Business Netbooks: The Next Big (Little) Thing?

Yet a quick glance around the Web reveals a groundswell of support for using netbooks as companions to — and in some cases, replacements for — traditional business PCs. It seems that many end-users have become enamored of the netbook’s light weight and all-day battery life, and are now quite willing to turn in their more powerful, yet less convenient, corporate laptop PCs in order to reap the rewards of ultraportability.

Of course, the netbook craze places tremendous pressure on enterprise IT shops, many of which have stringent hardware certification requirements that disqualify most consumer-focused devices. Fortunately, a few prominent netbook vendors are working to address this concern by creating a new class of devices that marries the best of the consumer netbook space with additional capabilities to satisfy the wants and needs of IT. These so-called business-class netbooks retain the popular small form factor of their consumer brethren, yet incorporate additional features — like larger keyboards, integrated fingerprint readers, and ExpressCard expansion slots — to make them palatable to an often reluctant IT management caste.

In this roundup, I take a look at four competing business netbooks: the Mini 2140 from HP, the N10Jc from Asus, the Aspire One AOD150 from Acer, and the Wind U123 from MSI. All fill the bill as netbooks per Microsoft’s recently revised Windows licensing definitions, yet only the HP and Asus sport the significantly up-rated hardware that qualifies them as business class per my own (unofficial) definition. And when the dust of benchmarking and torture testing finally did settle, a clear winner emerged to serve as the ultimate standard bearer for this emerging product category.

Acer Aspire One

If the race to dominate the emerging business-class netbook market was determined by sheer popularity, then Acer would be the hands-down winner. With 38 percent of the netbook market, this Taiwanese heavyweight is truly the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Other vendors can only sit and watch with envy as Acer’s branding becomes synonymous with the categories that its products occupy. Even market pioneer Asus (now with a 30 percent share), which invented the netbook platform with its groundbreaking Eee PC, has to concede that it is no longer the volume leader.

Unfortunately for Acer, IT shops don’t pay much attention to consumer popularity. Rather, speeds and feeds ultimately determine whether a product is suitable for a specific business computing scenario. And in this regard, Acer’s popular Aspire One model is perhaps a bit too Costco and not enough Office Depot for serious enterprise use.

For starters, the Aspire One has a terrible keyboard — easily the worst I tried in this roundup. The keys are tiny, with the entire deck measuring just 9.25 inches. That’s nearly an inch narrower than the HP’s uniformly excellent keyboard, and the net result is a tactile nightmare. The Aspire One keyboard’s only redeeming value is a full-size right Shift key that extends to the very edge of the deck. Otherwise, the implementation is a disaster. There is simply no way an adult human can comfortably touch-type on this keyboard.

My next beef is with the Aspire One’s build quality. Like the MSI Wind U123 — also a consumer-focused device — the Aspire One features way too much cheap plastic. The case feels flimsy and the hinge action nearly gave me a heart attack when the lid flopped open rather violently during an ill-advised leg shifting exercise on a crowded train. The icing on the cake was when my test unit’s hard disk decided to go belly-up in the middle of my evaluation. Fortunately, I was able to extract a complete set of benchmark results just prior to the failure. However, when combined with the unit’s poor overall construction, the death of the Aspire One’s hard disk did little to boost my confidence in its business suitability.

Circling back to the topic of speeds and feeds, the Aspire One is again a kindred soul of the MSI Wind U123. Both systems feature 802.11b/g support (versus the HP Mini 2140’s a/b/g and draft-n), and both have the slower 10/100 Ethernet port (the HP has a GbE connection). There’s no ExpressCard slot. And, of course, the Aspire One’s hard disk would no doubt have benefited from the inclusion of a free-fall sensor like the one in the HP; I was left with the sneaking suspicion that the previous reviewer might have inadvertently dropped the unit during their evaluation engagement.

In terms of performance, the Aspire One was roughly on par with the MSI Wind, turning in an OfficeBench completion time of 117 seconds. Battery life during OfficeBench rundown testing was approximately 5.5 hours with the six-cell (46 watt) battery, which was somewhat disappointing in light of the 6-plus-hour showings of the other units. Acer does offer a larger, 57-watt battery.

