3G netbooks: Are they the cell phones of the future?

You can get a netbook for $99 if you buy a two-year subscription to AT&T's 3G service. Is it worth it?

Sometimes it seems that netbooks are everywhere. I've spotted them at airports, coffee shops and on commuter trains. No wonder that ABI Research forecasts sales of 35 million netbooks this year, more than double the 15 million systems sold in 2008.

What's been missing until recently, however, is the cherry on the netbook cake: the ability to get online with a built-in 3G modem. By tapping into a cell network, netbook users could get online just about anywhere the day takes them.

That's changing quickly as netbook makers scramble to include 3G data cards in these small wonders of the notebook world. "By adding a 3G data radio, an ordinary netbook becomes a powerful online tool," explains Phil Solis, principal analyst at Oyster Bay, N.Y.-based ABI. "By delivering wireless broadband speeds, it brings the office out into the field."

With a connected netbook, a mobile executive can not only do the basics, like check on e-mail and keep up with the news on Web sites, but also view online videos, download media-heavy presentations and sit in on videoconferences. In other words, if it can be done in the office with a wired data connection, chances are that it's now fair game on the road. About the only thing it can't do is help get the day's gossip at the coffee machine.

At the moment, only a handful of netbooks come with a 3G option, but Solis forecasts that by 2013, 72% of netbooks will have 3G built in. The irony is that on top of putting mobile mavens in touch with the world, adding a 3G data modem could actually lower the price of such systems.

How? Some netbooks are now being sold the same way as cell phones -- the network that supplies the data service effectively subsidizes the purchase price of a 3G netbook by between $200 and $400 in return for a contract for delivering data. For example, you can purchase a Dell Inspiron Mini 9 netbook for only $99 with a two-year AT&T LapConnect contract. You can get the same deal on an Acer Aspire One from RadioShack. Word is that 3G versions of the HP Mini 1000 and the MSI Wind U120 should arrive in the coming weeks.

Sound too good to be true? It might be. With the service costing about $60 a month, the discount turns into a profit over two years. So the $400 subsidy that lowers the price of the netbook to $99 is more than made up with the $1,440 that the user will be spending on data over the next two years.

Already have a netbook? An alternative is to install a USB 3G card. Although it will, in all likelihood, deliver the same flow of data, add-ons do eat more battery life. As with subsidizing the cost of the notebook, the card is usually free or offered at a low price if you sign up for two years of service.

To see how connected netbooks can help those who live and work on the road, I tested two netbooks with built-in 3G capabilities (the Acer Aspire One and the Dell Inspiron Mini 9), along with a Lenovo IdeaPad S10 outfitted with AT&T's external USBConnect Mercury card.

All three systems are similar in that they weigh the same and tap into the same AT&T network. But how they get online and how they handle the data they get couldn't be more different. The Mini 9 uses an Ericsson-made card, and the IdeaPad uses a card manufactured by Sierra Wireless; both can work only with AT&T's network. The Aspire One, on the other hand, uses a Gobi card that can connect with any of 350 networks throughout the world, including AT&T and Verizon in the U.S.

The beauty of incorporating a 3G modem into a netbook is the ease and convenience that it can provide. Rather than searching around for a Wi-Fi hot spot, you have access to over 900Kbit/sec. just about anywhere in the U.S. While their broadband speeds varied widely from place to place, the two netbooks were more than fast enough for working the Web, downloading media-heavy presentations and even watching a few YouTube videos.

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