Tale of the Tape
Battery life: Superior (6 to 10 hours)
Weight: Very small and light (under 4 pounds)
Cost: Low ($300 to $500)
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Battery life: Good (4 to 6 hours)
Weight: Lightweight (3 to 5 pounds)
Cost: Varies ($500 to $1000)
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Netbooks: Pros and Cons
Portability is crucial to a netbook. Small and light with super battery life, netbooks (like HP's Mini 210, above) are meant to get you online when you're on the go. Most have one of Intel's Atom CPUs, which are more energy-efficient but far less powerful than the processors that larger laptops use. This is fine for checking e-mail, visiting Facebook, and tweaking business documents. Digital video and 3D gaming are not their forte.
With diagonal screen sizes of 9 to 11 inches, they offer limited resolution, so forget photo or video editing, large spreadsheets, or any other work that requires a fair amount of desktop real estate. The good news is that a small screen and an anemic CPU mean lots of battery life; a good netbook will run more than 6 hours between charges, and some models last almost 10 hours.
Think of netbooks as companion devices--something you'll pull out on the plane or in the classroom, or use to surf the Web from the comfort of a couch. Most models start at about $300; optional extras can increase the price to $500 or so.
Ultraportables: Pros and Cons
Netbooks may be popular, but their low-power processors and tiny screens can make them hard to work with. Ultraportables (like the Dell Vostro V13, above) have larger screens--11 to 14 inches--and slightly more powerful CPUs. This shortens battery life, but an ultraportable will still outlast an all-purpose laptop; expect 4 to 6 hours of uptime. An ultraportable's (usually) integrated graphics are a step up from a netbook's, delivering smooth video playback and even some basic 3D games.
Pricing varies widely. Some ultraportables resemble large netbooks, with cramped keyboards and 11-inch screens, and may cost just a couple hundred bucks more than a netbook. Others are stylish and superthin, with bigger screens and full-size keyboards; they can set you back a pretty penny. But new ultra-low-voltage CPUs for ultraportables are certainly more capable than the Atom CPUs in netbooks.
If you plan to use your laptop on the go quite a bit, but can't abide the limited power and screen size of a netbook, you should look for a laptop in the ultraportable category.
Ultraportables are probably the better choice for most users--you won't be so frustrated by slow-running apps.
Note: For more information on notebooks, see our buying guides and charts (under "Before You Buy") at our Laptop Products Center.
Next: Contenders (Netbooks vs. Ultraportables)