One surprising feature of the Aspire One is its multitouch touchpad. Unlike the other roundup participants, the Aspire One supports touchpad input using more than one finger — for example, pinching to zoom in. But my favorite side benefit is circular scrolling. I got hooked on this capability with the Dell Precision M6400. Basically, it allows you to scroll vertically in a Web page or document by simply “drawing” in a circular pattern on the touchpad. To scroll down, you move your finger in a clockwise direction; to scroll up, you move it counterclockwise. It’s a huge time-saver and makes working with long documents or pages on the Aspire One’s tiny 1,024-by-600-pixel screen that much easier.

For smaller organizations with a highly mobile workforce, the existence of these bundle offers may prove to be an incentive to pick the Aspire One over a full-priced competitor. However, larger IT shops would do well to ignore these “deals” and instead focus on true suitability to task. And in this regard, the Aspire One comes up woefully short. Its horrific keyboard, coupled with a lack of enterprise-class expandability (that is, no ExpressCard slot) and wired/wireless connectivity, should be incentive enough to send your RFQ elsewhere.

Asus N10Jc

The Asus N10Jc is the latest in a burgeoning line of quasi-netbook PCs from the company that created the netbook market just 18 short months ago with the launch of the original Eee PC. As anyone who follows technology for a living will tell you, a lot can change in a year and a half.
For starters, your novel idea of a cheap, ultrasmall mini-notebook running Linux can be co-opted by some of the biggest names in the PC industry and transformed into the new hot trend in hardware design. Meanwhile, your once pioneering lead in an otherwise wide-open emerging market can quickly vanish as the major players catch scent of the money trail you blazed and start rushing competing solutions to market, often at price points you can’t touch.

But just because you’re feeling squeezed out doesn’t mean you have to roll over. In Asus’ case, the company is fighting back by cramming more and better technology into its designs in an effort to regain mind share among netbook buyers, all of which is having the unforeseen effect of blurring the distinction between these underpowered — yet superconvenient — mobile PCs and their more robust notebook cousins.

After all, netbooks aren’t supposed to have fingerprint readers or discrete graphics processors, nor should they sport HDMI outputs or base configurations that feature Windows Vista and 2GB of RAM. Yet these are the very real specifications that make the Asus N10Jc stand out from the crowd (at least on paper). In fact, if it weren’t for the underpowered Atom CPU and cramped screen and keyboard, you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish the N10Jc from any number of thin-and-light notebooks. For a netbook, its specifications are quite unusual.

But first, the basics: The Asus N10Jc is an Atom N270-based netbook with both integrated Intel GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) 950 and discrete Nvidia 9300M GS graphics. This switchable graphics option (there’s a slider control on the left side of the chassis) is supposed to be one of the major selling points for the N10Jc. However, benchmark testing under OfficeBench showed the unit lagging behind the HP Mini 2140 even with the more powerful Nvidia adapter selected.

Switching to the integrated GMA 950 adapter caused the N10Jc to fall even further behind the HP Mini, prompting me to repeat the tests several times to confirm the original results. No matter how I tweaked it, the N10Jc was simply slower than the competition, which was all the more surprising since the unit I tested sported 2GB of RAM. The 320GB hard disk seems out of place in a netbook form factor; most have a 160GB or smaller disk. Likewise, the N10Jc’s fingerprint reader, though a welcome addition and one that security-conscious IT shops will no doubt appreciate, was unexpected on an entry-level system. But then again, nothing about the N10Jc’s marketing pitch feels low end. In fact, Asus seems to have gone out of its way to distinguish the corporate N10 series from its more consumer-focused Eee PC lineup.

Unfortunately, the company only partially succeeded. Yes, the N10Jc projected the image of a serious PC, right down to the faux chrome accents and the understated silver-on-black color scheme. However, I quickly discovered that the corporate makeover is only skin deep. For example, my test unit’s case featured way too much cheap, hard plastic, and its screen hinges seemed flimsy compared to the HP Mini 2140. I found the quirky keyboard layout quite frustrating — due to an undersized right Shift key competing with the up arrow and a redundant second Function key — and the overall tactile experience, though better than that of the Acer Aspire One, was nonetheless disappointing when contrasted with the near-perfect HP configuration.

Factor in the unit’s overall poor performance and I’d be reluctant to justify choosing the N10Jc over an HP or Acer, especially when you consider the price premium Asus is attaching to this “corporate netbook.” A basic unit with 1GB of RAM and a 160GB disk will run you a cool $649 CDN, while my pimped-out test unit, with the bigger disk and additional RAM, weighs in at a budget-busting $799 CDN — well outside of the traditional netbook price range. In fact, you can find a variety of true notebooks, with screens 15 inches or larger and integrated optical drives, for less money. This includes several models from Asus, such as the attractive M51 series.

