Critics' Picks: Top 5 Netbooks Based on Review Roundup

In January, the iPad was introduced. At the launch, Steve Jobs famously remarked: “A lot of people thought that (the iPad) would be a netbook. The problem is netbooks aren't better at anything.”


More recently, a report from Morgan Stanley showed how once high-flying netbook sales—peaking at a 641% year-over-year growth last summer—have nosedived since January (around the time of the iPad’s introduction), as reported by Fortune. A March survey found that 44% of U.S. consumers were planning to buy an iPad instead of a netbook or laptop.


Fact is, the iPad, as alluring as it is, is no netbook killer. Meanwhile, the netbook continues to become more powerful while keeping the price tag low. In most cases, you can get a well-reviewed netbook for less than $499—the iPad’s starting point. And while laptops continue to drop in price, too, it’s still hard to find one that offers the same trifecta of ultra portability, extremely long battery life, and sub $500 price tag.


So don’t count the netbook out just yet. In fact, as the economy continues its uncertain recovery, netbooks remain a viable, affordable enterprise mobility option. 


The Best Reviewed Netbooks


The following netbooks are the best of the current crop, as judged by CNET, Computer Shopper, LAPTOP magazine, PC Magazine, and PC World. As with our first roundup of the Top 5 Netbooks back in December, Hewlett-Packard tops the chart, this time with its HP Mini 5102.


In our monthly Critics’ Choice feature, we evaluate mobile tech product reviews written by our colleagues at other review sites. Using their ratings (most use a 5 star system), we look to see which mobile devices landed on the most top 5 lists and/or earned high ratings in their categories from more than one reviewer. Think of our Critics’ Choice top 5 rankings as Rotten Tomatoes for mobile tech.


To arrive at this critical consensus, we also factor in which products earned an Editors’ Choice award. And we average out their star ratings and numerical rankings. It’s not wildly scientific, but we hope it’s helpful in giving you a snapshot of which netbooks are currently the best reviewed right now.


Our previous Critics’ Choice roundups: HTC Incredible reviews (April 2010); Top 5 Ultraportable Laptops (March 2010); Top 5 Budget Laptops (February 2010); Top 5 Smartphones (January 2010); and the aforementioned Top 5 Netbooks  (December 2009).


1. HP Mini 5102

Online prices begin at $415.


Pros: Excellent build quality; long battery life (with optional six-cell battery); large, spill-resistant keyboard; loud volume; extremely configurable; three color options; fast hard drive and boot time; convenient security software.


Cons: Pricier than other netbooks, especially if you add options; small touchpad; fan is a bit loud; limited screen resolution.


Worth quoting: “The Mini 5102 is the latest in HP's line of business-optimized netbooks, featuring a ruggedized metal chassis and design elements tailored for the office road warrior. It does a great job of offering features that business users care about, but they come at a considerable price; the configuration we tested, with a touchscreen, 2GB of RAM, an Atom N450 CPU, and an extended six-cell battery, clocks in at around $729--easily the cost of a larger, more full-featured laptop.” – PC World (3.5 stars)


Worth noting: As the PC World review notes, it’s easy to run up a tab configuring the Mini 5102. And CNET’s review, though highly favorable, offered this backhanded compliment: “As it is, this sequel to our favorite 2009 Netbook (the Mini 5101) feels like just that--a 2009 Netbook.”


But the Mini 5102 is the only netbook to earn a Top 5 spot on the 5 review sites we surveyed. It’s designed to be more durable and secure than the average netbook. And the six-cell battery and Intel Atom N450 energy efficient processor keep the netbook humming for 10 to 11 hours.


2. Toshiba Mini NB305-N410BN

Online prices begin around $355.


Pros: Great battery life; large touch pad; improved speakers; sleeker design than predecessor; full-sized keyboard; best-in-class touchpad and buttons; sleep-and-charge USB port; 3G option available from Best Buy.


Cons: Awkwardly sized keys for touch-typing; some netbooks offer HD displays for the same price; sluggish boot time; shorter battery life than previous model.


