Group test: Linux netbooks

Group Test

Netbooks may be on the cheaper side of computing, but as we're all watching our pennies now, making the right choice is essential. We've brought together all the netbooks we could get hold of - most of which are bundled with Linux - for a comprehensive test. We're looking at:

  • Performance All but one of the netbooks are based on the Intel Atom 1.6GHz CPU and 945GME graphics chip. But other components come into play, especially the storage and the wireless reception strength, so we're putting particular focus on these aspects.
  • Usability The most important aspect of a netbook. It doesn't matter if it looks wonderful if the keyboard is far too cramped, or the trackpad is rubbish.
  • Build quality You shouldn't need to baby your netbook. You want to chuck it in your bag, use it everywhere and not worry about it taking a bump or two.

To find out how each of our eight netbooks fared, read on!

In order to make our benchmarks fair, and because we know that most regular Linux users prefer to install their own distro, we'll install Ubuntu 9.04 Netbook Remix on each machine that supports it. Let's get started then...

Acer Aspire One A110

Price: £139

Web: www.acer.co.uk

Recommended for: Budget netbook shoppers, internet-only use.

Not recommended for: Gaming, demanding tasks.

Outside of the Eee series, the Aspire One models from Acer are the best-known netbooks on the market. Currently two models of the 110 range are available, one featuring flash (SSD) storage and the other a more traditional hard drive. Here we're looking at the 8GB SSD model, which has recently dropped to an extremely tempting price point - if you look around online you'll find it for a recession-mocking £139.

Cosmetically Acer has made a big deal with curves on the Aspire One. The lid and underside bend neatly to a point, and on opening the machine you're greeted with a bulbous section beneath the screen, housing status lights and the battery. There's a very visible gap between the hinges that hold the screen on to the body of the machine, giving an initial impression of weakness. However, the Aspire One is generally very sturdy with only a little flex in the screen.

And that screen is glossy all the way. Whether this is a big deal to you is a matter of personal choice, but some users simply hate glossy screens. Position yourself incorrectly and you'll have all manner of light sources glaring back at you, obscuring the stuff on your screen, which isn't too difficult to fix in an office/home environment - but outside, you can't get rid of the big flaming orange thing in the sky. Conversely, colours are strong and bold, and it's an excellent display given the price of the machine.

The Acer Aspire One A110 with a hard drive is a tad bit thicker and a lot more expensive than the SSD version on test here.

The model with a hard drive is a tad bit thicker and a lot more expensive than the SSD version on test here.

Port plethora

The left-hand side holds an SD card slot, USB port, Ethernet port and VGA out, while the right side has an extra pair of USB ports, another SD card slot, the Kensington security socket and headphone/microphone ports. On top, the keyboard is great - good-size keys, a chunky Enter button and great overall feel. The cursor keys are a bit small, but at least there are dedicated Page Up/Down buttons.

We're not so chuffed with the trackpad though: it's very small, and to salvage space Acer's designers have positioned the click buttons on either side of the trackpad. Now, you can retrain your muscle memory to deal with this, but we still prefer the normal layout.

On the software side, the Aspire One is bundled with Linpus Linux Lite, a Fedora-based distro that's supplied with the apps you'd expect - Firefox, OpenOffice.org etc. It's a decent distro with a great boot time (22 seconds), but quite locked-down and dated, so many users opt for a 'full' distro instead. Ubuntu 9.04 Netbook Remix runs very well, with Wi-Fi, webcam and sound working out of the box.

There's one let-down though, and it's the SSD performance. It's cripplingly slow at times, especially when writing data. Linux (like any modern OS) builds up file write operations to save in one big batch, and on the Aspire One this manifests itself as annoying intermittent lock-ups. Just switching categories in the Ubuntu Netbook interface took 11 seconds at one point while we were using it because the SSD had some activity to finish.

Ultimately, this isn't a problem if most of your work is online: it's a great little web-browsing machine and handles YouTube with ease. The fan kicks in quite a lot and the speakers are tinny, but that's not a concern at this price. If you plan to do work on the go, though, or play games, you'll find the stuttering SD very painful - and with the hard drive model's price tag around the £220 mark, it's not so much of a bargain. In that case you'll want to consider the others on test here, such as the Eee PC.

Our verdict: Outstanding value and great for mobile internet use, although the slow SSD is horribly frustrating. 7/10.

Asus Eee PC 1000

Price: £249 (Amazon)

Web: www.asus.co.uk

Recommended for: People looking for usability close to that of a full-size laptop

Not recommended for: Anyone looking for all-out portability

Here's the big one, in two senses of the word. Not only is Asus the best-known name in the netbook world, with a bewildering range of models on the market, this particular Eee 1000 is also the biggest machine in this test. It's almost approaching a regular laptop in size terms, and it's pretty heavy at just under 1.3kg too. So that's the most important thing to consider: if maximum portability is what you're seeking in a netbook, the Eee 1000 isn't for you - have a look at our reviews of the Toshiba and the Dell Mini.

