It sometimes seems as if Netbook makers are engaged in a dangerous race to the bottom, pulling out all the stops to get their products on shelves at slightly lower prices than the next guy. While $499 used to be the Netbook starting price, that quickly slipped to $399, and now $299--or less, if you get a subsidized unit as part of a mobile phone carrier's data plan contract.
Even Netbooks that cost $100 to $200 more than that typically offer only better construction and nicer designs--they're often virtually identical under the hood to the least expensive systems, with an Intel Atom CPU, 1GB of RAM, Windows XP, and a 160GB hard drive.
One new area where Netbooks have been able to offer a clear reason for stepping up to a more expensive system is with a high-definition display. The typical 10-inch Netbook screen is 1,024x600--which is readable, but often cramped for scrolling long Web pages or working on office docs.
A recent trend in Netbooks, available in both 10.1- and 11.6-inch screens, bumps the resolution up to 1,366x768. The difference is clear when trying to read an online article without excessive scrolling, or doing a lot of cutting and pasting on a Word doc or spreadsheet. It also works well for 720p HD video content--although your mileage may vary, depending on the source, compression, and media player app. Netbook hardware can't always handle the strain of smooth HD video.
We've had five Netbooks with 1,366x768 screens cross our Lab bench recently. The Sony Vaio W and Dell Mini 10 (the latter is also available with a standard 10x6 screen) are both 10-inch models, and each cost around $500--a healthy premium over non-HD Netbooks.
Asus' Eee PC 1101HA and Acer's Aspire One 751h were less expensive 11-inch Netbooks, but both used the z520 version of Intel's Atom CPU, which led to annoyingly slow performance (the Asus did offer some onboard overclocking for its wimpy processor, but that's a Band-Aid approach).
We found the most satisfying HD Netbook experience in an unexpected place. Gateway's 11-inch LT 3103u cost only $379, and used an AMD L110 CPU, which gave us a smoother overall experience (albeit at the expense of battery life), along with 2GB of RAM and a larger 250GB hard drive.
Check out the details of each of our 1,366x768 Netbooks below. But beware, as we've pointed out previously, none of these systems include the free Windows 7 upgrade you'd get with a mainstream laptop purchase. … Read more