Of course, none of these traditional notebooks is as ultraportable as the three-pound N10Jc, which measures a modest 10.8 by 8.26 by 1.46 inches. And few could likely compete with the N10Jc’s 6.5 hours of battery life on a six-cell (48 watt) charge during OfficeBench rundown testing, though this advantage drops to 5.25 hours with the Nvidia adapter enabled. However, these traditional notebooks won’t choke on H.264-encoded video — which any machine in this price range should be able to process. Simply put, Asus is charging a premium without adding significant performance or value, and that’s a formula I can’t endorse.


HP Mini 2140

The HP Mini 2140 is the company’s flagship offering in the business netbook segment. An update of the pioneering Mini 2133, the 2140 swaps the older model’s underpowered Via C7-M CPU for the ubiquitous Intel Atom N270 running at 1.6GHz, while retaining its predecessor’s overall form factor and excellent keyboard.

In fact, its keyboard really sets the HP Mini 2140 apart from the crowd. At 92 percent of full-size, the Mini’s keyboard provides by far the best
tactile experience of any netbook I’ve tested. Key spacing is surprisingly generous, with a comfortable layout and good all-around travel. Add to this the full-size Shift and Enter keys, plus HP’s patented Dura Keys finish for resisting wear, and you have a configuration that is comfortable to type on for extended periods (for example, writing a 3,000-word article on netbooks).

The Mini 2140 is also one of the sleekest netbooks I’ve had the pleasure of using. Its modest dimensions — 1.1 by 10.3 by 6.5 inches — make the unit eminently portable, while its brushed-aluminum finish brings to mind a business chic reminiscent of another Test Center favorite, the Dell Precision M6400 mobile workstation. Like the much larger Dell Precision, the mini’s metallic finish is cool to the touch and extremely comfortable to carry — major factors in a device that’s designed to be toted around all day.

Unfortunately, the sleek ergonomics don’t extend to the 2140’s track pad, which is far too short for prolonged use. This, coupled with the awkwardly placed, side-mounted buttons, mars what otherwise might be a near-perfect layout of a netbook keyboard deck.

Note to HP: Most users would gladly trade a few ounces for a slightly deeper palm rest area with a taller track pad. Also, consider adding support for circular scrolling a la the aforementioned Precision and the Acer Aspire One. A little chiro-action would go a long way toward mitigating an otherwise annoying deficiency.

Another potential ergonomic faux pas: the optional six-cell battery, which protrudes from the bottom of the unit like an elongated tube of Necco Wafers. While I can understand HP’s desire to leave the overall dimensions intact, rolling the extra cells under the 2140 simply ruins the unit’s otherwise elegant visual lines. It also makes removing the 2140 from its companion case or neoprene sleeve an awkward proposition (much wiggling inevitably ensues). On the plus side, the battery bump gives the unit’s keyboard a nice tilt when placed on a desk or table, though I found the default angle with the more discrete three-cell battery to be perfectly adequate.

Assuming you can live with these minor nits, you’ll likely find the 2140 to be a real pleasure to use. HP has stocked the unit with all sorts of clever touches, including a USB port with an integrated power extension for driving the optional external DVD/HDD media bay. But of course the real focus of the 2140 is on business users, and in this department the unit doesn’t disappoint. I already noted the sleek aluminum shell. The robust build quality, with steel hinge pins (rated at over 200,000 open/close cycles) and a glossy, edge-to-edge screen cover, add to the 2140’s overall solid feel — and its ability to survive more than a few hard miles. Factor in HP’s Quick Charge, for rapidly recharging the battery while on the run; 3D Drive Guard technologies; and a full-sized ExpressCard 54 slot, and the Mini 2140 seems right at home on a corporate RFQ sheet.

One particularly thoughtful feature, which I used frequently while writing this article, is the track pad disable button. A quick press and this centrally located button (placed just below the space bar) lights up red to indicate that the 2140’s track pad is inactive, allowing me to touch-type without fear of accidentally brushing the cursor halfway across the screen or injecting some random click event into the typing stream — always a problem with devices this small.

