Round-up: 10 netbooks for music making
11th Oct 2010 | 13:56
Is small beautiful?
Netbooks are cheap - this is why they took off in the first place - but if you buy one, it won’t necessarily suit your music-making needs. However, if you’re a live musician whose set revolves around a laptop, or someone who does a lot of tune-making on the move, you may have been thinking about investing in one for a while now.
A slimmed-down machine like this is not going to be making up the backbone of your studio setup any time soon - the minimum requirements for today’s processor-hungry production applications are too much for them to handle. Instead, netbooks are likely to find a home with producers, DJs and bands who are looking for an ultra-portable live solution or ideas pad.
We’ve tested ten of the latest netbooks by loading them with some of your favourite software: click on to read the results in ascending price order.
NEXT: Asus Eee PC 1005PE
Asus Eee PC 1005PE
Asus started the netbook revolution with its tiny 7-inch ultra-portable. This was before the Atom processor and most of the nips, tucks and tweaks that have since defined the platform. In the meantime Asus has produced the biggest array of netbooks of any manufacturer, with prices and sizes for every pocket.
The Asus Eee PC 1005PE is the latest netbook to roll off the production line, and if nothing else it shows that Asus knows more than any other manufacturer what works and what needs tuning. The chassis has proved to be durable, so there’s no change there, and it’s the same story for the textured touchpad and the spaced keyboard, both of which are great for normal PC use.
Asus has resisted the temptation to lavish a glossy coating on the 10.1-inch screen, making this a netbook that you can use outdoors without having to having to head for the shade. This is another outing for Intel’s Atom N450 processor, and once again you’ll find it operating alongside 1GB of RAM and a healthy 250GB hard drive.
In our rundown test, the Eee performed exactly the same as the Aspire One in the number of plug-ins it could handle, but it had a longer battery life at just under seven hours. Weighing in at just 1.27kg, this is clearly a netbook that is designed to travel.
The Eee is the cheapest netbook on test and would be ideal for the cost-conscious, if you can live with its limitations.
Buy Asus Eee PC 1005PE: Scan.co.uk
Acer Aspire One 532
The classic Acer Aspire One was one of the originals on the netbook market, scooping various awards thanks to its keen pricing, decent core specification and comfortable keyboard. This rendition of the netbook, the Aspire One 532, is the latest refinement to that original machine.
For a start, it features a better processor: the Intel Atom N450. The key selling point of this relatively new Atom is that it boasts the processor and graphics core in a single package, making it both faster and more energy-efficient than its predecessors.
The battery life on our rundown test came to five and a half hours. The test consisted of running multiple tracks and plug-ins at the limit of the CPU’s capabilities, just using the onboard sound device.
The number of plug-ins the Aspire One can handle is nothing to shout about. The Atom processor and 1GB of RAM could only deal with up to 16 VST plug-ins in Reaper. The Aspire One did marginally better when running PreSonus’s Studio One, with a total of 20 VST plug-ins running before playback was interrupted.
The 1024x600 screen has a high-reflective coating, which can make it tricky to use in brighter conditions, but for dark and dingy nightclubs it works just fine.
The gesture-based touchpad is frustrating to work with, and accidentally tapping it while typing can be infuriating. This obviously isn’t ideal in a live performance situation. Overall, the Aspire One 532 is a neat machine, but it feels a little uninspired against the kind of competition that’s now available. One for those on a budget.
Overall, the Aspire doesn’t inspire us. Compared to the huge number of other Atom N450-powered netbooks that you can find on the market, it doesn’t offer anything special.
Buy Acer Aspire One 532: Scan.co.uk
Packard Bell Dot S2
While most netbooks are available in any colour as long as it’s white (or black, depending on the manufacturer), Packard Bell is a little more style-conscious and has decided to offer the Dot S2 in an alluring bright red as well. Whatever colour you choose for the outer shell, flipping the lid reveals one of the most stylish gunmetal interiors we’ve seen on a netbook.
This is a portable machine with a mind to keeping you up and running on the road, boasting nearly eight hours of battery life and weighing in at just 1.2kg. It’s a svelte design, too, although the large battery pack does protrude below the base by a few millimetres.
The core specification, as is to be expected from any modern netbook, boasts the ubiquitous Intel Atom N450 running at 1.6GHz, with 1GB of DDR2 RAM backed up by a 5,400rpm 250GB hard drive. This is a capable core that powers the vast majority of 10.1-inch netbooks, and in our performance test as a DAW, the Dot achieved the same score as the MSI, Acer and Asus.
Packard Bell has packaged a copy of Photoshop Elements 7 on the machine; although the Dot is technically capable of running this, the performance is a little slow in practical terms. Even so, given the price, it’s a nice inclusion.
