Netbook or thin & light notebook?

January 15th, 2010

I am a big fan of thin and light notebooks. I’ve been using the 9″ EeePC 901 for awhile now, almost since it first came out. I initially loved it. The keyboard, while an obstacle, wasn’t as much as I feared. The thing got insanely long battery life (5-6 hours or more typical), and was so small that my laptop bag is a “DVD player bag”.

Now for the downsides. I am getting into a time where I’m spending more time on the laptop, and I’m starting to be far more acutely aware of them. #1 is performance. Let’s face it: the 901 is just a slow machine all-around. The video performance isn’t great, and I can watch the Thunderbird interface being drawn as it loads. But the real killer is the SSD storage. It is exceptionally slow, and gets in the way of multitasking in a serious way. (Syncing mail? Kiss performance in Firefox goodbye.)

Problem #2 is the 1024×600 screen. This is becoming a serious inconvenience, as when you combine the need to do a lot of scrolling with slow scrolling performance, the result is unpleasant. Coding is pretty difficult at that size.

#3 is the keyboard size. It is OK for light-duty work, but it is getting in the way for more serious work.

So I’m looking for a replacement. I’m thinking something in the 10″ to 12″ range, thin and light, would be ideal. My main criteria are size, weight, performance, and compatibility with Debian. Durability is an added plus as it will be riding in my bicycle bag on a regular basis.

This puts me in something of a grey area: there are netbooks in that range, and then there are machines like the Macbook Air (which may actually be a bit bigger than I’d like).

I have recently been hearing good things about the EeePC 1005PE (Atom N450) and the 1201N (N270 with Nvidia Ion). The 1201N seems to beat the 1005PE in terms of performance (especially video-related), but with far less battery life. I think I could live with the slower CPU, but the 1005PE still has only 1024×600 resolution, which would be a big problem for me.

Lenovo has an IdeaPad U150 with an 11.6″ 1366×768 screen, and in the 12″ size, they’ve got various options, both Atom and Core 2 Duo. The X200 and X200s look interesting, but lack a touchpad. (The X200s appears to be their long-lasting-battery version.) The HP EliteBook 2530p also looks interesting; it has a touchpad, but is heavier and appears to have inferior battery life to the X200s.

What ideas do people have?

Categories: Hardware

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  1. Sven

    Bit OT but pushing the .mozilla directory into a ramdisk and rsyncing it back on exit is a bit error prone on crashes but speeds up Fir^Iceweasel on my similar slow SSD in an Acer Aspire One. Iceweasel and it’s constant writing to the local sqllite DBs is painfull.

    Reply

  2. yungchin

    It’s a bit confusing that you’re considering both the EeePCs and the Thinkpads and Elitebooks…. at least on this side of the Atlantic, the latter come in at about three times the price of the former. Does that mean cost-no-object? :)

    For the price of the 1201N, you might also consider something like this: http://www.notebookcheck.net/Review-Acer-Aspire-Timeline-1810TZ-Subnotebook.21322.0.html – which has a slightly more capable CPU. This guy seems to have figured out the software issues: http://forum.notebookreview.com/showthread.php?t=434638

    I guess this is the only machine in that size that sprung to mind…. I was looking for a 13” machine for my mum last month, so in that size I would know a few more… :)

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Well, not exactly that. But I’m asking not just on behalf of myself, but we also could use a good refresh of our standard 12″ notebooks at work, as well as the Eee 901. I happen to need one myself, but I could see us getting more than one model to investigate out of this process.

    I switched from a Macbook Pro to an Eee 901, so I guess I should say cost does matter, but I think all the models I’ve seen mentioned are within a reasonable range for what they are.

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  3. yungchin

    (by the way, I just noticed those Notebookcheck guys also put up tests of both those EeePCs this month, and I’ve seen an X200s there at some point too – helpful for your comparison)

    Reply

  4. Daniel

    I was considering a similar decision not long ago. I decided on one of the higher-end 10-11″ netbooks, for the following reasons:
    -Big enough to use comfortably
    -Newer atoms or low end normal cpus are much better on performance.
    -the higher resolution screen, although hard to find, should be way more usable.
    -way better battery life than a low-end notebook, and half the price.
    And if you go for a hard drive it’s cheaper and faster.

    Just my thoughts based on a little research.
    Daniel

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    Which model did you wind up with, if I might ask?

    Reply

  5. nona

    There’s also the EeePC 1201T – based on AMD Neo MV-40. I suspect both graphic and cpu performance are a bit better.

    Myself, I’m hoping Apple’s MacBook Pro 13″ will be updated soon; a Core i5 and AMD graphics would be nice – the performance would be so much better that I’d be willing to drag around the extra 2-3″ screen size.

