Cool stuff: Your 2009 holiday gift guide

Find the best HDTVs, laptops, smartphones and some surprise goodies to give this year

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Netbooks keep rolling

Two years after Asus first introduced its Eee PC 701, the netbook marketplace is packed with possibilities -- so many that it can be hard to decide which is best. If you're looking for an inexpensive portable computer, you can go for the standard specs: an Intel Atom processor, 160GB hard drive, 10.1-inch display and a cost of under $400.

However, there are a number of netbooks out there that are pushing the envelope with SSDs, larger hard drives or larger displays. At what point does a netbook stop being a netbook and start being a small notebook? There's no hard and fast rule.

What is a good rule to shop by is to look at the features that are important to your giftee. Does he need a larger keyboard than the usual netbook offers? A better display? Or just a usable netbook that's lightweight and cheap?

While there are many solid netbooks available this season, several stand out from the rest. For example, the Asus Eee PC 1101HA offers a slightly larger 11.6-inch screen and over 8 hours of battery life.

Addicted gamers who need something to carry with them may want to look at the HP Mini 311, whose Nvidia Ion LE GPU pushes video performance to something near tolerable (most netbooks seem to run at about 30 mph). And two netbooks, the Samsung N120 and the Toshiba mini NB205, impressed our reviewers with their all-around netbook goodness.

Asus Eee PC 1101HA
Asus Eee PC 1101HA

Asus Eee PC 1101HA

(Click to view larger image)

This netbook is nicknamed "The Seashell" for its glossy finish and curves, but there's more to it than externals.

It features an 11.6-inch display capable of 1366 x 768 widescreen visuals, a claimed 11 hours of battery life and 802.11n Wi-Fi; it weighs slightly over 3 pounds. You may not need that second notebook.

PC World's editorial team wrote:

This well-designed, slimline netbook stands out for its excellent keyboard and touchpad, and for its clear, bright, 11.6-inch screen. Its battery life rocks, too, at over 8 hours. Though this model isn't the fastest we've tested, its overall handling impressed us.

(See the full review)

In other words, this is one Seashell that is worth collecting, especially if you want something that's both easy to use and easy on the eyes.

Eee PC 1101HA from ASUSTek Computer Inc.

Street price: $330 - $430  |  Tech specs  |  Store locator  |  Phone: 510-739-3777

Summary: A good-looking netbook that offers a great display, long battery life, and a comfortable keyboard for about $400 -- not a bad deal.

HP Mini 311-1000NR
HP Mini 311-1000NR

HP Mini 311-1000NR

(Click to view larger image)

If your gift recipient is a gamer or depends on a netbook to stay entertained during long plane flights, you may want to check out the HP Mini 311.

Why? Because it includes an 11.6-inch HD display along with the Nvidia Ion video processor, which, according to reviewer Darren Gladstone, makes it possible to play your favorite games on a normally slow netbook:

Commuting to work this morning, I was playing Left 4 Dead on HP's Mini 311-1000NR -- that's right, on a netbook. Few netbooks are up to that task, and HP is first to market with an Nvidia Ion-based portable. The 3.22-pound, 11.4-by-8.0-by-1.2-inch Mini 311-1000NR has a reasonable amount of power and a $399 asking price.

(See the full review)

Of course, the Ion graphics processor also speeds up videos, so this is a perfect gift for the media maven in your family.

HP Mini 311-1000NR from Hewlett-Packard Development Company, L.P.

Street price: $400 - $500  |  Tech specs (PDF)  |  Phone: 888-999-4747

Summary: The HP Mini 311 is a good bet for gamers and video fans who don't want to drag around a full-sized notebook.

Samsung N120
Samsung N120

Samsung N120  (Click to view larger image)

The Samsung N120 is a fine all-around 10.1-inch netbook with a comfortable keyboard and good video and audio.

It comes in blue (N120-13GBL), black (N120-12GBK) and white (N120-12GW) models; the blue model offer 9 hours of battery life while the black and white models only claim 6 hours; except for that, and a slightly higher price on the blue model, they seem to be identical.

PC World reviewer James A. Martin bought one for himself:

The Samsung N120 is a pleasure to use. You can type for hours without causing your hands to throb. The battery will keep powering the netbook for nearly a full day of work, depending on use. You can watch video downloaded from iTunes or other sources without dropped frames or jerky motion. The screen is legible (though a bit too reflective) on a sunny day at the park. People I talked to in Skype video chats said the quality of my video and audio was mostly excellent. And though it's a bit bigger than some 10.1-inch netbooks, the N120 will fit easily into most small bags. (See the full review)

This low-cost netbook is so useful that you may want to get an extra one for yourself.

N120 from Samsung

Street price: $320 - $460  |  Tech specs  |  Phone: 800-SAMSUNG (800-726-7864)

Summary: The Samsung N120 offers good all-around netbooking, including a comfortable keyboard and easy-to-view display, at a good price.

Toshiba mini NB205
Toshiba mini NB205

Toshiba mini NB205  (Click to view larger image)

Toshiba's mini NB205 includes the standard Atom processor, 1GB of memory, 10.1-inch display and 160MB hard drive -- but it also sports a good-looking exterior, a bright, clear display and a very comfortable keyboard, as noted in my review for Computerworld:

First, the 10.4 x 7.6 x 1.3-inch Toshiba is very stylish, with a sleek, textured skin (which resists fingerprints, something that other netbooks could do well to copy) and a slim, streamlined design. The power key, located in the center of the hinge between the keyboard and the display, glows a rather eerie but pleasing lavender. But more importantly, the NB205 has one of the best keyboards I've ever used on a netbook. (See the full review)

Netbooks have been dissed for their small, badly designed keyboards, so if you have a giftee who has bigger-than-usual hands -- or just somebody who types a lot -- this might be the one to go for.

mini NB205 from Toshiba America Information Systems

Street price: $314 - $450

Tech specs (PDF)  |  Store locator  |  Phone: 800-TOSHIBA (800-867-4422)

Summary: Toshiba's mini NB205 can get you netbooking quickly and easily at an

easy-to-digest price.

-- Barbara Krasnoff

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