Despite the emergence of trendy new devices like Apple's iPad, netbooks will continue to be one of the fastest-growing notebook segments, according to market research firm DisplaySearch. In a December 2009 report, the company predicted that sales of what it calls "mini-notes" will increase from 16.4 million units in 2008 to 39.7 million by the end of 2010, and account for one in five portables sold.
Many of the latest netbooks are powered by Intel's Atom N450 processor, which boosts a netbook's ability to perform well while extending battery life. Called Pine Trail while under development by Intel, the Atom N450 started shipping in January and represents a major redesign from the previous N270 version of the Atom processor.
What can you expect from this chip? According to my tests, the N450 delivers 28% better processor performance and a 20% boost in computing abilities compared with the N270.
The Atom N450 has some elements in common with its predecessor, such as a single processing core, a pair of simultaneous instruction threads and 512KB of external cache for temporarily storing frequently used data and instructions. But the N450 has 123 million transistors -- more than twice the N270 -- and can take advantage of 667 MHz of RAM, versus 533 MHz for N270 systems.
The N450 also has a new register access manager that controls the flow of data into and out of the processor and a more efficient data prefetcher so the processor doesn't have to wait for needed data to be delivered. As a result, the processor spends less time spinning its wheels and more time working.
The N450 has two new sleep modes that use less power, and the chip's cache data is ingeniously transferred to lower-power RAM when it goes to sleep, cutting battery use even more. According to Intel, when the system is being used, the N450 consumes 7 watts of power (about what a child's night light uses) -- less than half the N270's 16 watts. This not only extends battery life, but also reduces the need to cool the processor.
Along with Intel's NM-10 Express Chipset, the package is barely the size of a fingernail; the two chips take up 60% less space than the N270's three-chip package. This allows the N450 to be squeezed into smaller places and could lead to more creative and thinner hardware designs.
Intel expects there will be something like 80 different devices available that use the Atom N450 by summertime.
I tested four netbooks equipped with the N450 chip: Acer's Aspire One 532h, Fujitsu's LifeBook MH380, HP's Mini 5102 and the MSI Wind U135.
At first, they appear to be like four peas in a pod, with similar -- if not identical -- hardware: a 1.6-GHz Atom N450 processor, 1GB of RAM, Intel's GMA 3150 graphics card, a 10.1-in. screen and a webcam. In fact, the only big difference is that while the HP Mini 5102 comes with a 160GB hard drive, the others have 250GB hard drives. In addition, the HP Mini comes with a standard four-cell battery while the others come with six-cell batteries. All are within a couple of ounces and fractions of an inch of one another and have three USB ports as well as connections for an external monitor, networking, audio and a flash card reader.
Unfortunately, these netbooks all come with Microsoft's bargain-basement Windows 7 Starter Edition, which means you can't share an Internet connection, connect to a domain or use any of the machines as a network bridge. Starter also doesn't let you change your desktop image, and it doesn't support multiple monitors. Finally, it doesn't come with Windows Media Center for watching TV with an external tuner.
However, despite their similarities, there are some telling differences between them.
Rather than starting from scratch, Acer made a good thing better by modifying its Aspire One 531h design to work with the new Atom N450 processor. The Aspire One 532h is not only enviably thin, with good all-around performance and battery life, but its $350 price also makes it the value netbook of the group.
Rating a PassMark CPUMark of 364.3, its performance was just a bit less impressive than the blistering pace set by the Fujitsu MH380. The Acer took the top honors in four of the eight processor tests, including Prime Number, Multimedia Instructions, Physics and String Sort. On the other hand, it was in the cellar on the Compression test. This makes the Aspire One 532h the one to get for gamers, graphic artists who do visual simulations, and those who spend too much time working through spreadsheets.
Overall, the Acer's 238.1 overall performance score was a tad above the average for the four N450 systems, but it lagged slightly behind the Fujitsu MH380.