Worth quoting: “When the Toshiba mini NB205 was awarded the Editors' Choice in the netbook category, who knew its reign would last this long? The mini NB305-N410 is its successor and will continue to thrive because it knows what netbook users want: A great user experience, a bargain price, and outstanding battery life. There are netbooks that come very close to these feats…but the NB305 still sits alone at the top.” – PC Mag (4.5 stars)


Worth noting: This Toshiba netbook landed on 4 of the 5 top 5 netbook lists we surveyed. Toshiba’s NB305 series of netbooks includes another configuration, the NB305-N310, with Windows XP and a 160GB hard drive, for about $50 less than the NB305-N410BN. However, the latter has Windows 7 Starter Edition and a 250GB hard drive.


3. Asus Eee PC 1005PE

Online prices begin around $360.


Pros: First netbook with new Intel Atom N450 CPU; fantastic battery life; excellent webcam.


Cons: Lacks HD display; only minor performance boost compared to earlier models; keyboard feels flimsy; video playback skips.


Worth quoting: “The 1005 has become the Netbook reference design for the entire industry…This new 1005 model, thanks to the re-engineered Atom platform, is extremely efficient, and ran for more than 8 hours on our grueling battery drain test. That's extremely impressive, although the N450 was more of a mixed bag in our performance tests, beating other Netbooks in some categories, but matching or falling slightly behind in others.” – CNET (4 stars)


Worth noting: At 2.4 pounds and less than 1.5 inches thick, the 1005PE is a highly portable netbook. The glossy plastic lid (in midnight blue or black) is nice looking but collects fingerprints.


4. Acer Aspire One (AO532h-2268)

Online prices begin around $300.


Pros: Sleek two-tone design; long battery life; fairly large touchpad; above-average audio; inexpensive; small AC adapter; two-year warranty.


Cons: Chassis picks up fingerprints; keyboard feels a bit cramped; lower left side runs hot.


Worth quoting: The current Acer Aspire One “is still one of the most inexpensive netbooks in the business, which is why Costco continues to offer it in its stores…Netbooks like the Toshiba NB205 and HP mini 5102, however, are marginally more expensive, but give you the complete netbook package and are still my recommendations in the 10-inch netbook space.” – PC Mag (4 stars)


Worth noting: Similar to the Toshiba NB305-N410, Acer tweaked the design of the six-cell battery on its latest Aspire One. The battery no longer juts out the back but is now tucked underneath, reducing the netbook’s size by three quarters of an inch.


5. HP Mini 311

Online prices begin around $484, or $199 through Verizon Wireless with a two-year data contract.


Pros: Very good graphics performance; built-in mobile broadband; stylish design; comfortable keyboard; loud speakers; reasonably priced; high-def display.


Cons: Shorter battery life than Windows XP version; annoying touchpad; streaming Flash video support is spotty.


Worth quoting: “Up until now, we’ve been hesitant to recommend 3G netbooks sold through wireless carriers or retailers. We like the convenience of built-in mobile broadband, but $59.99 per month is a lot pay for connectivity on a secondary PC. The HP Mini 311 is different. This 11.6-inch netbook…not only has a bigger screen than other subsidized models, but it features Nvidia Ion graphics, providing plenty of muscle for Windows 7 Premium. Ion also gives you the ability to enjoy high-definition video and mainstream games, and you can even edit movies at a pretty fast clip. This version of the Mini 311 has shorter battery life than its XP cousin, but if you want a slick ultraportable that lets you connect anywhere, it’s a good choice.” – LAPTOP (3.5 stars)


Worth noting: The Mini 311 has an 11.6-inch, 1,366x768 high-resolution screen, which is a plus. But it’s not the most stylish netbook. Says CNET: “Most of the chassis is a dull, generic, gray plastic, with either a black or a white lid with a subtle swirl pattern. The white version, which we had, costs an extra $20 for no particularly good reason, and the very faint gray swirls on it actually made it look a bit dingy from a distance.”




James A. Martin has written about mobile technology since the mid 1990s and is the author of the Traveler 2.0 blog.




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