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Page last updated at 16:23 GMT, Friday, 29 May 2009 17:23 UK

The options when buying a netbook

Acer laptop
One person's netbook might be called a laptop by someone else

What is the difference between a laptop (or to use an Americanism, a "notebook") and a netbook? It depends who you ask.

What some manufacturers call netbooks, others call laptops or even ultra-light or ultra-portable laptops.

There is no universally agreed definition in terms of size, weight, screen size or battery life.

The best you can say is that there are some portable computers that are thinner, lighter and have longer battery lives than others, and these are generally referred to as netbooks.

What is a netbook?

Netbooks are designed for basic tasks and basic internet browsing and e-mail.

They usually come with limited processing power (up to 1.3GHz), Windows XP or Linux (Ubuntu) operating system, and no more than 80GB of storage.

Some would say that anything with a screen more than 15 inches and over is not a netbook, but it seems easier to consider whether your portable computer has an internal DVD drive.

If it does not, then it is either a netbook or very old indeed.

Small is beautiful

So what are the main benefits of a netbook vs an ultra-light laptop?

The most straightforward is that they are smaller and lighter. They are less back-breaking to carry around and fit more neatly on your lap on a crowded train.

The lack of a DVD drive, and the slightly smaller screen, mean that the battery will run for longer.

Some notebooks are also moving from traditional hard drives to flash memory, which leads to even better battery performance.

In terms of functionality, it could still do everything a laptop can do. Except you will not be able to play your movies on DVD, but if you have them as a download or AVI file, then you are fine.

And they will have built-in wi-fi and Bluetooth, so mobile browsing and all that offers, is easy.

Big finger trouble

There are downsides, however. Perhaps the biggest complaint is the size of the keyboards.

If you have big fingers, you may find that you spend as much time correcting typos as you do typing.

Also, any software which comes on a disc will need to be installed at home, where you will need to attach a plug and play from an external DVD drive.

Plus, you had better be adept at encoding video from other sources if you want to watch films or TV shows on the move.

Some would also argue that a netbook is not really capable of standing in for your desktop PC if it dies. It all depends how you use your desktop computer.

Netbooks currently are not equipped for processor-intensive tasks involving graphics, pictures, and video editing. But this is starting to change as they get more powerful.

The other potential issue in these straitened times, is price. You are going to be paying more money for a small machine that has slightly less functionality than a machine - only marginally larger. Essentially you are paying a premium for convenience.

What to look for

In brief, the crucial things to take into account when looking to buy a netbook are:

• battery performance

• screen size

• keyboard usability

• traditional hard drive vs SSD (flash) memory - SSD is more expensive but more reliable, faster and lighter

• connectivity - what can you plug into it?

• price

And if you find something small, thin, with no DVD drive and a good long battery life, but the price sticker next to it says laptop, do not worry about it too much.

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