With the Eee's chunkiness, though, comes a very convincing build quality. Plastics don't creak when pressed hard, the screen is very rigid and almost impossible to flex, and the keyboard doesn't rattle around either. Asus's original 701 model was more than capable of taking a few knocks, so we're glad to see that the company has maintained the focus on a solid design. Part of the weight comes from the whopping standard six-cell battery that also raises the thickness of the unit - Asus claims up to seven hours battery life, and we'd say that's not far off as long as you're not pummelling the CPU.

Prepare to celebrate if you hate glossy screens: the 1000's is matte. Nonetheless, the colours are vivid, the image razor sharp and it's one of the best screens in this test. It has a 1.3MP webcam, while on the top-side of the keyboard there are buttons for switching video modes (ie to a separate display), launching Skype and changing the performance level. We're mostly thumbs-up with the 1000's keyboard - a great size, huge Enter key and full-size cursor keys. The only let-down is the small, rattly right-hand Shift key.

Given the dimensions of the machine, Asus has been able to plop on a satisfyingly large trackpad with big buttons to top it off. Its behaves rather strangely in the default Xandros Linux distro; it's quite floaty, as if the pointer moves a few pixels further when you release your finger. This is something that our friends on sister mag PC Format have seen with their own Eee, too, so we know it's not limited to our review model.

The Asus Eee PC 1000 shows the range is still going strong, and now comes in several varieties.

The proto netbook is still going strong, and now comes in several varieties.

The usual suspects

On the left is the Kensington lock, Ethernet jack, air intake, USB port and headphone/microphone jacks, while the right-hand side is home to the power port, SD/MMC card slot, VGA out and two more USB ports. As mentioned, the Eee is supplied with Xandros Linux sporting bold and chunky desktop icons. It's a pretty friendly Linux flavour for newcomers, but the stock software selection is woefully dated (Firefox 2!?) and the update manager entertainingly crashed when we tried to check if there was anything new.

As expected, Ubuntu ran well, though it didn't detect the built-in Bluetooth module. The 40GB of SSD drive storage in our machine was split across two drives, one of 8GB and the other of 32GB - we installed Ubuntu on the 8GB drive for our benchmarking. Given the Eee's size, we'd expect there to be plenty of room inside for good CPU ventilation, but annoyingly the fan kicked in a lot in our tests, and has quite a loud sound too. A bit of a shame, as otherwise it's a great experience.

Our verdict: Big and heavy, yet great value, superb battery life and the closest thing to the usability of a laptop. 9/10.

Other netbook distros

While Ubuntu Netbook Remix is the most prominent netbook-focused distro, there are plenty of others. Mandriva has made a push towards wider netbook compatibility in recent releases, while Debian has a stash of info at http://wiki.debian.org/DebianEeePC. Some others to look out for:

Foresight Linux Mobile shares the same front-end as Ubuntu Netbook Remix.

Foresight Linux Mobile shares the same front-end as Ubuntu Netbook Remix.

Dell Mini 9

Price: £228

Web: www.dell.co.uk

Recommended for: Portability and silence seekers

Not recommended for: Unretrainable Fx key users

Can a netbook really be silent? Well, the Mini 9 doesn't include a hard drive and it's also entirely passively cooled. This is quite a feat given that it has the same CPU as the Eee 1000, and that laptop is a loud beast at times. Still, the downside to this is that the machine gets quite hot underneath when the CPU is stressed.

The Mini 9 is not adorned with extra fancy metal rims like the Eee or Aspire One. The top of the lid is a haven for fingerprints, while the screen is highly glossy and reflective, which may give you some grief if you're working outdoors. On the left-hand side you'll find the Kensington lock, power plug, two USB ports and the SD/MMC card slot; the right side is home to the headphone/microphone jack, another USB port, a surprisingly small air vent, VGA out and Ethernet.

Dell has made some brave decisions here, most notably removing the Fx keys from their usual habitat of the top of the keyboard. Instead you have to press Fn+A to the semicolon key on the keyboard, which requires some mental retraining.

The Dell Mini 9 is nicely portable, though this has taken its toll on the size of the keyboard.

The Dell Mini 9 is nicely portable, though this has taken its toll on the size of the keyboard.

Another oddity is the right-hand Shift key, which is two keys in from the left, past the back tick (`) key and up cursor key. But these things aside, the keyboard is quiet and robust, with keys of the same width as those on the Toshiba NB100, but with extra height that makes it considerably more usable. The trackpad is good too, reaching right up to the keyboard.

Dell ships the Mini 9 with Ubuntu 8.04 LTS, and Netbook Remix 9.04 ran like a charm on the machine, with the snappy SSD giving it the second-fastest boot time in our benchmarks.

Battery life is good too, though the Wi-Fi reception was the second worst of the bunch, reporting only a 40% signal strength where others would get 70% upwards. Still, for £228 it's good value, and you can knock that down to £199 if you omit the webcam.

Our verdict: A well-designed, silent machine with a fast SSD, but with poor Wi-Fi reception and a cramped keyboard. 8/10.

LG X110

Price: £284 - Windows only!