The Dot S2 is one of the better-looking netbooks out there, but unfortunately, it’s a case of style over substance in terms of its power.
Sony Vaio M Series
The fact that Sony is producing a budget netbook at all is surprising. Having built a name for itself in the ultra-portable arena with an array of expensive to highly expensive machines, it can’t have been easy for the venerable tech company to see its market invaded by a slew of budget upstarts. But as the saying goes, if you can’t beat them, join them.
You know you’re holding a Sony product as soon as you take the Vaio M out of its box. The build quality is high and the whole thing feels reassuringly well made, if a bit on the heavy side. Being one of the smallest netbooks on test, the Vaio will fit neatly in most handbags, let alone gig bags, despite tipping the scales at 1.4kg.
With an LED-lit, matte-finish screen, the Vaio M certainly won’t put a strain on your eyes, even in the most brightly lit of indoor or outdoor surroundings. As with the majority of netbooks, the screen size is 10.1 inches with a resolution of 1024x600, though you may find that certain programs and soft synths won’t be able to shrink to fit to the screen.
The Vaio M’s performance in the rundown test was the best of the smaller netbooks in terms of using Studio One and Reaper, if only by a small margin. Unfortunately, though, it struggled with Ableton Live - so much so, in fact, that it couldn’t run the demo fully.
What the Vaio M lacks in battery life it makes up for in handling marginally more plug-ins than other 10.1-inchers.
MSI released its first Wind netbook not long after Asus had defined the market with the Eee PC, and it has produced a constant trickle of updates to the brand ever since. This latest edition, the U160, boasts a solid core specification boosted by a strong battery life to make for a machine that you’ll be happy to take on the road with you - once you’ve managed to scrape off the plethora of stickers that MSI has slapped on the palm rest, at least.
Weighing in at 1.3kg, this isn’t the lightest machine you’ll find, but the manufacturer does claim a battery life of over 11 hours. We should add, however, that during testing we didn’t activate the ECO power-saver option - for a fair test, all netbooks were run down in their default battery mode - which meant the battery only lasted five and a half hours.
The Wind’s claimed extra longevity is apparently due to a battery that is slightly larger than the chassis; this also gives a useful angle to the keyboard, making typing a surprisingly responsive and comfortable experience.
The 1024x600-pixel 10-inch screen is functional, if not particularly exciting compared to much of the competition. The core specification is as expected too, with Intel providing the honours once again in the form of the Atom N450. There’s 1GB of DDR2 RAM (upgradeable to 2GB) and a 250GB hard drive, providing plenty of space to work with.
The design is smart, but the Wind looks a bit too busy and doesn’t lend itself to taking on the rigours of gigging.
Lenovo is best known for its ThinkPad business laptops, but its IdeaPad range provides entry-level machines for both corporate and consumer use. The IdeaPad S12 is a 12.1-inch offering that strikes a balance between the netbook and the ultra-portable.
As one of the larger netbooks available, the 1.6kg IdeaPad lacks the mobility of its rivals. While the battery is fairly slimline, it protrudes 14mm from the rear of the chassis, adding to the bulk of the device. Battery life is excellent, running to five and a half hours, but unfortunately the IdeaPad scored the worst by a long way in the rundown test.
Build quality is average: the matt plastics are resilient enough, but the glossy plastics on the lid are prone to scratches. You will undoubtedly find it quite hard to keep the IdeaPad in good condition if playing regular gigs, so it’s a machine for those who don’t mind the ‘stickered’ look. The extra size of the chassis allows space for a full-sized keyboard, which upholds Lenovo’s reputation for high-quality usability.
All the keys move smoothly and firmly, and this is one of the most usable netbooks on our test. It’s ideal for business use, but sadly not entirely ideal for music making.
The screen should be the clincher here, but the IdeaPad lacks the power to run music production programs effectively.
Packard Bell Easynote Butterfly XS
Like the Toshiba Satellite, the Easynote Butterfly XS sports an 11.6-inch, 1366x768 screen and a Celeron processor, but that’s where the similarities end.
Packard Bell has further blurred the lines between notebook and netbook with the inclusion of an optical drive. Yes, you read that right: a netbook with a DVD drive. This inclusion has pushed Packard Bell to make the Butterfly’s chassis slightly thicker than those of the others on test, and the result is a rugged machine that, though elegantly styled, feels solid enough to take on the rigours of gigging.
The Butterfly comes bundled with Adobe Photoshop Elements 7 and a free protective wallet, just like the Dot S2. Unlike its smaller brother, however, it runs Elements with no problems at all.
Our rundown test proved that the Butterfly has what it takes to cut it in a live situation. With six hours of battery life it can more than handle a live set, or even a sound installation. Like the Toshiba it can handle its fair share of DSP in Ableton Live, even with 1GB less RAM than the Toshiba.