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  6. .coder

    How about recently announced Lenovo Thinkpad x100e 11′ notebooks? Their starting price is $449.00.

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  7. .coder

    URL: http://shop.lenovo.com/us/landing_pages/thinkpad/2010/X100e

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    That does indeed sound interesting. I haven’t been able to find any reviews of it yet, but it might be worth it to wait.

    It seems that, oddly, it will have a touchpad which the X200s lacks, and yet also battery life not as good as the X200s.

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  8. vvill

    John , in this class “my thoughts are” go with the machine that is bigger than you would like….
    performance ( I think) will be much more to your liking, If I understand your post correctly,….

    If you’re need were more in the order of enbedded apps like endebian crush etc etc etc etc I would shave a difernet opinion here…the reason I follow williams and hess for pure and minimal debain is cell techology (if I can keep up wth hardware)…..
    Pink Floyd Meddle

    Reply

  9. raffaele

    I have an acer 1810tz (11.6″, intel su4100), and it is perfect. With linux (standard kubuntu 9.10 64bit) lasts at least 5 hours

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  10. Christian Perrier

    I use a Dell latitude E4200 daily.Very high-quality design and no real big problem whatsoever. We (the laptop is bought by my comany) did choose SSD hard disks, which makes the laptop much expensive, but you can opt for a standard HDD.
    12″ screen, 1280×800, great keyboard, ultra-light (1.1kg).
    Of course, this is not the price of en Eee PC..:-)

    Reply

    Saahbs Reply:

    I second the E4200! It is an awesome machine. Basically everything runs with GNU/Debian Lenny. I just needed to patch bluetooth tools to enable on-board BT (this was a year ago). 3D works with Lenny’s Xorg (intel driver) but has trouble restoring video modes when waking from suspend-to-ram (just make sure not to run compiz – which does run great, or google earth, when hibernating). The SSD is very fast, light sensitive backlight is awesome, overall great machine. The only downside is price…

    M.

    ps. Thanks for (co)authoring _the_ Haskell Book :)

    Reply

  11. Marcus

    My Acer Aspire One died in December and I got a Acer 1810TZ and actually I am happy that the Aspire One died. The 1810 has a dual core CPU which is much faster than the Atom N270. Battery life is excellent, easily 6-8 hours. The screen is a 1366×768 which is a nice step up from the 1024×600. I have put a Debian derivate (Ubuntu 9.10) on it and absolutely everything works out of the box. Sound, wifi, suspend to ram, webcam are all okay. I can fully recommend the 1810TZ.

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    Strangely, I’m having trouble finding this model available for sale. It’s on the Asus site, but most other sites are either out of stock or don’t list it at all anymore. I’m wondering if some other model replaces it.

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    Marcus Reply:

    I has been released end of last year. The Amazon.com website lists it as “available for pre-order”. By the way, there are several different versions with 250 or 320GB HDD, 3 or 4GB RAM and with or without bluetooth. I have the 250GB HDD, 4GB RAM, no bluetooth version. The HDMI port produces excellent quality on an external monitor. Far superior to the crappy output of the VGA on the Aspire One. (I am not paid by Acer ;-)

    Reply

    yungchin Reply:

    That Acer (not Asus) may be sold under the Gateway label in the US. Not sure which model it maps to, sorry.

    Reply

  12. Brian Teeman

    I used the 901 just the same as you, even down to the dvd case but in the end just like you needed something bigger/better/faster but still had great battery life

    I tried the mac air but it really isnt great value for money in the end i went with the mac book pro. The only problem is that i had to get a new bag ;) but the battery life is as good if not better than the 901

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  13. John Goerzen

    I am amazed at how small the X200s is, even with its 12″ screen. (All measures in inches and pounds)

    With a 4-cell battery, it is 2.43lb, and 11.6 x 8.3 x 0.08 – 1.1.

    With a 9-cell, which should give 8 hours or more of life, it’s 3.05lb, 11.6 x 9.2 x 0.08 – 1.4.

    The ThinkPad X100e is not much smaller than the X200s with 4-cell, measuring in at 11.1 x 8.2 x 0.8. And it’s heaver, at 3.2lb. The Eee 1202N is bigger than that, though it gets better battery life than the 1201N.

    The Acer Aspire 1810TZ is 3.1lb and 11.2 x 8.0 x 1.2 and weighs 3.1lb.

    The HP EliteBook 2530p is 11.1 x 8.44 x 0.99, so it’s actually even smaller than the X200s, though its weight starts at 3.2lb.

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    Should finish this… so the HP EliteBook 2530p is the same weight as the X100e, but gets better battery life and has a 12″ screen. It’s also only about .2in longer. It’s also roughly the same size as the Acer 1810TZ.

