For our Battlemodo, we decided to look only at netbooks powered by Intel's Pine Trail (Atom N450) processor.
updated 3/24/2010 9:05:35 AM ET 2010-03-24T13:05:35

If you're in the market for a netbook — the gimpy kittens of the laptop jungle — know this first: on the inside, they're all basically the same, making the little differences all the more important! And yes, they do add up.

For our Battlemodo, we decided to look only at netbooks powered by Intel's Pine Trail (Atom N450) processor. Netbooks sporting older processors are a bit cheaper, but they're also a little slower and don't achieve the same impressive battery life as Pine Trail. And they've been reviewed to death elsewhere.

Netbooks with an Ion GPU are also available, but they've got their own baggage. First: they're around $50 more expensive than non-Ion models. Second: they're not available yet on Pine Trail. So you can either settle for an older processor with Ion and take a battery life and performance hit, or wait until the first Pine Trail-compatible netbook — the Acer Aspire One 532G — comes out later this year and pay the premium. Once you're spending $500+ on a netbook, though, you may as well step up to a full-function ultraportable.

So: Pine Trail netbooks it is. Usually we put the benchmarks off until the end, but in this case it's worth highlighting up front just how comparable these machines are inside:  Peas in an underwhelming pod. Which is why when you're even considering a netbook, it's vital to pay outsized attention to design, display, keyboard, and all the extras that'll ultimately inform your experience.

The results
I'll say this as many times as I have to: netbooks are a sea of sameness. And it's a shame that even the ones that stand out come with some significant caveats.

The winner (If you need affordable HD now): Dell Inspiron Mini 10

Price: $425

The Dell Mini 10 is a little bulkier than the other contenders, but I'm happy to trade a little weight for the sturdier build. The glossy red top was a welcome splash of color without looking cheap. And where most netbook batteries stick out the back end or bottom like oblong tumors, the Mini's is safely tucked away in the bottom deck. The result? A small form laptop with a big boy design. The Mini 10 was also the easiest to type on, with flush and raised keys leaving me pleasantly hand-cramp-free compared to the island-style netbook keyboards.

Most important, Dell (along with HP) has managed to mitigate the netbook HD problem by throwing Broadcom's Crystal HD accelerator into the mix. It won't offer the full 3D graphic support of Ion, and you'll have to download Adobe's Flash 10.1 beta 3 for the full effect, but once I did I was able to reliably stream 1080p video off of YouTube, as well as full-screen HD content from Hulu. it's your best bet until Pine Trail Ion 2 netbooks start popping up later this year.

Here's the catch: the trackpad is bad. Really, truly, frustratingly bad. Not so bad as to be unusable, but it's too small and the integrated buttons respond clumsily.

Runner up: HP Mini 210 HD Edition

Price: $465

Admittedly, this was a close call. The HP Mini 210 has a similarly solid feel to it, and handles HD video almost as well as the Dell. But in the two areas that are arguably most critical to a netbook experience—battery life and price—the Mini came up way short. Unlike other manufacturers who include a 6-cell battery as standard, HP offers theirs as an $80 add-on, driving up the price of a usable configuration. Not that it did much good: the Mini 210 fared worst of all in our battery test, lasting only 4:09.

The winner (If you don't care about HD): Acer Aspire One 532h

Price: $350

If you don't consider watching HD clips on your netbook an integral part of the experience, congratulations! You're going to be able to save yourself a good chunk of cash and walk away with an otherwise comparable user experience. The Acer Aspire One 532h has a sleek design and performs at least on par with the Dell and HP in almost every other respect. It had the best battery life of the bunch, it's wafer-thin and extremely light, and has a raised trackpad that's actually enjoyable to use.

The main drawback to the Acer is its keyboard. Although I like the larger buttons, there's a certain amount of give in the middle that makes an otherwise crisp design feel cheap. The glossy top is also prone to smudging in a way that the other models manage to avoid. Otherwise, though, it performs as well as the extremely capable Toshiba NB305—for $50 less.

Runner Up: Toshiba NB305

Price: $400

The Toshiba stands out as being good at everything, but not great at anything. And if it were a bit cheaper, it'd be my pick here. But paying $400 for a computer with an Atom processor that doesn't play HD seems like a tough sell, especially when for just a few more bucks you can step up to the Dell.

Battery life was tested by running each laptop on moderate performance settings, three-quarters screen brightness, and refreshing a page in Firefox every thirty seconds to simulate active browsing.

Verdict: Buy what's cheap
I wish there were a clear-cut winner. I wish Pine Trail had more to offer. I wish Sony weren't charging $480 for their incredibly subpar Vaio W Eco edition. But hey, that's just netbooks.

It's an interesting dilemma. There's clearly value in an affordable computer you can carry around for basic tasks, but is this really the best we can do? And the more triage we do on netbook guts to increase usability — be it Ion graphics or Broadcom HD accelerators — the more expensive they get, and the less apparent that value proposition becomes. And who knows? Maybe netbooks themselves have never been more than a patch. Maybe what we've really wanted all along are tablets and smartbooks.

For now, though: find the cheapest netbook you can that does what you need. If that means HD, go for the Dell. If not, the Acer's your pick, or even an older, discounted model, if you don't see yourself needing maxed-out battery life. It's purely a commodity purchase: treat it like one, and you'll be fine.

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