Web: http://uk.lge.com

Recommended for: Power users, Windows dual-booters

Not recommended for: Anyone who doesn't want to give Microsoft money

Where many of the machines in this test opt for mean-looking black and blue shades for their keyboards and cases, this LG mixes up soft shades of white and silver. The lid is very understated: it's almost entirely white, save for a small LG logo on the cover.

On the hardware side, it's very clear that the X110 is a rebadged MSI Wind (reviewed later), with an almost identical port layout and the same huge air vent on the left-hand side. But there has been more effort on the appearance: whereas the Wind's headphone and mic jacks are marked with the usual green and red rings, on the X110 they retain the colouring of the case. Additionally, the X110's VGA port is black rather than blue, further enhancing the professional looks.

We'd upgrade the battery, but otherwise the LG X110 performs well.

We'd upgrade the battery, but otherwise the LG X110 performs well.

The biggest differences between the X110 and the Wind are in the keyboard and build quality. The X110's is superb, quiet and with all the keys in their expected places - note that the cursor keys are not full-sized though. And while the X110's hinge is a bit weaker than, for instance, the Eee or IdeaPad, the rest of the unit feels very tough, with a better choice of materials than the Wind. Our review unit came with a three-cell battery that performed poorly in the tests (page 46) - we recommend splashing out an extra £35 on a six-cell version.

Despite the similarities in hardware, the X110 has a different wireless chip and no Bluetooth. We're not going to dwell on this machine for too long though, simply because it's only available with Windows. If you regularly use Microsoft's OS and want to have a dual-booting netbook, it's brilliant - very well designed and a good performer. If you've got no use for Windows but like the other aspects of the machine, consider the mostly-similar Wind.

Our verdict: An attractive, powerful, quiet and robust machine if you need to dual-boot with Microsoft Windows. 8/10.

Elonex ONEt

Price: £119

Web: www.elonex.com

Recommended for: Kids, hackers who hate x86

Not recommended for: Anyone else

Even if you've never heard of the Elonex ONEt before, you've probably seen it in a different incarnation. You see, in China there's a gigantic factory pumping out netbooks with mildly varying designs but identical specs: 400MHz CPU, 128MB RAM and 1 or 2GB of flash storage. You'll see it in Maplin as the Minibook, or elsewhere as the Skytone Alpha 400.

Elonex offers the ONEt in a trio of colours - black, green and pink - and right from the first time you pick it up, you know that it's tough. The firm frame and thick plastic make the ONEt feel satisfyingly robust. It's the smallest netbook on test here, just a smidgen narrower than the Toshiba, and this becomes a problem with the keyboard (especially the tiny cursor keys) and the nanoscopic trackpad. To conserve space, the latter has buttons on each side a la the Acer Aspire One.

On the right-hand side is a pair of USB ports, while the left-hand side holds an SD card slot, headphone jack and microphone input port. Round the back is another USB port, an Ethernet port and the power socket - in all, not a bad range of pluggable holes given the low price.

So far, so good-ish: it's tough and well equipped. What about the software? Well, the ONEt is unique in this roundup in that it doesn't have an x86-compatible CPU. While all other netbooks are theoretically capable of running any PC OS from Windows 3.1 to Fedora 11, the ONEt and its brethren use a CPU based on the XBurst architecture. XBurst is a variant of MIPS, the CPU family famously used by SGI in its beefy-looking Indy and Octane workstations.

Generic Linux distros and PC operating systems are a no-go on the ONEt then, which may dissuade some buyers. But far more problematic is the processing power. The XBurst chip simply lacks the muscle for non-trivial internet tasks, stuttering painfully on websites like BBC News and freezing up completely with heavy JavaScript (such as Google Mail).

The Elonex ONEt squeezes an impressive amount of juice from its two-cell battery.

The ONEt squeezes an impressive amount of juice from its two-cell battery.

Limp software

This isn't helped by the software. The ONEt is supplied with a bespoke CELinux-based distro that includes Firefox 2 and therefore its sluggish JavaScript engine, and official Flash isn't an option here, due to the MIPS core. The tabbed interface provides access to AbiWord, Gnumeric, four games (including Pengupop) and a locked-down file manager that makes sure you don't touch anything outside your home directory.

There's also a media player that helpfully flashes up the max recommended specs when you start it (350x288 resolution at 128kbps). Power management is almost entirely absent - there's just a "bettery" meter, and the screen backlight doesn't switch off when you close the lid.

There are a few add-ons at www.littlelinuxlaptop.com, along with a community-built distro called 3MX, which is pretty cool in a geeky kind of way, but you'll still only want to run Dillo for web browsing. Still, 3MX is proper Linux and gives you a sense of control back.

Overall, the ONEt is sorely insufficient in the "mobile lifestyle" category; it's really awkward to use for web browsing. If Elonex dropped the price to £69 and crammed it with education software such as GCompris and KGeography, it'd be perfect for kids. But unless you've got a hankering to play around with a portable MIPS box, it's simply far too underpowered and not good value.

Our verdict: It might keep the kids busy for a bit of time, but otherwise the £20 extra for an Aspire One is completely worth it. 3/10.

