In anticipation of the upcoming expansion of our SWATTEC program into 5th grade classrooms, we've been reviewing the latest netbook models from a variety of vendors. We've been quite happy with our Asus EeePC 901s in the 4th grade, however these models are no longer available. We would ordinarily be most likely to stick with one vendor, however the limited selection of options in Asus' current line, as well as a general disinterest in working with us from their sales team has lead us to review the offerings from other suppliers. As I know many districts are also presently looking at netbooks, I thought it might be useful to post our assessment of the models we have reviewed.
There are a number of things we look for in a netbook, beginning first and foremost with durability. In the hands of younger students, netbooks have a tendency to find their way to the floor from a variety of heights, with alarming regularity. As such, the construction of the netbook must be sturdy. Naturally, this puts models with hard disks at a disadvantage, as a spinning disk is not particularly tolerant of deceleration trauma. Even so, we were initially considering models with hard drives, believing that we might simply keep spare drives on-hand. We have recently changed our opinion on that, however, based on our teachers' expressed concerns and their descriptions of the frequency and spectacularity of drops in the 4th grade.
Hardware compatibility and performance are also important factors. Since we use a custom Ubuntu Linux build on our netbooks, we spend a little extra time verifying that everything works as expected. While we find that the vast majority of devices work out of the box, some vendors' component choices are not the best performing and/or exhibit quirks that can limit usability. For example, several vendors use Broadcom wireless adapters, which require a custom driver and are generally slower to connect than other adapters since they require the loading of firmware with every power up.
All-day battery life is critical, so a 6-cell battery option is a must. We believe that the netbooks must be continuously accessible and instantly available throughout the day to be truly transformative, so anything less is simply unacceptable.
And finally, a wireless-N card is particularly important. With 30+ laptops per room, anything less yields performance that is simply unacceptable, unless one increases the density of access points to a level that borders on unmanageable. With N-class wireless, we have found that a single access point per room is more than adequate to service the entire class.
The following netbooks all met, or nearly met the above criteria, and are listed in the order we looked at them. Notably absent is HP, whom we decided against early due to poor experiences with their laptop support division and general industry consensus that they are the least reliable manufacturer of laptops/netbooks. They also do not appear to offer N-class wireless, leaving them in a hole far too deep to dig themselves out of.
We have found the Asus EeePC 1005HA to be excellent on a number of fronts. It is the most compact of the bunch, with a 6-cell battery that does not protrude from the perimeter of the case in any way. Their super-hybrid engine yields exceptional battery life, and the build quality is quite high, although the keyboard springs feel a bit light. The wireless card is from Atheros, which is very quick, generally reconnecting to known networks in about 8 seconds. The keyboard feels large and comfortable, and is matched only by the Dell for key size. The price (around $312 per unit) is also among the lowest of the bunch. Asus' repair center for the west coast is located in Fremont, CA, which is relatively close to us, and they offer a quick turnaround on RMA requests.
That said, besides the organizational problems I mentioned above, there are a couple of technical issues with this model. They do not offer a solid-state drive option, which eventually turned out to be a deal-breaker for us. And they use a custom, Intel "High Definition" sound card that has proven to be somewhat problematic. Sound output is excellent, however the built in microphone is another story. For this design, Intel decided to route the analog internal microphone through the chip's onboard digital processor, which confuses the sound mixer in the latest build of Ubuntu by labeling the channel "digital" rather than "microphone" or "internal microphone". This leads to the requirement of a separate mixer application for the microphone, which can be a bit confusing for users. I have no doubt that this problem will be solved in short order, but at present it is a bit annoying.
Selecting an Acer model is challenging, to say the least. The number and variety of models for the same basic netbook is staggering, with only tiny variations in components. The "1633" at the end may well indicate the number of models available - at least it sure feels like it. This particular model is one of the few with N-class wireless (also, the excellent Atheros card) and a 6-cell battery. The Acer is surprisingly thin, although the 6-cell battery makes it seem a bit thicker on the back. It also protrudes about an inch, making this model feel larger than most of the other models. Everything works out of the box, including all of the special keys and switches that are littered about the case. Like the Asus, it ships with a 160 Gb hard disk. We know there is a solid state option available, however we were unable to find it in any of the (seemingly hundreds of) models that are available.
The keys on the keyboard are small compared to all the other models, with the exception of the Lenovo, and feel rather flimsy. The overall build quality is just OK, with this one feeling like the least sturdy of the bunch. We believe this model to be the least likely to survive a drop, which appears to be an accurate assessment based on the industry report above. The sound card on this model is identical to the one in the Asus, which means it suffers from the same internal microphone issue.
The Samsung N130 and N140 are essentially the same model with different styling cues. We looked at the N130-13B model, which includes the 6-cell battery, wireless-N networking, and a 160 Gb hard disk. This model feels incredibly sturdy, and is a bit thicker than the others. The battery life is exceptional and the keyboard feels quite solid, although the mouse button is a rather flimsy, single strip of plastic that flexes when you press on the left or right side. The aesthetic styling is particularly nice, as it is the only model that does not have a glossy or flat black fingerprint magnet on its outer shell. On the flip side, it is white with a medium-blue top cover, which may attract Sharpies and/or lead to a rather dirty looking netbook over time.
With so much going for it in the design department, it was a shame to struggle so with the hardware. While the sound card worked perfectly, the wireless card was a Realtek model that is too new to have a Linux driver, forcing the use of the ndiswrapper/windows driver combo (which is rather slow). There are an insane number of special keys on the keyboard with non-obvious icons on them that do nothing, as do many of the discernible ones, which means it would take a fair amount of work to map them to appropriate actions. We were also unable to locate a solid state option for storage, short of replacing the hard drive ourselves, which is rather expensive.
