Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Why not all 12-inch netbooks are the same

I’ve been skeptical of 12-inch netbooks, especially as prices for real notebooks continue to fall fast. At that size, netbooks start to run up against laptops, so it’s no surprise that the PC industry is feeling its way. Acer has been selling an 11.6-inch model since May, but Asus has only just released its Eee PC 1101HA. Lenovo and Samsung both sell 12.1-inch netbooks, but Dell dumped its Mini 12 over the weekend. Dell’s Chief Blogger, Lionel Mechaca, wrote that the decision “really boils down to this: for a lot of customers, 10-inch displays are the sweet spot for netbooks.” Anything smaller is a toy; anything bigger ought to be a notebook. But after spending a couple of weeks using two 12-inch netbooks, the Lenovo IdeaPad S12 and Acer Aspire One AO751h, I’ve decided it’s not quite that simple.

The IdeaPad S12 comes closest to a true notebook in terms of features. It has the same 12.1-inch display found in most ultraportables, a full-size keyboard and a comfortable wrist-rest with a large touchpad and two discrete buttons. The 16:10 display has a resolution of 1280×800. Like its little sibling, the IdeaPad S10, this version is built around a sturdy barrel hinge and the case, which comes in black or white, has a solid, quality feel. Lenovo includes some extra software such as Quick Start, a version of DeviceVM’s Splashtop pre-boot environment, and VeriFace III, a facial recognition utility.

The strength of the IdeaPad S12 is also its weakness. It feels like a real notebook because it is about the same size and weight as an ultraportable, weighing 3.4 pounds and measuring 11.5 by 9.1 by 0.9-1.4 inches with the 6-cell battery. By comparison the ThinkPad X200s, an ultraportable with the same size display, weighs 3.2 pounds and measures 11.6 by 8.3 by 0.8-1.4 inches, also with a 6-cell battery. In other words, you get no advantage in terms of portability by choosing thisnetbook over a notebook.

You do, however, get the performance disadvantages of a netbook. Like most netbooks, the IdeaPad S12 is equipped with a 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270, Intel 945GSE chipset with GMA 950 integrated graphics, 1GB of memory, a 160GB hard drive and Windows XP. To be clear, this isn’t an issue with the IdeaPad S12–in fact, the IdeaPad S2 is even a bit faster than some netbooks (more on that below). It’s an issue with netbooks in general. I’ve previously posted performance tests results for netbooks, but the deficit is clear in day-to-day use–applications take longer to launch, Web pages load slowly and online video is hit-and-miss.

Back in May, when Lenovo announced the IdeaPad S12, it also promised a version with Nvidia’s Ion chipset–an industry first–later this summer. Several sites have reported that the Ion model has been delayed until this fall, but Lenovo declined to comment on the timing. Next month Samsung reportedly plans to release its N510 netbook with an 11.6-inch display and Nvidia’s Ion chipset. Whenever it arrives, an Ion-powered IdeaPad S12 should have better performance, though the price and battery life are still big question marks.

Though the Aspire One AO751h is technically in the same 12-inch class, it is a different beast. The 16:9 display measures 11.6 inches diagonally and has a resolution of 1366×768. The keyboard is smaller, and the wrist-rest is narrower and it has a smaller touchpad with a single button. The result is a noticeably smaller and lighter netbook. The Aspire One AO 751h measures 11.2 by 7.8 by 1.0 inches, and weighs only 3 pounds with the 6-cell battery. While it doesn’t feel quite as solid as the IdeaPad S12, the build quality still seems very good.

There’s one big catch: The Aspire One uses a different chip, the 1.33GHz Atom Z520. Intel designed this chip primarily for Mobile Internet Devices, or MIDs. Instead they’ve ended up in a handful of netbooks and subnotebooks, including the Dell Inspiron Mini 10 and Mini 12, and the Sony VAIO P series. The rest of the Aspire One’s specs are basically the same: 1GB of memory, Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics, 160GB hard drive and Windows XP.

The real difference between the IdeaPad S12 and Aspire One AO751h comes down to price. The IdeaPad S12 starts at $499. (Lenovo also sells a $429 configuration with a 1.3GHz Via Nano processor and Via graphics, which performs “quite well” against Intel’s Atom, according to CNET Reviews, but most netbook buyers opt for Atom.) The Dell Mini 12 also sold for $499, while the Samsung NC20, which has a 12.1-inch display paired with the 1.3GHz Via Nano processor, is available for $490. The Aspire One AO751h-1192, the configuration I tested, is available online for $349. The Asus 1101HA, an 11.6-inch netbook which has nearly identical specs to the Aspire One AO751h, starts at $430.

The IdeaPad S12 is one of the nicest netbooks available, but it is caught between two worlds. If you are looking for a primary PC, and you really need portability, you’ll be better off spending more for a true ultraportable. The ThinkPad X200s starts at $900 with a 12.1-inch (1280×800) display, 1.2GHz Intel Celeron M 723 processor, 1GB of memory, 160GB hard drive and Vista Home Basic. The newer low-cost, ultra-thin laptops using AMD’s Athlon Neo processor or Intel’s ULV chips are also a good alternative. Last week I mentioned an HP Pavilion dv2z configuration–2GB of memory, ATI Radeon 3410 discrete graphics with 512MB, 320GB hard drive and Vista Home Premium–that is only $100 more than the IdeaPad S12. If you are purchasing a second or third PC for e-mail and browsing on-the-go, however, the Aspire One AO751h gets the job done nicely. It is thinner, lighter and costs $150 less than competing 12.1-inch netbooks.

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