Microsoft's market share

At the start of April, Microsoft proudly announced on its Windows Blog that it had snapped up 96% of the netbook operating system market (http://tinyurl.com/msnetbookshare). As Linux fans we all find that a little bit worrying - Canonical posted a good response (http://blog.canonical.com/?p=151) but there's no doubt that Linux is being sidelined in some parts of the market, as seen by the Windows-only netbooks in this test.

One intrepid member of Team LXF was in PC World a couple of months ago, and overheard the sales lady telling a netbook-seeking couple that "you don't want this because it's Linux and it won't run your software". Now, perhaps the couple had explicitly stated that they wanted a Windows netbook from the start, and her guidance was spot-on. But we wonder if shops and sales staff around the world aren't even giving Linux a proper chance - and, of course, if you sell a Windows netbook then you can also sell "security suites" and all sorts of other crack-over-papering add-ons...

Lenovo IdeaPad S10e

Price: £289 (three-cell battery version)

Web: www.lenovo.com/uk/en

Recommended for: Pro users who need an ExpressCard slot

Not recommended for: People working in quiet environments, thanks to the ultra-clicky trackpad buttons!

Lenovo isn't a household name when it comes to computers, but in business circles the company is well respected for its robust line of ThinkPad laptops (previously produced for IBM). Consequently, you won't find Ubuntu or Mandriva on its IdeaPad netbooks - the only option is SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop. Lenovo shipped our review unit with Windows XP, but thankfully there was some quality Splashtop action to show the world how much Linux rocks, and straight away we installed Ubuntu Netbook Remix.

From a visual standpoint, the IdeaPad looks exactly like a normal, boxy business laptop that's been zapped with a shrinking ray. That's not to say it looks bad - far from it. But it doesn't have the curves and bends of the others on test here, and looks very serious from the off. We're not convinced about the usability aspects though. The keyboard is decently sized with full cursor keys, but it's quite rattly and the right-hand Shift key is the same size as the other keys, which isn't pleasant to work with (especially after the monster key on the Aspire One and MSI Wind.

The Lenovo IdeaPad S10e is what happens when a business machine gets out of work, takes its specs off and loosens its tie. Maybe.

This is what happens when a business machine gets out of work, takes its specs off and loosens its tie. Maybe.

Wrong way

Also, the Fn key is at the far bottom-left of the keyboard, where you'd normally expect Ctrl to be. It wouldn't be hard to swap the Ctrl and Fn keys around to provide a more familiar keyboard layout, as is the case on most of the others in this test. Then there's the trackpad: it's tiny. Really, really tiny. The buttons are crisp but very loud too. These aren't total usability calamities, but they do detract from what is otherwise a mostly well constructed machine, albeit with a slightly flexible glossy screen.

The IdeaPad is the only netbook in this test that includes an ExpressCard slot. This is on the right-hand side, along with headphone/microphone jacks, a USB port, an Ethernet socket and a Kensington lock (built neatly into the hinge). The left-hand side sports a reassuringly large air intake, plus VGA output, an SD card slot and a USB port. We're glad that the ventilation is so accommodating - the machine gets quite hot to the touch underneath when the CPU is heavily loaded.

Say hello to the brightest hard drive activity light in the netbook world. It's a bit distracting at times.

Say hello to the brightest hard drive activity light in the netbook world. It's a bit distracting at times.

Tubular swell

Lenovo supplied us with the six-cell battery (£50-60) for our testing, which adds a tubular bump along the rear of the machine; imagine a couple of packs of Polos put end-to-end and you get the idea. The results in our benchmarks were impressive though: the battery lasted four hours and 16 minutes in our intensive test. For light usage in spates throughout a working day, you won't need to carry a charger with you.

Software-wise, Ubuntu Netbook Remix runs excellently, and the 160GB hard drive is a snappy performer compared with some of the sluggish SSDs we've seen. The speakers deliver good bass and point towards you from the front side of the unit's base. Overall, the Lenovo is a good machine, but there are a few usability niggles which could get on your wick.

Our verdict: A decent all-rounder, but please, Lenovo: swap those Fn and Ctrl keys, and give the trackpad more room! 7/10.

Big bucks drives

SSD (Solid State Drives - aka flash drives) are definitely the future, and we can expect hard drives to be phased out gradually over the next few years. But large and well-performing drives are currently very expensive. We got hold of an OCZ Vertex 120GB SSD that sells around the £350 mark and installed it in the MSI Wind. Here's the bootup benchmark results:

MSI Wind (normal): 56s

MSI Wind (OCZ drive): 41s

Not a huge difference then. Writing a 100MB file took two seconds, which is certainly at the top of the SSD performance but not a massive leap over hard drives. Until these devices fall dramatically in price, we wouldn't recommend them for netbooks - they're overkill.

MSI Wind U100

Price: £264 (three-cell version battery version)

Web: http://uk.msi.com

Recommended for: Power users

Not recommended for: Rough environments

MSI (Micro-Star International) isn't a household name in computers: the Taiwanese firm sells most of its machines to other vendors, who add their own logos and branding. We've already seen this with the LG X 110 earlier in the test, but sometimes MSI likes to go it alone, and consequently we have the Wind series of netbooks. (There's also a series of desktop computers from MSI called Wind.)