The Dell Mini 10v is a quite customizable model with a wide-array of options available, including multiple solid-state drives, colors, batteries, and wireless cards. We tested a model that was configured exactly as we would order it, with wireless-N, 16Gb solid state disk, and a 6 cell battery, all in black. The keyboard on the Dell is one of it's strongest points, as it feels very solid and has quite large keys. In fact, the keys are not square, but instead are taller than they are wide, which leads me to believe that they are full height and only slightly reduced width from full size. Touch typists in our district preferred the Dell keyboard to all the other models. The Dell has an Intel sound card that works perfectly in all applications. Battery life is good, although it peaks at around 6.5 hours, which is a little lower than some of the other models. All of the special keys work out of the box. Dell's strong Linux support is also a plus, made obvious through their design and chipset choices.
That said, the Mini is not without its problems. The tall keys create something of an design problem for the trackpad, as Dell was forced to trade trackpad size for key size (see photo above). This lead to a squat and wide aspect ratio on the pad that feels awkward to an experienced laptop user (until they get used to it, of course). In an effort to extend the height of the pad, Dell decided to integrate the buttons, creating click zones in the bottom right and left-hand corners of the pad itself. This sounds like a great idea, however it requires a bit of getting used to, as a thumb press anywhere but the absolute bottom-left or right corner can cause the cursor to jump. Again, this isn't a huge deal, just a quirk that annoys at first.
Other minor issues are the battery and the wireless-N card. While the rest of the models chose to either extend their batteries out the back or, as is the case with Asus and Samsung, conceal the extra cells entirely, Dell adds the extra row of batteries under the back of the laptop. This tilts the laptop up slightly, which the majority of our teacher liked, but also makes it a bit thick to pack in a bag. The only wireless card available with N-class performance is a Broadcom card, which is slower to reconnect to known networks after sleep/power off (for the reasons described above). It generally requires around 17-20 seconds after waking up to reconnect.
All of these are minor issues, of course. The Dell is a solid, well-designed all-around netbook.
We were able to test a pair of Toshiba NB205s unintentionally, as a parent brought them to us to install our software on. While we didn't get to spend a large amount of time with them, our impressions were generally negative. The Toshiba feels extremely solid, even a bit heavy, with an exterior of a similar design to the Samsung (with a few glossy "fingerpring magnet" spots here and there). The 6-cell battery extends out the back, leaving the netbook nice and flat, and the keyboard "chiclet" style keys are similar in size to the Acer, but feel more solid. The special keys appeared to work out of the box, although we didn't have time to test them fully.
That was the good news. The bad news is that there is no solid-state option, no wireless-N option, and the sound card is so abysmal that the only way to make it work is to build a custom kernel with all sorts of patches and tweaks. Out of the box the mic doesn't work at all, and the sound card sends no audio whatsoever to the speakers or the headphone jack. It also has a voltage problem on the USB bus, as they destroyed two of my USB keys. I know it wasn't an isolated problem with just one of them, as I had the same thing happen on both. Take the lack of available hardware to meet our demands, add in the pain and suffering to get the audio to work, couple those with the danger of USB hardware damage, and combine it all with the extraordinarily high cost of this model (this was the most expensive of the bunch) and this netbook is simply a non-starter.
The Lenovo S10, like the Dell, is a highly customizable netbook. Solid-state, wireless-N (Broadcom), and 6-cell batteries are all available options. The demo unit we received from Lenovo came with a 160Gb hard disk and a Broadcom wireless-G adapter. I imagine we could have got one configured according to our specifications, however this one was readily available, as it was in the possession of the SoCal rep (who happens to live about 10 miles from our district office). It is quite sturdy, with a thick top cover that many of our teachers commented positively on. The 6-cell battery extends out the back like the Acer and Toshiba, and performs much like the Dell at about 6.5 hours of regular use. The Intel sound card just works, as do all of the special keys. Lenovo, too, is quite well known for their Linux support, so we were pleased overall with the out-of-the box functionality. Overall, the S10 is quite well designed.
In the hands of our teachers, however, this was their least favorite model. They all commented on its durability, however also hated the keyboard and trackpad. There is a surprising margin around the keys, which makes them the smallest of the bunch. Many believed them to be the same size as those on our 9 inch EeePCs (they are larger, but not much) and complained that they didn't feel as though they could use it on a regular basis. This, of course, isn't all that relevant, as the netbooks would be used by students, but was striking just the same. Lenovo claims that the next S10 will have bigger keys, but it was not available at the time of this review. As for the trackpad, it can best be described as a postage stamp - it's just too small. It didn't help that the Lenovo rep didn't even seem to like it, instead continually trying to "upsell" us to an 11.6 inch Thinkpad model that is not going to be available until next year.
Based on our initial evaluation, the two models we will be offering to our student testers will be the Dell and the Lenovo. Overall, these two are the best performing and most desirable models, based on our needs and requirements. There are certainly a number of other factors that will come into play in the final decision, such as future repair costs. Our experience has been that the three things that are likely to need repair/replacement are the battery, the keyboard, and the screen. Lenovo has been non-committal on this, again pushing the Thinkpad model as one for which they will sell parts. Dell came in with extremely attractive screen and keyboard pricing - even lower than Asus'. Both are offering imaging services, and Dell has even offered "green packaging", in which they will minimize packing materials by placing multiple netbooks in each box without all of the surplus fluff that one might find in traditional packaging. This is particularly attractive for the quantity we are purchasing, as we expect it will dramatically reduce deployment times.
Posted by Jim Klein |