    The X200s, with its incredibly low weight, is very attractive, though the lack of a touchpad is a big drawback.

    Reply

    Eli L. Reply:

    Have you spent much time with a Trackpoint before?
    My current machine is an X60s. Initially I was concerned about not having a touchpad, but I ended up preferring the Trackpoint once I got over the initial learning curve; it’s very convenient not having to move your hands far from the home row. The only thing I don’t like using it for is image editing, but I find touchpads equally bad for that purpose.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Yes I’ve had more than one Thinkpad with trackpoint-only over the years. Very much annoyed me.

  14. Ketil

    I got the HP dm-1, and though I should just warn you about it: althogh the ads claim up to nine hours battery life, in reality, it’s more like four – the CULV label on the processor seems to be mostly marketing.

    In addition, the touchpad is extremely annoyingly oversenstive, and unlike my old Dell with a Synaptics unit, I haven’t found any way to adjust it. And, like all laptops, the fan noise makes me feel like I’m typing on a vacuum cleaner.

    Apart from that, it’s an okay machine, I guess.

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  15. Gregor

    I run a Toshiba A600-13Y. It’s a 12″, 1.5 kg (~3 lbs) with the battery. Battery gives ~6 hours of light usage (reading / writing with emacs). It’s all Intel, X4500HD chipset graphic, 5100 wlan chip, everything is fine on debian lenny with linux kernel 2.6.30. I did not test: fingerprint scanner, 3G modem and bluetooth. Keyboard is o.k. (irritating home/end/ins/del keys). Display is 1280×800, non-reflective, led backlight is quite bright: outdoor usable when the sun is shining, colors are very faint. It’s only half a year old and all is o.k. but I think “durability” is not the right word to describe it. I carry it in a rucksack on my back when riding a bike cause I’m afraid it would not withstand the vibrations. The spec say: up to 10G shock, 10G vibration (not in operation); 0,25G vibration (inoperation). I have no clue about the acceleration of the vibration on a bumpy road… Ah and it’s a 930 Core 2 Duo CPU.

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    Gregor Reply:

    o.k. nonsens. Spec says: 60 G shock / 1 G vibrations (non working); 10 G shock, 0.25 G vibration (in operation). I assume 1 G vibrations are really common on a bike.

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  16. vvv

    Here is nice review of Acer Aspire 1810TZ:
    [http://www.reghardware.co.uk/2009/11/27/review_notebook_acer_aspire_1810tz/]
    I am myself aiming at it.

    It’s a very interesting discussion you’ve started, thanks!

    Reply

  17. Matthew

    How about the recently released Dell Inspiron 11z? The display is 1366 x 768, and I’d imagine it’ll work OK with Debian derivatives considering Dell offer Ubuntu on some computers (although this doesn’t seem to be one of them).

    Reply

  18. Lars Wirzenius

    John, I have a Thinkpad X200s with the 9-cell battery. I am only getting 3-4 hours of battery time, not 8+. I don’t know why (haven’t bothered to investigate much), but I suspect Linux and/or Ubuntu is not doing as well power management-wise as the reference platform.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Wow, that’s a real bummer. That looked like such a fantastic machine.

    Reply

    Lars Wirzenius Reply:

    John, I have no idea actually if the reference platform really gets 8+ hours, but I guess I should see what I can do to improve battery life on mine under Linux. If only I wasn’t lazy…

    Reply

    Eli L. Reply:

    In my experience with an X60s, default Linux installs aren’t the most power conscious. It might have changed somewhat over the past few years, especially with the netbooks, but when I first got the machine (2-3 years ago) and put Linux on it I was seeing around 2 hours of battery life. After tinkering, I get around 6 now, which is good given the battery’s age.
    You will probably have a shorter battery life than if you ran Windows, but it shouldn’t be as bad as you mentioned. Powertop is an excellent tool to point out easy changes you can make to increase battery life and to help you pin down applications that are generating wake-ups. Using it I can see my power usage go from 20+ watts to ~9 watts.

  19. Terah

    Did someone just seriously suggest that John should get a Dell?!? Now that’s funny stuff!

    Reply

  20. Scott

    If you don’t mind something used, I have a Fujitsu Lifebook P7120, and I love it. I bought it used on eBay a couple years ago. It’s got a 10″ 1280×768 screen (with an LED backlight). It also has a drive bay that can double as a second battery. With that and the 6-cell battery, you can get hours and hours of usage. One of the biggest advantages is that it’s FANLESS. I hate notebook fans. The noise drives me crazy. This is totally quiet. It’s also one less thing that can break. Plus the innards don’t get dusty. I’ve read the performance is comparable to 1.6 GHz Atoms (it’s a ULV 1.2 GHz Pentium M), as it has 2MB cache. I am waiting for an SSD to replace the slow 1.8″ drive. The keyboard layout is a little weak. Other than the mic, it works perfectly in Linux. It seems like a pretty durable little machine.