The Easynote Butterfly is the only netbook on test with an optical drive, and that fact alone really does set it apart from the rest.
Toshiba Satellite T110
The 11.6-inch form factor may just be the rising star in the netbook fraternity, and the Satellite T110 has star quality in spades. A whopping 3GB of RAM and an Intel Celeron processor place it firmly in between the original 10.1-inch netbooks and the more familiar and expensive notebook market. For musicians, producers and DJs alike, it poses a question; has a worthy, cheap netbook/ultra-portable laptop finally arrived on the scene?
The larger screen, full-size keys and larger palm-rest area make for a more comfortable experience than you’ll get with the smaller netbooks. The Satellite features the obligatory three USB ports, one of which supports Sleep and Charge: this allows you to charge USB devices even when the machine is switched off and not plugged into a wall outlet. It’s very handy for when you are travelling.
As a live tool, the Satellite certainly has the power to perform, especially with the likes of Ableton Live. In our performance test it ran 20 tracks, all featuring up to three plug-ins, and could handle twice as many channels and plug-ins on Studio One and Reaper than the Atom-powered netbooks. Cubase still proved problematic, however.
The Satellite’s specs are the highest on test, but its success could be thwarted by its price tag.
Samsung has tinkered with its various netbook designs over the years, and the changes it has made haven’t always been for the better. Battery life, for instance, took something of a dive a few models ago, and the styling has been a little questionable at times. With the N210, however, the designers have resolved both issues to produce a workhorse of a machine with some neat touches.
The N210 scored just as well as the Dot S2, Aspire One and Wind in its handling of DSP, but the big difference has to be the battery life. At seven and a half hours, the tireless Samsung machine came top of the class in terms of stamina.
If you’re in a hurry to check something on the internet, pressing F6 as the N210 boots up will take you into a cutdown Linux distro called HyperSpace instead of the standard Windows 7. You’re limited in what you can do in this OS, and Windows 7 doesn’t really take that much longer to load, but it’s still a handy option if you need to get online very quickly.
It seems that Samsung has finally got the balance right with the N210. It’s a solid netbook that won’t let you down in the battery stakes - but do you really want to fork out that much cash for it?
Buy Samsung N210: Scan.co.uk
HP Mini Vivienne Tam Edition
The redesigned HP Mini by Chinese fashion designer Vivienne Tam is something of an oddity. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s nothing more than an average HP Mini 210 with butterflies plastered all over it, but in fact the Vivienne Tam Edition is a different beast altogether. The specifications differ from those of the normal HP Mini - it has an extra 80GB of storage space.
This netbook reeks of style, despite being emblazoned with fauna. The gold finish is perfectly offset with the black chiclet keys. The touchpad is quite clever compared to its rivals - it took us a little while to get used to the integrated buttons, but the pad is larger than the others on test. To turn off the pad all you need to do is double-tap the top left-hand corner, a nifty little feature that could prove useful in a live situation.
In the rundown test the Vivienne Tam performed pretty averagely, only beating the other Atom N470-loaded netbooks by a couple of extra plug-ins. Even with 2GB of RAM the Atom processor still struggles, which is a shame.
The Vivienne Tam is too expensive to really win out against its 10.1-inch rivals overall, but it is quite the object of desire, even if it does resemble a clutch bag. We wonder if we can get matching shoes…
Fashionistas on both sides of the gender divide may find the styling and great design of this netbook too much to resist, but others will balk at the price
All the netbooks on test shares common specs such as three USB ports, a multi-card reader, a webcam and stereo ins/outs, but that’s where the similarities end. Even though they each have something going for them, none of the 10.1-inch netbooks performs terribly well when running multiple audio tracks and plug-ins. Portability is high on the wishlist for a lot of musicians and DJs, but it’s just not enough unless it can be backed up with the necessary processing power.
This is where the larger netbooks step in. Unfortunately, the Lenovo IdeaPad loses out due to its misguided attempt to run Windows 7 Home Premium using just an Intel Atom processor. That leaves us with the Toshiba Satellite T110 and Packard Bell Easynote Butterfly XS. Although the Satellite has more RAM, the Easynote wins on all-round performance and the addition of an optical drive.
The Satellite comes in second by the narrowest of margins. If you can do without the DVD drive and want to spend that little bit more for the extra gigabyte of RAM, this netbook can handle a lot for its size.
Despite its price tag, the Samsung N210 is the best of the 10.1-inch netbooks, pipping the Sony Vaio M to the post by a hair’s breadth. It has a good battery life and a more rugged chassis than the rest, and is capable of getting the job done in a live situation if you are running programs like PreSonus Studio One and Reaper. It’s probably better suited for just running backing tracks than for multitrack sessions, but it is certainly worth serious consideration.
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