Straight away there's one thing clear about the U100's casing: it's a total fingerprint magnet. That's nothing that a quick wipe with some cloth can't fix, but if you like your electronics looking perpetually shiny, you might find it frustrating when the machine catches a certain light and a smothering of smudges appear. The left-hand side of the unit houses an excellently large air intake vent, along with the Kensington lock slot, power socket and two USB ports. On the right you'll find another USB port, the SD/MMC card slot, headphone and microphone jacks, VGA out and Ethernet.

Beneath the extremely rigid screen is a tough, non-rattly keyboard that, like the Lenovo IdeaPad, has the Fn key in the bottom-left corner rather than the Ctrl key, which takes some getting used to if you're a heavy Ctrl key user. The right-hand Shift key is to the left of the up cursor key, which is normal on desktops but not on netbooks. Otherwise it's a very good keyboard. The trackpad is sufficiently deep, with the buttons going almost to the edge - while it looks like one button in the photos, it holds two switches. We'd like MSI to add more width to the trackpad though; after all, there's plenty of room.

The MSI Wind U100 performed consistently strongly in our benchmark tests.

The MSI Wind U100 performed consistently strongly in our benchmark tests.

Power up

MSI supplied our Wind with a six-cell battery (available online at £35-40) that juts out of the bottom of the unit by 1cm and adds a bit to the weight, bringing it close to the Eee 1000 on the scales. However, we have some reservations about the build quality. It's not bad - it doesn't feel flimsy or as if it'll break apart in your hands. But the plastics creak with pressure in places and the hinge isn't as tight as we'd like.

With a good case and a careful owner we can't see any big problems occurring here, but we have more confidence with in the main competitor in its class, the Asus Eee PC 1000, being able to take punishment.

Hardware recognition

The Wind is one of the few netbooks in this guide to include Bluetooth, and Ubuntu Netbook Remix configured it straight out of the box. The webcam was not detected, however. In terms of wireless signal pickup, boot time and overall performance, the Wind is mostly on a par with the Asus Eee PC, although the Eee's SSD drive is slower than the Wind's hard drive.

If you're looking for a larger-sized, almost-a-notebook netbook with a hefty battery, your two options in this guide are the Wind and the Eee. There isn't a huge amount to choose between them in terms of performance, but the Eee has a better keyboard, sturdier shell and slightly lower price point, so we recommend it. This is still a respectable showing from MSI though.

Our verdict: A very good performer - not as noisy as the Asus Eee PC, but not quite as rigid either. 9/10.

 

Toshiba NB100 11R

Price: £229

Web: http://www.toshiba.co.uk

Recommended for: Business users who need max portability

Not recommended for: Anyone with big fingers

Now we're getting into tiny territory. When we first got our hands on the original Eee 701 we found the keyboard a bit cramped, though usable for hunt-and-peck typing. But as the netbook market started to expand and screens of around nine inches across became the norm, it was clear that adding just an inch of width on to a keyboard could make a major difference. And that's the situation we have here. The Toshiba NB100 sports the same type of keyboard as the Eee 701, albeit more noisy and rattly, and if you've got big hands you'll find it quite pokey in comparison to larger machines.

Still, this isn't to be seen as an error by Toshiba: the company is striving for portability here. Width-wise it's the second smallest (to the ONEt) netbook in our test, pipping the Dell Mini 9 by a centimetre. It's a bit taller than the Dell, though, largely due to the unusual battery that protrudes from the rear (more on that in a moment). Cosmetically, the NB100 is much like the IdeaPad - it really does look like a scaled-down laptop. However, it also has a glossy screen which looks lovely at some angles, and horribly reflective at others.

Toshiba has been more creative than the other participants with regards to port placement. The headphone and mic jacks are mounted on the front-facing side of the machine, while there's a single USB port and Kensington lock on the left-hand side, a couple of extra USB ports and the SD/MMC card slot on the right, with Ethernet, power and VGA on the rear. The build quality is first-rate, aside from the noisy keyboard - it's all very firm and sturdy.

The tiny keyboard makes the Toshiba NB100 11R hard work for humans.

That tiny keyboard makes the Toshiba NB100 11R hard work for humans.

Now, about that battery...

The battery sticks out of the back by about a centimetre. Now, that's no big cause for concern, right? Other netbooks in this test have six-cell batteries that also bump out a bit! But the NB100's only has four cells, and the reason it sticks out is because it's not very wide. On the underside of the Aspire One, for instance, the battery stretches to around 90% of the width of the machine; on the NB100, it's closer to 60%.

Toshiba's designers have clearly worked hard to cram everything in to a small shell, but we reckon a full-width battery that integrates fully with the rear would be better than a narrower battery that juts out.

