A Look Inside the Netbook


Several manufacturers netbook models feature the same hardware. Usually that's an Intel Atom processor running at 1.6GHz and either an 8GB SSD (solid state drive) hard drive or a 80GB-160GB rotary drive. But even these similarities (and some brands do offer other options) bear a closer look. That zoom-in will help customers decide whether a minibook is right for them, and possibly which one.

CPU

The CPU offered in almost all netbooks is either a Via Nano or an Intel Atom, both of which run at 1.6GHz. That clock speed, and the non-Duo Core architecture they represent will make either seem unimpressive. But Intel (and Via) have really done something extremely clever. They adapted a processor intended for use in mobile phones and PDAs and made them work in a smaller-than-standard laptop computer.

One way they did that was to radically reduce the power consumption. In turn, that produces less heat under long usage. While some early netbook models did have overheating problems, that's rare now. One other factor that helps is the lower clock speed. In physics, higher frequency entails greater energy output, usually in the form of heat.

The Intel processor, a smaller-than thumbnail sized chip, really outdid the competition in that area. It uses half the number of transistors (about 50 million rather than the Via's 94 million) and an architecture that drove the power curve way, way down. Via did a good job, too, but concentrated more on efficiency than simplicity to achieve that goal.

One other difference is important between the two. The Via supports an older, single-threaded model of processing program instructions while the Atom supports true hyperthreading. That may seem like an esoteric issue. But, in practice, it means that both Windows XP and Linux (the two most common OSs for minibooks) will operate much better with the Atom than the Via. Though, the latter is a slightly better performer in theory due to out-of-order instruction processing.

Storage

The different storage options offered from one netbook to the next is the other major differentiator.

Some offer an 8GB SSD as the default option. Solid state has an inherent advantage in theory of being both faster and less subject to destruction through impact. In practice, many are still not quite up to their full potential yet in either area. Only a hands-on test can tell the true story at this stage.

As an interesting historical side note, solid state storage has actually been around for 30 years. It was used with mainframe computers, but was so much more expensive that rotary, multi-platter drives won out in the marketplace.

Still other brands provide a range of different rotary-style hard drives of the sort that have been used in desktops and laptops for years. While one or two offer the high-end 7200 rpm drives, most feature a version of 5400 rpm drive. One (the Intel Classmate) offers the slower 3600 rpm drive. Capacities run the gamut from as small as 30GB to as large as 160GB (320GB in the Mac Mini, which isn't technically a netbook).

All other things being equal (and they are more often than you might suppose) the faster the platters spin, the better your overall performance. That's because an individual file is stored in chunks separated from one another on the drive (in Windows, Linux works a little differently, but the idea described below still holds).

As the platters spin the read-write heads come into proximity of the data location and read (or write) it. The pieces are then assembled (by instructions running in the CPU) in memory and presented in normal fashion on the screen. A faster spin means those chunks come near the heads sooner.

Summary

So, when you're looking for a netbook, keep in mind that you will not get the kind of performance you could expect from a full-sized high-end laptop, much less a desktop. The CPU and hard drives (not to mention the smaller memory capacity of a netbook) simply can't deliver it.

Still, for such a portable unit, the speed and capacity match what you would have seen on a laptop of only a few years back. Pretty impressive for what is really a jazzed up cell phone.


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