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?

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Acer Aspire One

If all that matters is getting a netbook that downloads faster than the others, Acer's Aspire One is the speed king, if only by a digital hair. Too bad it does this at the expense of battery life and travel-oriented creature comforts.

The device: At 1.1 in. by 9.8 in. by 6.7 in., the Aspire One is a little thinner and wider than the Dell Mini 9. It weighs 2.4 lb. and, with its AC adapter, can hit the road at just a hair over 3 lb. Oddly, Acer uses a three-prong grounded power cord for the Aspire One, which might prove awkward in older buildings with two-prong power outlets.

Like the Mini 9, the Aspire One has a 1.6-GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB of system memory and an 8.9-in. screen that's capable of showing 1,024-by-600 resolution. It comes equipped with a conventional 160GB hard drive rather than a low-capacity solid-state flash memory drive.

The system has three USB ports, along with ports for Ethernet, an external monitor, headphones and a microphone. To that, the Aspire One adds two flash card readers: one for just Secure Digital (SD) modules and another that also works with memory sticks and xD cards.

The service: The Aspire One contains a data card with Qualcomm's Gobi communications chip that can work with 350 different data carriers. To get online, you use a switch along the front of the system for going between 3G and 802.11 b /g Wi-Fi. I was able to download and upload data at 955Kbit/sec. and 799Kbit/sec., respectively -- slightly faster than the Mini 9.

Acer's Connection Manager app shows what network is available, its signal strength and how much data has been moved. It doesn't let you know how long you've been online the way the Mini 9 does, but it has excellent diagnostic software. The software lets you switch among the available networks, but the card doesn't have a GPS chip, as is the case with the Mini 9. So, don't forget your maps.

3G netbooks
Acer's Connection Manager app shows what network is available, its signal strength and how much data has been moved.

The Aspire One's battery life of two hours and 24 minutes dropped to two hours and six minutes with the 3G data card running.

Cost: While the Aspire One system with a 3G card costs $500, the price can be reduced to $99 with a two-year AT&T data contract that costs $60 a month. At the moment, the 3G Aspire One is available only at RadioShack stores.

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