How Fast Are Netbooks?

by Ken Burnside Google

    There is a Russian adage that dates back to World War II: "'Better than' is the enemy of 'good enough.'" When it comes to laptops, that adage led to the netbook, where cheaper processors and stripped-down operating systems could make something that was "good enough" for many conventional uses: word processing, checking email and visiting websites. The trade-off is that netbooks have never had a reputation for blazing speed, but there are ways to make them faster.

    Intended Role

    Netbooks were intended to be secondary computers. They aren't suited to graphics-heavy games with 3-D rendering and shading. When netbooks were created, manufacturers used distributions of Linux to cut costs by eliminating Windows licensing fees and to boost performance. Windows moved into the niche with XP, and later Windows 7 Starter edition, but the low-end processors fall short of full-fledged CPUs. In general, the Intel Atom processors are roughly comparable to the Pentium IV-Ms from roughly 2004-05, and Intel has created the ultrabook market niche to keep netbooks from cannibalizing its higher-margin, higher-performing chips.


    While processors are widely blamed for netbook speed issues, the processor is less of a barrier to performance than the RAM. The netbook "specification" called for only one RAM slot, and for most netbooks, that's a 1 GB stick. Even worse, the integrated graphics uses system memory for the graphics chipset, which slows performance even more. Upgrading the RAM to a faster chip, and more importantly, a 2GB stick, is the most-cost effective speed boost upgrade for your netbook you can get.

    Hard Drive

    The original netbooks overcame slow-performing Intel Celeron processors by loading the operating system on a very small solid state disk drive and using a conventional disk drive for data storage. As netbooks moved towards Windows, the hard drives got larger and the solid state disk drives went away as a cost-cutting measure. Replacing the hard drive of a netbook with a solid-state disk will make it much more responsive -- programs will load faster and save faster. The drawback is that a good solid-state disk drive often will cost more than the netbook does, and the combination of the solid-state drive and netbook may cost more than a much more capable computer.

    Operating System Tuning

    While it's not for the faint of heart, or for people who absolutely must use Microsoft Office productivity applications, a simple way to squeeze more performance out of your netbook is to install a lower footprint operating system, like Linux Mint or Eeebuntu. If you're dedicated to keeping Windows on your netbook, you can gain some performance back by turning off the "tray icon" programs that most vendors install to help offset the costs. The Windows utility for this is called "msconfig"; type it in the Start menu's search bar and click the "Selective Startup" radio button. After that, you can specify which programs and which Windows Services, can be left turned off the next time you reboot the system. A prime candidate is the Windows 7 Aero Interface elements with transparency effects, which take a lot of visual processing from the integrated graphics.

    About the Author

    Ken Burnside has been writing freelance since 1990, contributing to publications as diverse as "Pyramid" and "Training & Simulations Journal." A Microsoft MVP in Excel, he holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alaska. He won the Origins Award for Attack Vector: Tactical, a board game about space combat.

    Photo Credits

    • Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images