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June 17, 2009

Top 6 Things to Consider Before Buying a Small Notebook PC

With small notebook PCs (sometimes called netbook PCs) now accounting for about 10% of PC sales worldwide (up to 20% of PC sales in some geographies according to leading retail sales analysts), I’m starting to get more and more questions about what a buyer should look into as he or she is shopping for a small notebook PC.

Ultimately, it depends on how you need to use your small notebook PC. While a small percentage of people are choosing to use these devices as their only computer, most are finding them better suited as a “companion PC” to a traditional desktop or notebook (for example, I use my Dell Mini 9 as a “companion PC” to my desktop PCs at work and at home). They are great for staying more conveniently connected on-the-go (for example: browsing the web on the train home from work, sending email from a coffee shop, or just getting office and/or personal tasks done).

There’s a small notebook PC out there for everyone depending on budget and hardware needs – but sometimes the different choices can get a little overwhelming.

To help out, I’ve pulled together a “checklist” of basic questions that you’ll want to think about before handing the cashier your credit card:

1. Is it easy to use?

This question may seem obvious, but when you think about it, it’s probably the most important one on this list. How are you going to be using your small notebook PC? Are you using this as a companion to your primary desktop or laptop PC? If so, then you’ll want it to have the same interface and experience as your primary machine so you can seamlessly move back and forth without any confusion or hassle and easily transfer and share files between your computers. You’ll also want to be sure that it can easily connect to a wireless or 3G broadband network so you can instantly get online wherever you are. And of course, make sure that there’s a built in tool, like Windows Instant Search, to help you instantly find your, music, photos and files…after all, your computer isn’t very handy if you can’t find your stuff on it!

2. Will it work with my stuff?

Think about what software you expect to use on your small notebook PC. Check for compatibility with your cameras, printers, music players, webcams, and anything else that you expect to connect, such as a GPS unit or mobile phone. Windows supports nearly 3,000 printers, over 700 digital cameras, 240 webcams, and 180 digital video cameras, as well as hundreds of more specialized devices. It also runs more than 10,000 applications, and it’s the only OS that runs Microsoft Office, iTunes and Quicken. This means that whatever it is you use, chances are it works with Windows. It’s also a good idea to make sure that your computer works with free, easy to use tools for email, blogging, chatting, working with photos and movies, online storage, and syncing your stuff between your PCs. I use Windows Live Essentials and Windows Live SkyDrive to do these things on my computers.

3. Is it the right size?

While screen and keyboard size are personal decisions, I can tell you that many of today’s small notebook PCs come with 9” or 10” screens for a good reason. Machines this size offer a better balance between lightweight portability, having a screen big enough to be productive with more than one window at once, and a keyboard that’s comfortable enough for most people’s hands. My Dell Mini 9 has a 8.9” screen. The size doesn’t bother me much but if I were to go out and buy another small notebook PC, I would likely go with a 10” screen. If you find that even 10” is still too small for you though, there are a number of larger but still lightweight notebooks at pretty affordable prices that may work better for your needs over a small notebook PC. If you do decide to go that route, check out the Windows Laptop Scout, which will help you find exactly the right machine for your needs.

4. Does it have the hardware horsepower I need?

When it comes to hardware, there are four key areas to consider – screen & keyboard size, processor speed, RAM, and storage. Screen and keyboard size we covered earlier, but in terms of the processor, look for a machine with at least a 1GHz CPU, and for RAM, get at least 1GB. 1GB of RAM is what my machine came with, but I added another 1GB to it for an extra performance boost. Many models allow you to add at least an extra stick of memory. If you buy a small notebook PC and want to give it more power down the road, having this ability is quite nice.

Storage is largely a personal call, and how much you need really depends on what you expect to do with your small notebook PC. If you want to put your pictures and music on it, then you probably want a 120GB or larger Hard Disk Drive. If you’re just looking to do basic email and web browsing, you might go for a smaller Solid State Drive (typically, these are 8-32GB). SSDs often run cooler and quieter, and may use less power, which means they can potentially get you a bit of boost in battery life. My Dell Mini 9 came with a 16GB SSD, but I found that it wasn’t enough space for me so I replaced it with a 32GB SSD. I also purchased a 320GB My Passport Essential from Western Digital I carry around with me everywhere as well for the added storage.

I recommend checking out CNET’s reviews, as well as the great information, reviews and tips on Liliputing to help you find a small notebook PC with exactly the specs you want.

5. Will I be safe online?

You’re probably going to be online quite a bit, so you’ll want to make sure you can browse, chat, and share safely. Key security features to look for in both your OS and browser are comprehensive phishing and Cross-Site Scripting filters along with ClickJacking protection to help guard against identity theft, built-in spyware and malware protection, comprehensive parental controls, a built-in firewall, and a private browsing model. As an FYI – Internet Explorer 8 in combination with Windows Live Family Safety can do all these things for you.

6. What level of support do I need?

Making sure that you can get the right kind of support when you need it is critical. It’s a good idea to get a small notebook PC that has built-in features to keep your gear up and running, such as automatic self-diagnosing tools and a comprehensive built-in system to help you automatically get security, OS and software updates, without having to track them down yourself and manually install them 1-by-1. When you do run into a need for assistance, you’ll also be better off with multiple support options including online resources, a call-in tech support center, or in-person help at a repair shop or retailer.

Hopefully, if you’re on the market for a new small notebook PC this checklist of questions will come in handy in helping you with your buying decision!

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