Moving on to performance: there are a few problems here. The boot speed isn't great, and the wireless network pickup strength jumps around alarmingly even when the machine is static, leading to the weak results in the wireless table on p46. Overall performance felt choppy under Ubuntu Netbook Remix - video files stuttered and there were longer than usual delays in opening programs. It doesn't make the machine unusable, but it can be grating.

All things considered, the Toshiba NB100 11R has a hard time being competitive in this group test. It's very compact and has a serious, business-like facade, so if you just need something small to take to meetings and do a bit of office work, it's a solid and quiet little machine. But for most users we recommend sacrificing a bit of portability - just an extra inch in width - to improve usability.

Our verdict: Workable as a business but let down by stuttering performance and a teensy keyboard. 6/10.

Moblin and SUSE

Intel's Linux-based mobile OS, Moblin (see LXF118's What on Earth), has received a healthy shot in the arm thanks to the work of Novell's SUSE team. As we were writing this article, Novell was preparing to demonstrate its "implementation of Moblin into the OpenSUSE codebase" as Holger Dyroff from the company's Business Development unit told us.

Right now, SUSE is supplied with a handful of netbooks from MSI and HP; with its enhanced version of Moblin Novell is hoping to reach out to a wider market, especially businesses. "Enterprises can see netbooks as thin-client replacements" said Dyroff, and the company has a "huge interest to make a business out of it".

Will it be the next big challenger to Ubuntu Netbook Remix? By the time you read this, Novell should have publicly released its work at http://en.opensuse.org/Moblin - give it a go.

SUSE is one of several distros working on the Moblin project, and we have high hopes for the end result!

SUSE is one of several distros working on the Moblin project, and we have high hopes for the end result!

Who's better? Who's best?

Almost all of these notebooks are based on the exact same Intel chips, and yet there's such a variety in size, weight, build quality, drive performance and price. Aside from the Elonex ONEt's low-end CPU and the Aspire One's lethargic SSD, performance doesn't vary enormously between them: all but the ONEt are perfectly capable of web browsing, YouTube, office work, and even a spot of on-the-go programming, providing you're not working on an outrageously demanding 3D showcase.

In each review we've looked at the machine from the point of view of the right kind of user for each model, so you've probably already got an idea of what would suit you best. If you're approaching this solely from a financial perspective, though, here's what we recommend:

  • Under £150 The Aspire One. Absolutely. Even if you see the ONEt (or another netbook based on the same internals) for under £99, avoid it. The money you save isn't worth the pain of sluggish web browsing with many sites out of bounds.
  • £150 to £250 If maximum portability is crucial, go for the Dell Mini 9. The keyboard is a stumbling block, but it's a very well designed and constructed machine. If you can tolerate something more bulky and noisy, get the Eee 1000 - a great all-round machine.
  • £250 upwards We really love the LG X110; it's just a shame it's only available with Windows. If you're tempted, keep checking online in case LG expands its options and offers a Linux version, in which case it's a must-buy. Otherwise you should consider the slightly weaker, but still good, MSI Wind.
  • Of course, if you already own any of the netbooks we've tested here, we'd love to hear your opinions! Have you fallen in love with a particular machine? Did the ONEt's rainbow of colours tempt you? Have you modded your Mini 9 to add Fx keys? Let us know!
  • Boot time: Measured from pressing the power button to arriving at the desktop and disk activity stopping. All benchmarks are with UNR 9.04 except for the Elonex ONEt.

    Boot time

    Battery life: Measured with power savings disabled, full screen brightness, connected via Wi-Fi and playing a video on loop from the local drive.

    Battery life

    Drive write speed: Determined by copying a 100MB file locally and running sync immediately afterwards to flush the changes to the drive. Averaged from three trials.

    Drive write speed

    Wireless pickup: Signal quality rating from NetworkManager status applet (iwlist command on the Elonex ONEt), access point six metres away, with brick wall in between.

    Wireless pickup
    First published in Linux Format

    First published in Linux Format magazine

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    My impression about MSI Wind U100

    I have MSI Wind U100 with HHD and a standard (not 6 cell) battery. And its battery life is about 1,5 - 2 hours. Not very impressive. Also its WiFi card works not very well.
    The main strength is its screen which makes the machine usable outdoors.
    I used both Mandriva and Xubuntu on it. And there were no problems with web cam.

    Wow, didn't expect to see

    Wow, didn't expect to see this so soon after being in the mag. Pity the Dell Mini 9 and EEE 1000 are so hard to come by now :(

    Re: Wow, didn't expect to see

    You're right; we don't really like putting things on here while the magazine is still on sale. In this particular case, though, we decided we'd get it online a week earlier than usual simply because the information is so time-sensitive - as you said, a couple of the netbooks we reviewed are already becoming scarce, which means people need to know *now* if that netbook is perfect for them otherwise they'll simply have missed the opportunity.

    It's a shame the netbook burn rate is just so high right now :/

    Aspire One

    I guess most might get the HD version of the Aspire One. I know my brother did and they're on Amazon for £150. Their HD performance is really good!

    Wind OC

    Great article!

    I do think you should have mentioned that the Wind, when plugged into the wall, can be overclocked to 1.96 Ghz giving it a very noticeable speed boost. I use this all the time. It can make a flash or HD video go from being unwatchable or choppy to smooth and enjoyable.

