbooks may use a different processor. This is unusual. It could also signal that a netbook is an older model.

Look for 512 megabytes of memory with Windows XP. Linux can get by with less. Microsoft limits XP netbooks to 1 gigabyte of memory. That should be more than enough.

Don't skimp on storage

One of the most difficult choices with netbooks is storage. Many netbooks use solid-state drives (SSDs). Solid-state drives are flash memory. They provide fast, efficient storage. They're also lighter and more durable than hard drives.

Unfortunately, netbooks often start with 8-gigabyte SSDs. This is inadequate, especially on an XP machine.

You can often upgrade the SSD size. You'll pay a premium. At any rate, SSDs top out at 64GB on netbooks.

Some netbook manufacturers offer free online storage. Or, you can expand the storage with a memory card or thumb drive.

I'd go with a hard drive. They generally start around 60GB on netbooks.

Size matters

Netbooks generally weigh a couple pounds. Their screens are also smaller than those on laptops. Dell offers its Mini netbook with a 12-inch screen, but most screens will be 10 inches or smaller. Make sure this won't strain your eyes.

You'll also make sacrifices on the keyboard. Netbooks' keyboards are generally about 90% of full size. Test the keyboard before you buy.

Batteries are a netbook strength. Many netbook batteries can run a few hours per charge. If possible, get a six-cell battery. That should run six to eight hours.

Don't forget the extras

Netbooks don't have built-in CD or DVD drives. You can usually buy an external drive that runs off a USB port, if necessary. The same goes for external hard drives.

Built-in options could include webcams, cellular broadband and Bluetooth. Also, look for Express Card and memory card ports. Wi-Fi is standard on netbooks.

Finally, cellular providers offer subsidized netbooks. Beware! You'll have to sign a two-year contract. That runs about $60 monthly.

Kim Komando hosts the nation's largest talk radio show about computers and the Internet. To get the podcast or find the station nearest you, visit www.komando.com/listen. To subscribe to Kim's free e-mail newsletters, sign up at www.komando.com/newsletters. Contact her at gnstech@gannett.com.

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