By Harry McCracken | Friday, October 2, 2009 at 4:21 pm
Have I mentioned lately that I’m a big fan of netbooks–but that I think treating them as a fundamentally different sort of device than a notebook is kind of silly, and that it’s a shame the computer industry doesn’t seem to like them much? A netbook is just a notebook that happens to be (1) small and light, (2) designed for relatively basic computing tasks rather than heavy-duty stuff, and (3) attractively priced. And despite ongoing attempts to pigeonhole netbooks, there’s no reason why there should be any hard-and-fast rules about what they are and aren’t.
Which is why I like Lenovo’s IdeaPad S12, a netbook with a 12.1-inch display that refuses to play by the rules. With Dell’s recent discontinuation of its 12-inch Mini, the S12 is a machine in a very small category: Big-Screen Netbooks. (Asus’s Eee PC 1101HA, and HP’s Mini 311 have 11.6-inch screens, but the rest of the netbook universe generally tops out at 10.1 inches.)
People complain that netbook screens are too small; the S12’s feels much, much roomier than a typical netbook display, and its 1280-by-800 resolution does a far better job of displaying Web pages and other documents. (One of the single biggest downsides of most netbooks is the fact they’ve got screens with only 600 pixels of vertical resolution–it can feel like living in a house where your head is constantly bumping the ceiling.)
People say that netbook keyboards are too cramped; the S12 uses the extra width of its case–it’s 11.5″ by 8.5″ by .9″, versus my Asus Eee PC 1000HE’s 10.47″ by 7.3″ by 1.5″–to provide a typing experience that I found more than acceptably comfortable. (The 1000HE has a better-than-average keyboard itself, but I still end up angling my hands inward a bit as I type.)
I tried the lowest-priced version of the S12, which lists for $449 but seems to be on long-term sale for $429; it’s powered by a VIA Nano CPU. A $449 variant has the much more common Intel Atom processor. The VIA has a slower clockspeed (1.3-GHz vs. the Atom’s 1.6-GHz) but in every other respect that matters it’s a more powerful chip: It’s got a faster bus (800-GHz vs. 533-Mhz) and twice the cache (1MB vs. 512KB). It’s also a 64-bit processor, although like most netbooks, the S12 I used ran the decidedly 32-bit Windows XP. (I don’t know if Lenovo intends to offer a version of the Nano-equipped S12 that runs a 64-bit version of Windows 7; it could be pretty darn cool.)
I didn’t attempt formal benchmarking of the VIA-based S12, but it felt plenty fast for all the tasks I threw at it–which included garden-variety tasks such as running Microsoft Office 2007, Paint.net, and YouTube and Hulu. The downside of the Nano-powered S12 versus the more typical Atom is battery life: It’s rated at 4.5 hours of battery life. I got a bit less than that in my unscientific, real-world usage. Atom-powered netbooks (albeit ones with smaller screens) such as Toshiba’s Mini NB205 claim up to twice the life. And even if they don’t deliver all of the promised battery life in the real world, they’ll do better than the S12.
VIA is trying to popularize a class of notebook akin to the IdeaPad S12 which it calls NetNotes: HD-capable netbooks with screens up to 12.1 inches and the performance boost provided by using a Nano instead of an Atom. Like thin-and-light machines with Intel ultra-low voltage processors, the idea is to provide a step up from netbooks as we’ve known them until now.
I hope that the end result isn’t more categories of computers to keep track of, but simply a world in which there are lots of laptops with varying features at different price points. We could certainly use a lot more systems that offer what the IdeaPad S12 does: most of the attractions of netbooks without all of their limitations.
(Full disclosure: The S12 was loaned to me for review by a representative of VIA.)