Help Karen pick her next computer!

Mar 16, 2010 • Karen

I've been planning to get a netbook / ultra-portable laptop for grad school. Today, my dad offered to buy me one in exchange for my weighty hunk of metal (aka late-model Powerbook) so that he can give it to my grandma who's still, somehow, running one of these funky boys. So that means I need to figure out what kind of netbook to buy. All of my computers up to this point have been Macs, so I know very little about companies or selections in PC land. Hence this blog post!

What I'm looking for:

  • Runs Ubuntu without breaking. Ideally, I'd get something with Linux pre-installed to avoid the Microsoft tax, but wiping Windows isn't a huge deal.
  • Has a keyboard that is pleasant to type on. I don't want something super tiny or where the keys take an inordinate amount of force to push. The main point of this netbook is to take notes and other type-y activities.
  • The touchpad and mouse button are separate things. That one-surface button thing on the MacBooks drives me up the friggin' wall.
  • 2 GB RAM.
  • Ideally, solid state drive instead of a hard drive. I REALLY don't need much space on this thing, I'm not keeping my music on it. The cloud (or the USB stick) shall provide!
  • Doesn't run excessively hot. I like the skin on my thighs unscalded, thanks.
  • Not too picky about processor speed. Again, this thing is for web browsing and typing. It should be able to play YouTube videos without melting, but I'm not going to be gaming or running Photoshop on this thing. That's what my desktop is for. I also don't really care if it has a webcam or not.
  • Reasonably lightweight, though I really don't give a crap if it fits in a manila envelope or not.
  • Good battery life is a plus. Take 4 hours as a lower bound. Beyond 6-7 hours I really don't care, I'm not going to be going that long without putting the damn thing to sleep or plugging it in.
  • Good wifi reception. 3G/etc is irrelevant, I can't afford a data plan.
  • Reliable manufacturer with good customer support. I don't want this thing to break for at least two years. And if it does happen to break during that time, I want to be able to get things cheerily fixed or replaced conveniently and for free.
  • < $500. Ideally, closer to $300.

Here's some of the laptops I've found so far that are close to what I'm looking for:

  • The Asus Eee 1000 has (had?) the solid state drive, native Linux support, and most of the rest. Unfortunately, although it's still up on Asus' website, it doesn't appear to be sold on any reputable site on the 'net anymore. And the rest of the Eee line has Windows and friggin' hard drives. What gives?
  • Now that I've been thoroughly let down, the rest of the 10" Eee line isn't so bad. The 1005HA is supposed to be pretty Ubuntu compatible, and I like the seashell design concept. I do wish they'd pare down the number of models—with their stupid broken Flash navigation comparing models is slow and excessively difficult. I also wish Asus actually sold the damn things, or gave you links where you could find particular models with particular combinations of options. The battery life is way more than I'll ever need, and the prices I've seen are quite low. I've heard bad things about Asus' customer support, though.
  • Then there's the Starling from Linux-only hardware shop System76. Ubuntu out of the box, 2 GB RAM standard. 160 GB of hard drive space that I will never, ever, fill. Reasonably cute-looking, 2.6 lbs. Unsure how I feel about the mouse buttons on either side of the trackpad. The battery life isn't spectacular--only about 4.5 hours according to this review. Even with the extra RAM, it's hard to justify the price point next to the Eee PCs. I guess that's what decent support costs?
  • The Lenovo Thinkpad X10e is a nice machine, with a larger monitor than everything else I've been considering. It's not technically a netbook, but it weighs three pounds so close enough. The whole Thinkpad line is so ugly it's almost charming—they're just begging for some vinyl decorations or acrylic paint or something. I've also heard very good things about Lenovo's support. But it seems oddly underpowered for the price, with only a 1.6GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM by default. Reviews have also said it runs really hot, with a loud fan besides.
  • Also from Lenovo is the Ideapad 10-3, which they actually promote as a netbook. Okay price point, has the new-ish Intel Atom 450 processor which is supposed to be good, and has been celebrated in reviews for its keyboard quality. Main flaws: 1.) It only comes with 1 GB RAM and and 2.) The trackpad and the mouse button are the same damn thing and that will drive me insane.

So those are the machines that I'm considering so far. But as I said before, I know very little of the world of netbooks, or PCs generally. Recommendations, please!