    HP Mini 2140

    I've purchased a HP Mini 2140 with Suse Linux pre-installed but I've changed it for Debian ;-)

    Asus Eee PC 100xHx

    Thanks for this! However, I would like to buy a newer model (probable 1000HE) of Asus Eee PC 1000(H) and it was not in the article... '.'

    Sadly this article is already out of date

    Dell Mini 9 has been replaced by the 10v, which is similar, but lacks bluetooth.
    Eee 1000s are out of stock.
    The Ideapad is still around, but *only* in white.
    I need bluetooth, so it looks like I'm out of luck.

    Dell Mini 10

    I use a dell mini 10, and it's excellent. One problem is that lack of support for the GMA500 chipset (Intel and Moblin doesn't even support this atm), but recently ubuntu-mobile launchpad team released some pretty decent drivers for it, turning it into a great little netbook for linux.

    The Z520 atom CPU leaves a little to be desired though, clocked at 1.33Ghz, but at least it keeps battery life to decent levels. If Dell sold the extended battery in their accessory shop, I'd have that also (It's only available for new purchases at the time of post)

    HP2133 and 2140

    Could you expand your review with this models.

    Re: HP2133 and 2140

    2133 is a bit outdated and 2140 will be replaced with 5101.

    Eee PC1000H Loving It

    Bought my Eee PC1000H in black and windows only (only option available in U.A.E, Dubai where I live) Trying to dual boot with Ubuntu but still running windows only. regardless of the OS, The performance is amazing! I am playing SimCity4 on this! Great speed and I just love the track pad! I am a dedicated Linux user but still I am happy to have this with XP. Since I am really tired of running windows in vmware(still not working on Fedora 11) just to run some stupid necessary windows only app which wont run in Wine!
    If you can make peace with that little 10" screen, it is a fully usable laptop for almost any task!

    Interesting...

    I have one of the first 10" Acer Aspire Ones... (Unfortunately never available with Linux and 6 cell battery / HD) But for $350 I measured the battery life at 7 1/2 hours!!! (Only the first batch went with 5800mh 6 cell batteries though)
    The only thing I don't like is the screen resolution and the Windows tax. I'm looking forward to seeing ARM based offerings from this vendor.
    Also wonder about the boot time... (I am pretty sure my Fedora 11 starts much faster than listed in article...) Sub 30 second is my guess...

    Aspire One

    I agree a previous poster about the Aspire One SSD performance: with a little tweaking in Ubuntu, its performance can be greatly increased, I reduced my boot time to 35 seconds.
    BTW, there are two SSD versions for the AA1 110: from Intel and Samsung. The Samsung in much faster. Probably you had the "luck" of getting the slower version.

    The AA1 is definitely an excelent budget computer!

    Fantastic

    Thanks: until this article I was thinking about the Dell 10. I'm going to look at all of these now.

    The Big Omission

    The big omission from this test is the HD-variant of the Acer Aspire One. With Ubuntu Netboot Remix 9.04 installed, it's a superb little system. Even at the quoted price of £220, it would give the others on test stiff competition. £220? I paid £135 for mine after a 10% special discount. Wish I'd bought two.

    My Aspire One came with Windows!

    I ordered a refurbished Aspire One from Circuitcity.com (my first mistake), booted it up, and instead of seeing Linpus Linux, I see WIndows XP! And, because everything else stayed the same (512 MB RAM; 8-GB SSD drive, which came almost full), the thing is ridiculously slow -- it took literally an hour to boot up. Of course CC.com no longer stocks that model, so I lost out on the steal of a price ($180)I got it for.
    On another note, which is better: the Acer Aspire One or the ASUS eeePC 900 (w/ the 20 GB SSD hard drive)?

    Acer Aspire One versus ASUS EeePC 900

    I have an Acer Aspire One AOA110 and an ASUS EeePC 900, both running Windows XP on SSD drives. I've become accustomed to the small keyboard on the Acer, but haven't quite mastered typing on the ASUS 900 with it's half size right shift key (and it's slightly narrower keyboard). Both came with XP, and once the bloatware is removed, overall performance is about the same, with one exception. If you intend to play flash video (youtube, hulu.com, etc.) on the ASUS while on battery power, prepare to encounter problems with choppy video playback. Performance will improve if you connect the EeePC to AC power. Video playback on the Acer was smooth on battery power as well as AC power.

    I also have an Acer Aspire One AOA110 with Linpus Lite and it's the one I find myself using most of the time. I've tweaked it a bit using tips I gleaned from articles in Linux Format and from other users on the web. I prefer the XFCE desktop to the default Linpus desktop. It makes the distro feel more like Linux rather than an internet appliance.

    If anyone's had a good experience with any of the alternatives to Linpus or Windows XP on the Acer Aspire One, let me know. I've tried a couple, but they always seem to come with a few warts (features that just don't work), and I find myself coming back to my modified Linpus with it's fast boot time.