In terms of performance, the Intel GMA 950-equipped Mini 2140 delivered OfficeBench times on par with similarly configured netbooks, outpacing the much more expensive Asus N10Jc even though the latter unit features a discrete Nvidia 9300-series GPU. HP’s new HD display option, which swaps the much-maligned 1,024-by-576-pixel LCD panel of the first-generation 2140 for a higher-resolution, 1,366-by-768-pixel screen, makes viewing large spreadsheets or navigating long Web pages a much more pleasant experience, but comes at a slight cost in terms of readability; the panel’s size hasn’t changed, but more data is squeezed onto it. Battery life was uniformly excellent, with the three-cell (28 watt) unit delivering just over three hours of continuous use during OfficeBench battery rundown testing. The six-cell (55 watt) unit yielded nearly 6.5 hours of use under the same test.

Overall, the HP Mini 2140 is the quintessential business-class netbook and the clear leader of this emerging market segment. A slightly taller track pad and a better-integrated six-cell battery are the only things left on this reviewer’s wish list for the 2140’s successor.


MSI Wind U123

MicroStar International (MSI) is another in a growing list of Asian PC parts manufacturers that jumped on the system building bandwagon in an effort to cash in on the netbook craze. Like Asus, MSI has always been better known as a source for the components you put into your PC than for the PC itself. However, unlike its trailblazing neighbor, MSI seems content to focus on no-frills solutions that trade homogeneity for attractive price points.

Case in point: The MSI Wind U123, which as netbooks go is as bland as they come. Sporting the most common specifications — Atom 280 CPU (1.66GHz), 1GB of DDR-2 RAM, 160GB hard disk, 10.2-inch screen — the U123 is the very definition of a generic netbook. And this is the general idea: MSI isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel with the U123. Rather, the goal seems to be to capitalize on the pent-up demand for a low-cost solution that incorporates the best of the first-generation Atom CPU platform.

On that point, MSI succeeds admirably. With the Wind U123, MSI manages to squeeze a solid if basic netbook configuration into a reasonably sturdy, serviceable package with a price well under $400 CDN. This makes the Wind U123 an attractive option for IT shops seeking to maximize their netbook purchasing dollars. However, when viewed in light of the much more IT-friendly HP Mini 2140, the MSI’s deficiencies as a business netbook become more apparent.

For starters, the Wind U123 has no ExpressCard slot or free-fall sensor; the HP, in contrast, has an ExpressCard 54 slot and 3D DriveGuard. The unit also features a 10/100 LAN adapter (it’s GbE in the HP), and the wireless card is limited to 802.11b/g (again, the HP has a/b/g and draft-n). And while it’s hard to fault MSI for using the ubiquitous 1,024-by-600-resolution LCD panel — both the ASUS N10Jc and the Acer Aspire One feature the same display resolution — it’s still difficult to ignore the loss of screen real estate when moving over from the HP Mini.
One area where I can find fault is with MSI’s build quality. Simply put, the Wind U123 is not well put together. The chassis is a study in the evils of injection-molded plastic, while the keyboard is reminiscent of the first-generation Eee PC: cramped, with an awkward layout that includes the inevitable shortened right Shift key violation. (Hint: Next time hire a touch typist to test your design.) And in a page straight out of the low-budget Chinese toy factory playbook, the Wind U123 sports what has to be the worst track pad buttons I’ve ever had the displeasure of using. Cheap feeling and hard to depress, they make working with a click-happy UI like Windows Vista a real chore.

Fortunately, the Wind U123 redeemed itself a bit during OfficeBench testing. Its completion time of 118 seconds placed it a few seconds ahead of the Asus N10Jc, and its battery life of nearly 7 hours on a six-cell (87 watt) charge led the roundup. However, the MSI unit fell behind the Asus once we enabled the more expensive machine’s discrete Nvidia graphics. Still, the fact that the Wind U123 was able to keep pace with a system costing more than twice as much is a credit to the MSI engineers. MSI seems to have gotten the basics right with the Wind U123, as evidenced by its competitive showing versus the more powerful N10Jc, though neither unit can match the HP’s pace of 113 seconds.

Overall, the Wind U123 lives up to my initial assessment of the unit — specifically, that it’s a low-cost netbook with generic specifications targeted at budget-conscious buyers. However, the real question is whether a dollar saved up front in fact contributes to the long-term ROI of the purchase. In the case of the HP, features like 3D DriveGuard, an ExpressCard slot, and a sturdy aluminum case. The MSI unit has no comparable value-add proposition. It is essentially a commodity device with minimal engineering, assembled using the cheapest components available at build time.