    Reply

  21. Shin-Cheng Mu

    I am using a first generation MacBook Air and, overall, I am happy with it. It’s efficient enough for some heavy jobs (typechecking using Agda, for example). Silverlight video was a bit lagging, which I suspect was due to the slow hard disk. Battery time is like ordinary notebooks, with a disadvantage that you cannot swap to a backup battery.

    If there is any chance you’d consider a MBA, I’d recommend getting one with SSD. If possible, try to get hold of a model to play some video to examine its performance.

    You’ll have to do some hacking to install Debian on it. I’m happy with OS X, as most of the Haskell stuffs I need are ported to OS X.

    Reply

  22. Emmet Hikory

    I’ve been a fan of the Panasonic laptops for some time. They tend to have real resolutions, yet still be very small and light. Debian tends to work fine, although this is in part because Panasonic is conservative about releasing new hardware so the kernel has time to catch up (son don’t expect the fanciest new processor or module). The R series is probably the snallest/lightest, but still 1024×768 and a reasonable processor. At the high end, the Y series (only available from Panasonic business sales now) is 1400×1050 and still only 1400g. Battery life runs from 6-14 hours, depending on the model.

    Reply

  23. mirabilos

    I am now using an IBM X40, which is 12″ and rather decent, except for the position of its Esc key, and that there’s no winkey but two other “weird” keys. It supports APM as well as ACPI, and the hardware should be working 100% on Debian (except for the SD/MMC slot and the Intel WLAN, it works on MirBSD even!). It’s decently fast.

    Downside: the hard disc. It will eventually die, or so I heard. It’s 1.6″ and a wrong-gender connection. On the other hand, there are special-made CF adapters for this model and large-enough CF cards which should be even faster (although, as my HDD didn’t die yet, I don’t have one yet either).

    In fact, it’s so light I’m exclusively using it with the docking station.

    The placement of some of the connections on both right and left side, instead of back, can be annoying when you want to use it 90° turned while lying down, but few people do so ☺ and the docking station helps there too.

    Reply

  24. John Goerzen

    I’ve been looking at the Acer 1810TZ that many have recommended, and it looks like a great laptop except for one thing: the glossy screen. I have never understood why people like those, and as notebookcheck pointed out, renders it completely unusable outdoors and a good chance of being annoying indoors. Any of you that have one have feedback on the screen?

    On another toppic, SSD on my Eee 901 was terribly slow, but I see some people opting for SSD for performance. Is that a myth or has SSD come a long way since the 901?

    Reply

    Eli L. Reply:

    It depends entirely on the type of SSD. I have one with an Indilinx chipset and love it; it’s night and day compared to the 5200rpm harddrive that it replaced.

    These are long articles, but well-worth the read:
    http://www.anandtech.com/storage/showdoc.aspx?i=3531&p=1
    http://anandtech.com/storage/showdoc.aspx?i=3631

    Reply

  25. Adam

    One word of advice: Stay away from the Intel GMA500 (“Poulsbo”) chipset.

    Reply

  26. Netbook / Notebook Update | The Changelog

    […] days ago, I posted about looking for a new netbook or notebook, and asked for people’s advice. Since then, I’ve done some investigation based on these […]

  27. Björn Buckwalter

    If you haven’t written off netbooks yet the HP Mini 5102 looks like a very solid choice (http://www.laptopmag.com/review/laptops/hp-min-5102.aspx). Has options for battery, screen resolution, and even touch screen (for those three year olds that haven’t quite figured out trackpads yet), but I imagine it gets pricey somewhere around there. Probably my first choice if I would replace my Eee PC 900HA today.

    Reply

  28. solrize

    I have a Thinkpad X40 too. Yes the hard discs crap out, I had two of them fail. The good news is that you can now get solid state replacements, which are silent, use less power, and are a hell of a lot faster. I now have a 60GB KingSpec SSD in my X40 (cost about $200 a few months ago, so sort of barely cost-effective considering the X40’s current low value). Anyway I really like these small Thinkpads much better than netbooks. I like the trackpoint button too, and you can always get a cordless mouse. I hate touchpads.

    I’ve been wanting an X200s for a while, or alternatively have been interested in the X100e which is a bit smaller and fits in my belt pack nicely. For use at home I have a full sized laptop, so maximizing the power of my ultraportable isn’t so important. I can do Haskell development nicely on the X40.

    Of course for really tiny, there’s the Nokia N900… I’ve been drooling over that but can’t really justify it financially.

    Reply

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