How to buy a mini-laptop

Mini-laptops are among the hottest new products this year and with the back-to-school sales season upon us, I created a list of items to help you choose the right one.

The devices, which are becoming popularly known as netbooks, or my favorite term, "laptots," have caught on because they offer people a mobile, easy way to wirelessly access the Web.

They come with 7-inch to 10-inch LCD screens and are about half to two-thirds the size of a mainstream laptop. They weigh around 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs) each, carry batteries that last up to 8 hours and generally cost between US$199 and $699.

I've written several netbook reviews and after some consideration, offer these tips for your first netbook.

1. Know what you want to use it for and how much you're willing to spend.

This is a cliche in reviews and doesn't tell you much but it's actually very important. What do you want this for? Do you want a lightweight device for easy Internet access? Or are you really looking for a full-featured laptop computer? Don't buy a netbook if you're really looking for a laptop, it would be a mistake.

To ensure longer battery life, some key components on a netbook, such as the microprocessor, are far less powerful than common laptops. That's why they're good for surfing the Internet, doing homework on a word processing program, working on spreadsheets or for presentations and other Office-like work.

Anyone looking for a gaming laptop or one for video-editing or other multimedia work should shop for true laptops, not netbooks.

2. Buy a netbook with an 8.9-inch screen or larger.

I tried out an Eee PC with a 7-inch screen and the annoying part is not being able to see an entire Web page because the screen is too small.

That's less of a problem on the slightly larger-sized screens and in the 8.9-inch screen size, the weight and size of the netbook is nearly the same as devices with 7-inch screens.

3. Make sure you get a 6-cell battery for your netbook, although you may have to pay $50 more and the device will weigh more.

Most companies are offering netbooks with 3-cell batteries as the standard, but that doesn't offer a whole lot of run time, just 2 to 3 hours. A 6-cell battery doubles that, and in some devices designed around a 6-cell battery, such as Asustek Computer's Eee PC 1000 and Eee PC 901, you can get up to 8 hours.

In a mobile device, battery life is vital. You don't want to always be looking around for plugs, nor fighting over the last one.

Most vendors are now following Asustek's lead with 6-cell batteries. Micro-Star International recently announced a line of Wind netbooks with 6-cell batteries, and Acer recently put out a formal version of its Aspire one with a 6-cell battery, and larger HDD to boot.

Vendors generally offer 6-cell batteries for all models. But most devices come standard with a 3-cell or 4-cell battery, so if you want a 6-cell then you have to ask for it, and expect to pay a bit more.

Another benefit of the larger battery is that it props up the back of the device, putting it on a slight angle that makes typing easier. Keypads on netbooks are smaller than normal keypads, and comfortable typing was one area I was not willing to compromise on.

4. Try out the keypad and make sure it's right for you.

None of the devices I tested had a better typing pad on a cheaper netbook than Intel's ClassMate PC, which has a keypad far smaller than the Eee PC 1000. Keys on the ClassMate PC's keyboard are raised and there is a lot of space between them, making them easy to find by touch.

By contrast, the Eee PCs, Wind and Elitegroup Computer Systems' G10IL designed their keypads with flat keys and little or no space between keys because, I was told by Elitegroup staff, it makes them look nice.

The trouble is, it also makes typing more difficult.

I really liked the keypads on Acer's Aspire one and Everex's CloudBook Max, but the best keypad was on Hewlett-Packard's Mini-Note.

5. Software: see what it comes with and consider trying the Linux OS.

There are two lessons on software.

First, some vendors have skimped on including software in their netbooks on the pretense that users can download a lot of free software on the Internet. That's true, but it's a bogus excuse. Who wants to spend time downloading when many netbook makers have added lots of software so users can play with their new netbook right away?

Asustek included a lot of useful software on its Eee PCs 1000, 1000H and 901, as has Acer, which also added a nice opening screen that boots up in just 12 seconds.

Second, it may be time to the give the Linux OS a try.

The Acer opening screen I just referred to is based on Linux, and the Aspire one comes with the Linpus Linux Lite OS, which is very user friendly. I've used Windows for most of my life but switching to Linux to try out the Aspire one was smooth and easy.