The truly amazing thing is that the Acer did this while delivering 7 hours and 52 minutes of runtime per charge on its six-cell battery. It's a half-hour short of the HP Mini 5102's battery test results of 8 hours 29 minutes, but remarkable nonetheless. In other words, the Aspire One 532h (and the Mini 5102) can provide a full day of computing without a recharge.
Capable of connecting to 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi networks, the Aspire One 532h was able to stay online as far away as 110 feet from my router. My only qualm is that it doesn't have the Bluetooth capabilities that the other three have.
At 2.7 lbs., the Acer is the lightest of the four with a six-cell battery pack. (The test model of the HP Mini 5102 was a few ounces lighter because it came with a four-cell battery, but the six-cell version weighs an ounce and a half more.)
At a Glance
Pros: Excellent price, good performance, light and thin, multitouch pad
Cons: Case picks up fingerprints, no Bluetooth
The Acer may lack the splash of the Fujitsu MH380 and the rugged durability of the HP Mini 5102, but it's thinner than either. It comes in blue, red or silver. Be warned: Its shiny plastic case easily picks up fingerprints.
I really like the system's 17.5mm flat keys with their positive feedback; I also appreciated that they were all a uniform size. The touchpad steals the show, however, by being the only one of the four capable of interpreting multitouch input.
While the Aspire 532h's price tag of $350 -- half the price of a similarly configured HP Mini 5102 -- is alluring, if you get it with a 160GB hard drive, the price drops to $300, making it my choice as the netbook Blue Light Special.
If you're looking for a good balance between price, performance and battery life, the Aspire One 532h does the trick. If only it came with Bluetooth, it would be perfect.
With its dramatic curved design and distinctive flaming-red finish, Fujitsu's LifeBook MH380 not only leads in looks but is the best-performing of this batch of N450 netbooks. It does have its quirks, however, and its $450 price tag is higher than the others.
The LifeBook burns the competition in overall and processor performance for N450-equipped netbooks, leading the group in five of the eight processor tests -- the MH380 was tops in Multimedia Instructions, Compression and Encryption, as well as the all-important Integer and Floating Point tasks.
It all adds up to a PerformanceTest 7 score of 250.8, the best of the bunch by a wide margin. This is the system to get if overall performance is your top criterion.
The LifeBook's six-cell battery pack was able to run for 6 hours and 6 minutes on a charge -- an hour longer than the MSI Wind U135 but more than 2 hours short of the HP Mini 5102's exceptionally long battery life. The LifeBook includes Bluetooth and Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n networking; in tests, it had a range of 100 feet -- 25 feet short of the Mini 5102's wireless range.
At 1.2 by 10.6 by 7.4 in., the LifeBook is slightly wider than the other netbooks, but its rounded design makes it look smaller than it actually is. Its 2.8 lb. base weight matches that of the Mini 5102 and Wind U135; with its small AC adapter, the system weighs in at 3.1 lbs., on par with the others. Unfortunately, it lacks the carry handle and battery gauge of the Mini 5102.
The LifeBook leads the group with a 1366-by-768 resolution screen. It's the one to get if image editing and other visual tasks take up a significant part of your day. All the others have 1024-by-600 displays.
At a Glance
Fujitsu America Inc.
Pros: Top performance, hi-res screen, great design, scroll pad
Cons: High price, runs hot, narrow punctuation keys
The LifeBook's keyboard is a good one -- although I do have some reservations. Its 17.7mm keys are just big enough for comfortable typing, but the keys for the comma, period and forward slash are one-third narrower than the rest. This threw off my rhythm, and I never fully got used to the arrangement.
To the right of the small touchpad, there's a separate circular scroll pad for flying through long Web pages or documents.
I found that after 25 minutes of use, the system's right side runs hot.
In the final analysis, the $450 LifeBook MH380 is more than just another pretty face. It is worth it if you're looking for a small computer that not only looks fast but is fast.
