Can you hear that growing rumbling sound in the distance? Well, that’s the thunderous din of overloaded bandwagons charging over the cobbles as they try to keep up with the latest trend in portable computing: the mini-notebook or netbook.
Ever since companies like Asus released the Eee PC range and similar netbooks, the public has gone overboard for sub-£300, lightweight, ultra-portable computers whose main function is to provide Internet access on the move.
As a rule, netbooks user lower spec processors and operating systems, are rarely larger than a medium-size paperback and dispense with chunky extras like optical disk drives and hordes of adaptors. The Stone Group, which took over Rock Computers last year, has now rushed to join the rest of the big boys by bringing out its first netbook, the Neo 101.
From the moment you take it out of the box, you know that what you’re holding is the typical mini-notebook standard package, apart from the Stone logos on the outside of the jet black body. Powered by an Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz CPU with 1GB of DDR2 SDRAM and a 160GB hard drive, the Neo 101 sports a 10.1-inch WSVGA screen with a native 1024 x 600 resolution and weighs a featherlight 1.3kg.
As you’d also expect, there’s a built-in 1.3-megapixel webcam, just a couple of USB 2.0 ports for plugging in your flash drives or printers, an Ethernet port, a VGA adaptor for an external monitor, a 4-in-1 card reader slot as well as a PCI-Express Card expansion slot for specialist applications such as infrared or smartcard readers. A four-cell battery pack slots neatly into the base and is intended to provide up to four hours of power at normal usage, though we managed only about two and a half.
Start-up time is around 45 seconds using Windows XP and the internal WiFi card (or optional internal 3G module) ensures almost instant Internet access once you make the initial connection. Three quick start buttons above the keyboard further speed up operations by turning on the webcam, mail and Internet, although the buttons are a little stiff to operate. The keys, on the other hand, are suitably firm, responsive and easy to manipulate as they are 90 percent of the size of a desktop’s key tops.
The main problem for the Neo 101 is nothing to do with looks or performance but everything to do with standing out from the crowd. Because the netbook market is already so competitive, the one unique claim to fame Stone has at present is a three-year RTB warranty as standard, which no doubt one or more of its rivals will soon adopt.
Stone has made considerable inroads into the education sector and it may well be that the Neo 101 will find its largest audience within that mass arena, whereas firms like Asus (already employing swivelling touchscreen technology in the Eee PC T91) will fight the good fight in the main consumer market.
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