Most of the netbooks I tested with Linux OSs booted up far faster than Windows XP or Windows Vista (I would not buy a netbook with Vista, it's just too slow).

There are also free Linux-based word processing programs, spreadsheets etc. available on the Internet such as Open Office, Google Pack, which includes Sun's StarOffice or Web-based software such as Google Apps.

Of course, it would be nice to see a Web site devoted to netbooks, with software specifically designed for low-power devices and smaller screens. Netbookdownload.com, anyone?

6. Price: if it costs more than $500, start looking at a regular notebook computer.

Companies have started promoting a wide range of netbooks at ever higher prices, but once you pass $500, netbooks start to compete with laptops, and a laptop will almost always give you more value for your money in that case.

Laptop computers have far more powerful microprocessors and other components than netbooks, and sport DVD drives. There are no DVD drives on netbooks.

If size and weight are your main concerns, there are plenty of small, full-featured laptops, including the Sony Vaio VGN-TZ340, Lenovo Ideapad U110-23042BU, and of course, Apple's lightweight MacBook Air.

7. Look around at what's available.

There were a lot of devices that impressed me and that are worth considering.

Giga-byte's M912, is the netbook that has by far the coolest technology on board with its touchscreen. The screen can also swivel around so you can show someone else what you're working on or looking at on the Net.

But I was quoted a price of NT$19,900 (US$632) for the device, and since I'm not really sure how much I'd use the touchscreen, I figured it wasn't right for me.

I almost decided on one of the netbooks with the bigger, 10-inch screens. My top choices were Asustek's Eee PC 1000 with the Xandros Linux OS and a 40G-byte solid state drive (SSD) for storage and 6-cell battery, or Micro-Star International's Wind with a 6-cell battery.

Both devices are very nice to use but were a little bigger and more expensive than what I was looking for. Size is important to consider in terms of weight. Ten inch screens, hard disk drives (HDDs) and 6-cell batteries add a lot of extra weight to a netbook.

All of the netbooks I tried out include wireless Internet access through Wi-Fi 802.11b/g, but only Asustek's Eee PCs 1000, 1000H and 901 offered speedier 802.11b/g/n as of this writing.

The CloudBook Max will be sold with subscriptions for WiMax wireless networking, and some netbooks will also be sold with built-in 3G modules so mobile phone service providers can offer them with 3G (third generation telecommunications) contracts, so people can access the Internet from anywhere on their mobile phone network.

People can also buy add-on 3G (third generation telephony) or WiMax cards for any netbook.

8. And finally, the best netbook available is....

I tested several different netbooks and published reviews on them all, and after trying out some pretty cool devices, I decided to buy the one that's right for me: Acer's Aspire one.

Based on the criteria above, here's why:

I already have a laptop PC, so I don't need a powerful netbook. I just wanted a smaller, lighter device easier to carry around that I can use to surf the Web and write outside my office.

The Aspire one comes with an 8.9-inch screen and a 3-cell battery, standard, but I will pay a little more for a 6-cell battery. I get stranded in airports sometimes, often take trains, and simply like to sip my coffee very slowly. I need a long lasting battery.

The keypad on the device is quite comfortable, and the software it comes with is easy to use, especially the Linpus Linux Lite OS.

The price sealed my decision.

Last Friday, Acer slashed prices on three Aspire one models in the U.S., to US$399 for an Aspire one with Windows XP, a 160G-byte HDD (hard disk drive) and 6-cell battery. An Aspire one with Windows XP, a 120G-byte HDD and 3-cell battery costs just $349, and a similar device running on Linpus Linux Lite is just $329.

I plan to buy the $329 Linux-based Aspire one, which has an 8.9-inch screen, a 1.6GHz Intel Atom microprocessor, 512M bytes of DRAM and 8G bytes of flash memory storage and a 3-cell battery. I'll add more DRAM and buy an additional flash card, as well as trade up to a 6-cell battery, which will likely raise the price to around $420, in all.

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