Then there is the issue of support. Vendors like MSI, though eager to make their mark in the broader system building world, are relatively new to the whole PC systems space. As such, they lack the established ecosystem of VARs and trained support professionals that help to define the boundaries between the first, second, and, in this case, third tiers of the computer hardware vendor landscape. Yes, the device is inexpensive. However, you pay for this advantage in other ways: namely, lower build quality and a less satisfying user experience.

A netbook of note: The HP Mini 2140

With a killer keyboard, stellar screen, and full suite of enterprise connectivity and expandability options, the HP Mini 2140 is the obvious choice for anyone serious about the business end of the netbook spectrum. The unit is rugged, with excellent build quality and a raft of reliability features (steel hinge pins, 3D DriveGuard) that instill confidence in IT support staff and end-users alike. Add to this a very palatable price tag, and you have a winning combination of form, functionality, and performance. My only gripe is with the track pad, which is still too short for extended use. Otherwise, the HP Mini 2140 is a nearly perfect business-class netbook.

Of the remaining competitors, only the Asus N10Jc deserves consideration as a business-class unit. Like the HP, it features exceptional build quality, though a bit less plastic would have been nice. The fact that Asus formally supports Windows Vista on the N10Jc is also a bonus, as is the integrated fingerprint reader — an Asus exclusive in this category. Unfortunately, the system’s price point makes it a hard sell when a superior solution is available for less. This lack of value, coupled with a poor overall benchmark showing, renders the N10Jc a failed experiment.

As for the Acer Aspire One and MSI Wind U123, these units are merely repackaged consumer netbooks. Their lack of enterprise-class connectivity or expansion capabilities means they’re ill suited to the rigors of corporate life. And with the HP Mini 2140 squarely in the same price range, it’s hard to imagine choosing one of these glorified consumer toys to satisfy an RFQ sheet.

Comparing business-class netbooks

Acer Aspire One AOD150

Price as tested: $450 CDN

Platforms: Windows XP, Vista, Linux

Pros and cons: Light weight. Good battery life. Inexpensive; No ExpressCard slot. Poor build quality.

Bottom Line: The Acer Aspire One AOD150 is one of the more popular consumer-focused netbooks. But as a business-class device, it simply doesn’t measure up. The unit’s cheap overall build quality, coupled with a lack of enterprise-caliber expandability (no ExpressCard slot) or connectivity (no GbE port), make the Acer Aspire One more of a toy than a serious business computing device.

Asus N10Jc

Price as tested:
$799 CDN

Platforms: Windows XP, Vista, Linux

Pros and cons: Good build quality. Integrated fingerprint reader. ExpressCard/34 slot; High price. Poor performance.

Bottom Line: The Asus N10Jc stretches the definition of a netbook by incorporating a discrete graphics processor (Nvidia 9300) and a fingerprint reader. Unfortunately, the unit lagged behind the competition in benchmark testing, and its build quality — though better than average for a netbook — is still inferior to the HP Mini 2140’s. Add to this an inflated price tag (nearly $800 CDN as tested) and the N10Jc is tough to justify versus a traditional corporate notebook PC.

HP Mini 2140

Price as tested: $449 US

Platforms: Windows XP, Vista, Linux

Pros and cons: Robust design. Excellent keyboard. IT friendly features; Awkward track pad design. Only two USB ports.

Bottom Line: The HP Mini 2140 is a near perfect business-class netbook. Its excellent build quality inspires confidence, while a spacious keyboard (for a netbook) and WXGA screen (1,366 by 768) make it suitable for a wide range of mobile business productivity tasks. Add to this a plethora of IT-friendly features (3D DriveGuard, full-size ExpressCard slot) and it’s easy to see why the Mini 2140 is the darling of the emerging business netbook category.

MSI Wind U123

Price as tested: $380 US

Platforms: Windows XP, Vista, Linux

Pros and cons: Light weight. Good battery life. Inexpensive; No ExpressCard slot. Poor build quality.

Bottom Line: The MSI Wind U123 is the spiritual cousin to the Acer Aspire One. Both are clearly consumer-oriented designs that use way too much plastic. They also both suffer from awkward keyboard designs — in MSI’s case, some funky layout decisions — and neither provides the kind of expandability or connectivity features that separate true business-class units, like the HP Mini 2140, from the crowd.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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