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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Dell Inspiron Mini 9

The combination of good battery life and a 3G data card that can grab raw data at over 900Kbit/sec. makes the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 a great companion on the road. However, it comes up short on performance and storage capacity.

The device: The Mini 9 measures 1.2 in. by 9.0 in. by 6.7 in. -- a little thicker and narrower than the Aspire One. At 2.4 lb., it's an ounce heavier than the Aspire One, and its travel weight is just over 3 lb. with its AC adapter. The system's plastic skin is available in four colors, although this can add between $30 and $50 to the cost.

The netbook's basic layout mirrors the Aspire One with a 1.6-GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB of system memory and an 8.9-in. screen that shows 1,024-by-600 resolution. The Mini 9 carries 16GB of flash memory rather than a traditional hard drive for storage. As a result, it can hold only one-tenth the data and files of the Aspire One's hard drive. On the other hand, the Mini 9 includes an account for up to 2GB of online storage with Dell.

There's one thing you won't find inside the Mini 9: a cooling fan. Because Dell's designers cut power use and heat to a minimum, this is one of the first systems to not need a fan. The result is longer battery life and incredibly quiet operation.

Like the Aspire One, the Mini 9 has three USB ports, an external monitor port, wired networking, as well as jacks for headphones and a microphone. It has a single flash card reader that works with SD modules and memory sticks, but it doesn't work with the small xD cards.

The service: Along with its 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, the Mini 9 gets online with a Dell Wireless 5530 3G modem, which is made by Ericsson and works with AT&T's network. I was able to download data at 912Kbit/sec. and upload it at 857Kbit/sec., about what the Aspire One was capable of. A bonus is the data card's GPS capabilities, but you'll need to download an application from Dell to get it to work.

3G netbooks
Dell's Wireless Manager displays data flow, which network you're connected to and how long you've been online.

Dell's Wireless Manager displays data flow, which network you're connected to and how long you've been online. There are no built-in diagnostics, but the software can use contact-list information from any AT&T provisioned SIM card that's set up for data transfers.

The Mini 9's battery life of three hours and six minutes fell to two hours and 49 minutes when I used 3G, which means I got a total of 40 minutes more use than with the Aspire One.

Cost: While the basic system costs $449, AT&T is offering a $350 rebate with a two-year contract, cutting the price to $99.

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