Over the years, HP has made an art out of balancing battery life with performance, but the Mini 5102 swings too far away from processor power and toward long battery life. While the system with a four-cell battery and 160GB hard drive goes for a reasonable $400, a custom configuration that matches the others with a six-cell battery and 250GB hard drive costs $733 -- more than twice the price of the Aspire 532h.
The HP Mini had trouble keeping up with the other N450 netbooks. It was in last place in three of the eight processor categories, including Finding Prime Numbers, Multimedia Instructions and Physics, but it tied for the top score on the Integer Math and Encryption operations.
As a result, the system's CPU Mark score of 335.9 was near the cellar; only the MSI Wind U135's CPU benchmark score of 329 was lower.
Overall, the Mini 5102's PerformanceTest 7.0 score was 227.7. It was a disappointing 4% below the group average and the lowest score for the group, although the Wind U135 was close on its heels.
On the other hand, the HP Mini offers a battery life of 3 hours and 15 minutes with the standard four-cell battery and an exceptional 8 hours and 29 minutes with its optional six-cell battery. That's more than three and a half hours longer than the Wind U135, the runner-up. Plus, the HP Mini is the only one of the four with a battery gauge on the bottom so you can check how much juice remains.
While the other three N450 netbooks have a plastic case, HP goes its own way with a magnesium alloy base and aluminum screen lid. Sturdier and more durable than the others, it can be ordered in black, blue or red, and its matte finish is a stark contrast to the Fujitsu's bright and shiny aspect. A big bonus is the cool screw-on carrying handle that is available for an additional $30. It also has a handy scroll zone on the right side of its touch pad that makes it faster to scroll through long Web pages.
At a Glance
Hewlett-Packard Development Company LP
Price: $400 (with four-cell battery and 160GB hard drive); $733 (with six-cell battery and 250GB hard drive)
Pros: Metal case, long battery life, four- or six-cell battery pack, optional handle, battery level gauge
Cons: Slower performance, relatively high price
With a six-cell battery, the HP Mini weighs 2.8 lbs., slightly heavier than the Aspire One 532h. (With the four-cell battery, the weight goes down to 2.5 lbs.)
The Mini comes with a 1024-by-600 resolution display that matches those of the Aspire One 532h and Wind U135, but for $25 extra, it can be ordered with a 1366-by-768 screen that is similar to the Fujitsu's. Wireless connectivity is provided via 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi that, in tests, led the pack with a 125-foot range. The Mini also offers Bluetooth.
Although the Mini 5102 doesn't perform as well as its N450 cousins, if having a durable netbook that doesn't need to be recharged as often as the others is your goal, this is your system.
While its $330 price tag is impressive, the MSI Wind U135 disappoints on performance and battery life.
The performance of the Wind U135 mirrors that of the HP Mini 5102 with a subpar CPU Mark of 329.0, or 13% off the pace set by the Fujitsu.
The system didn't lead in any of the processor categories and brought up the rear in testing, with low scores on the Integer Math, Floating Point Math, Multimedia Instructions and String Sorting tests. Clearly, the system's processor held it back in overall performance.
The Wind U135 delivered a 228.1 PerformanceTest 7.0 score overall, just ahead of the Mini 5102's 227.7 and 10% slower than the group-leading Fujitsu netbook.
Unlike the Mini 5102, the Wind U135 doesn't make up for its performance lag with remarkable battery life. Its six-cell battery pack ran for 4 hours and 57 minutes, which, though not bad, is still three and a half hours shorter than the Mini 5102's runtime.
The system comes with both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n but had a range of only 95 feet, the shortest of the bunch and 30 feet short of the leading Mini 5102's range.
The Wind U135 is the narrowest of the four, which means it might fit into a bag more easily than the rest. At 2.8 lbs., it matches the Mini 5102 and Fujitsu LifeBook. Unfortunately, it's oddly weighted, and if you set the screen back as far it will go, the machine has a tendency to tip over.
At a Glance
MSI Computer Corp.