netbook" is such a moving target that it's hard to tell if it'll even be relevant at all in a year or two. But for the moment at least it's a handy bit of shorthand for a laptop that sacrifices performance in exchange for a small form factor and cost savings. Usually. Of course, you've got to weigh the sacrifices when gifting one of these: if your target is a power user who can't get anything done on that smaller screen, slightly-cramped keyboard and low-end processor, then you might want to look elsewhere, but if they've got an unhealthy passion for portability and things in miniature, you might just make their year.
Holiday Gift Guide 2009: NetbooksSee all photos
Acer Aspire One D250 - The sub-$299 range is a dangerous place to be with netbooks. The gap in quality between $199 and $299 has traditionally been filled with the most truly mediocre examples of the category. But this year things are different, with Acer's highly popular Aspire One D250 dropping to $199 for a couple retail promotions. With Windows XP, 1GB of RAM, a 160GB HDD and a 10.1-inch screen, the AOD250 is really the quintessential example of a "2009-style" netbook, and if you're gifting to a hacker this is basically a blank slate to let their wild Linux imaginings run wild (for those new to the concept of Linux: that's a good thing).
$256 to $299 - Shop for Acer AOD250
$199 - Retail Target stores
Samsung N130 - With ultra-standard internals (see above) and a fairly bland exterior, the N130 might have a hard time sticking out like its fancy rubber-clad Samsung Go older brother, but the N130 makes up for it with strong battery life for the price (5.8 hours) and telltale Samsung quality. It's just not going to win any awards for "world's most surprising netbook" when you stick it under the tree.
$299 - Shop for Samsung N130
Dell Vostro A90 - The cheapest one of the bunch if you go by "regular" pricetags, the Dell Vostro A90 can be specced for as low as $219 if you opt for Ubuntu pre-loaded -- tech enthusiasts only, but you save a nice wad of cash. The Dell hardware is as minimal as it gets, with a mere 8GB of internal storage, and the 9-inch screen is stretching the limits of usability, but it is a "real computer" for a pretty unreal price.
$219+ - Buy from Dell
Oh, you shouldn't have
HP Mini 311 - This is where things get very interesting. For a mere $399 the Mini 311 steps up nearly every aspect of traditional netbook power and usability. It has an 11.6-inch screen, a great keyboard and HP's classy netbook styling, but the real kicker is the NVIDIA Ion graphics chip within that makes the laptop powerful enough to play back HD video and even some video games like World of Warcraft. Yeah, that's right, a mere $399 could reclaim the family PC from the significant other's WoW addiction.
$399+ - Buy from HP
$149 on contract - Buy from Verizon
ASUS Eee PC 1005HA - ASUS started the netbook craze, and while the release of Windows 7 and graphics chips like Ion have made "traditional" netbook guts a little passe, the 1005HA "Seashell" Eee PC is perhaps the best example of that passing form. For the price you'll have trouble finder a better looking laptop, but where things really get crazy is battery life: 10 hours of constant use isn't out of the question. Of course, it's up to you whether or not you actually want that loved one of yours working 10 hours straight.
~$359 - Shop for ASUS Eee PC 1005HA
Toshiba NB205 - A little surprising, but one of the best reviewed netbooks of the year isn't from ASUS, Acer of HP: it's from Toshiba. The NB205 is an expert at the little things like a comfy keyboard, large trackpad and unique design, but the real triumph comes with pairing a long-lasting battery with a friendly price tag. Up against the 1005HA we suppose it's primarily a question of taste, but if you're shopping for a critic, there's little to nitpick about the NB205.
~$330 - Shop for Toshiba NB205
$399 - Buy from Toshiba
HP Mini 5101 - Another example of a seasoned netbook vet just getting everything right aesthetically, though with less battery life than the 1005HA, the HP Mini 5101 is priced a bit high. Once you start adding on some of the available premium options, things start to get a little silly, but there's still no denying the quality of this product. Great for a well-compensated professional, or someone who's big into typing.
~$399 - Shop for HP Mini 5101
We can't afford the rent now, can we?
ASUS Eee PC 1201N - It won't be released until just before Christmas, so we're recommending this one blind, but if history is any indication we have no doubt that ASUS can get this thing right. Specs-wise it's quite similar to HP's Mini 311, with that same NVIDIA Ion graphics chip providing the magic, but the screen is slightly larger and the aesthetics are all ASUS Seashell goodness.
$499 - Shop for ASUS Eee PC 1201N (pre-orders only at time of posting)
Nokia Booklet 3G - You might be familiar with Nokia as the brand atop your very first cellphone, back when you still had physical buttons on the front and the high score in Snake. Now they're trying their hand at netbooks, and have managed to build an incredibly nice one. Unfortunately it's a tad spendy, but if classy materials or misplaced brand loyalty mean anything to you, the wireless internet-friendly and battery life replete Nokia Booklet 3G is worth a look.
$599 - Buy from Best Buy
$299 with contract
Lenovo IdeaPad S12 - Another Ion-powered rig, this one comes at a real premium, but brings with it a 12-inch screen, Windows 7 Home Premium and just about anything else you might want in a "netbook." Of course, at this size, price and power we're pushing the boundaries of the definition, but we know a few rebels on our gift list that certainly wouldn't mind.
$599 - Buy from Lenovo
Sony Vaio X - Remember when we said that netbooks usually sacrifice performance in exchange for a low price and improved portability? Well, Sony only got half of that memo. The Vaio X is truly a marvel of portability, and its carbon fiber chassis is one of the better examples of laptop case engineering this decade (if you could even call this sliver of a laptop a "case"), but it's actually running very standard netbook guts -- which makes the incredible $1,300 price tag truly insane. Sure, you could almost get a MacBook Air for the money, but there's just something so much more decadent about giving someone a Vaio X-style work of art, and the 10 hour battery life doesn't hurt.
$1,299 - Buy from Sony