    I was surprised by the

    I was surprised by the reviewer's complains about the EeePC 1000's noise. I own a Asus 1000H and it is VERY silent. Even at full load it is barelly audible. Are you sure the test unit was not deffective?

    sluggish webbrowsing on the Acer A1

    I've tried several distro's on my Acer (Linpus Lite, Suse KDE en Xfce, Ubuntu, Ubuntu Netbook Remix, Xubuntu, Zenwalk etc).
    The sluggishness of webbrowsing was most annoying with almost all of them, so I tried several solutions. The most simple: use EXT2 filesystem instead of EXT3. EXT2 is a non journalling filesystem and that limits the amount of writing to the ssd.

    At this moment I use Xubuntu which performed lousy on EXT3 but runs perfectly on EXT2. (With Netbook Remix I had exactly the same experience)

    Peter

    Scoring system

    "We really love the LG X110; it's just a shame it's only available with Windows. If you're tempted, keep checking online in case LG expands its options and offers a Linux version, in which case it's a must-buy. Otherwise you should consider the slightly weaker, but still good, MSI Wind."

    In the conclusion, the MSI Wind is described as 'slightly weaker' than the LG X110, yet the LG X110 scored 8/10 compared to the MSI Wind's 9/10. The conclusion does not seem to reflect the scores, and undermines the value of the comparisons.

    I have the MSI Wind which was recently sold in Aldi stores with the larger battery under the Medion Akoya name. It seems a good machine, and Ubuntu 9.04 Netbook Remix installed like a dream with working wireless internet and camera.

    Mandriva on the Acer Aspire One

    I booted up one of my Acer Aspire Ones with an 8GB Mandriva Flash Drive (2008 Spring). Some features didn't work, but performance was pretty good. I may try running a few newer distros from USB flash or USB hard drives to see how well they perform.

    Good Distro for Acer Aspire One

    I've tried both Kuki and CrunchBang Linux and I prefer CrunchBang for a few reasons.
    - very quick (although Kuki is also quick)
    - clean slick look as compared to Kuki's "work in progress" look or UNR's cluttered look.
    - fantastic support forum.
    - when combined with the Kuki kernel it works perfectly.
    - CrunchBang has been tweaked and upgraded for some time now, so it just feels right.
    - Open Box many not be for everyone but when you get used to it, the ease of key combinations beats the heck out of clicking on icons with the mousepad.
    - it comes with a really cool looking and useful Conky menu on the right side of the screen.
    -maybe I'm biased but I love it.

    Lenovo

    There are actually many diffrent modles of the lenovo im not sure which is the one here but I own a s10e and some of this is true. The rattly keyboard is not one of them tho mine does not rattle and feels just as solid as my HP laptop. The track pad is a bit small but if you work with it a few hours you find you get used to it and its about the right size for the screen. I actually like it at its current size since it does not get int he way of typeing. Tho i did buy this netbook on clearence and as a display modle mine was $170 us dollars and was an impulse buy when I actually was out looking for a netbook my bigest problem was the aspires single button and the HP buttons on the side. The newer toshibas would have been my choice if I hadent got a smokin deal on this lenovo

    Asus 1000HE with UNR 9.10

    I purchased an Asus 1000HE about 8 months ago just to have to fool around with; nothing serious. It came with Win XP and everything functioned but I had no clue how much more this computer could do once I installed UNR 9.10!!! WOW!

    I decided to go full boat and just blow the drive clean and have only UNR on it and it's wonderful. Speedy, simple to use, worked immediately with UNR with no fooling around. I cannot believe how far Linux has come with the GUI as the last time I was even near Linux was many years back...

    As a dedicated Mac user I must say that UNR completely blows any Windows stuff out of the water. I always knew Win was bloated and laden with problems (I was running XP without any anti-virus because of how that slows things up) but installing Ubuntu Netbook Remix makes this PC run so well that I've become a huge Linux fan.

    Toshiba NB100

    I bought a Toshiba NB100-12A about a year ago for under £200. It came with Windows XP Home which is no use to anybody (no security, won't join a domain etc.......) so I did not even boot it into Windows, I just blanked it and loaded Ubuntu 9.10 UNR. Have since loaded 10.04 UNR.
    Everything just worked with Ubuntu, all the hardware was detected.
    Battery life is about three and a half hours.
    I use it for occasional work but mainly when away in the motorhome for reading back issues of LXF, picking up email & watching television with a Pinnacle USB PCTV Nano Stick. My 4 year old daughter also watches television & her DVDs on it and also uses the Gcompris educational suite.
    When at home it gives quite a nice picture on a 1366x720 32" television via the DSub output so I run XBMC on it streaming music & video from my server. It struggles a bit with H264 & anything over 720p resolution but is otherwise OK.
    I think 6/10 is a bit harsh & personally give it 8/10 as I value build quality.

    Re Netbooks

    Statement => I like them!

    Probably any reasonable sized distro will make them fly, compared to Windows O/S.

    This is mainly because Windows loads everything into ram on startup, whereas Linux only loads neccessary drivers.

    Screen sizes between 9" & 13" are best for portables, in my opinion.

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