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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Lenovo IdeaPad S10 with an AT&T USBConnect Mercury 3G card

While it's getting easier to buy a 3G-equipped netbook, what is there to do if you already have a mini-notebook? Adding an external USB-based 3G card to a netbook is remarkably easy, and it can get data as quickly as an integrated data radio. The downside is that it eats into the system's battery life.

The device: I started with a Lenovo IdeaPad S10, a 2.7-lb. netbook that has a 1.6-GHz Atom processor, 1GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive. I connected it to AT&T's USBConnect Mercury 3G card (manufactured by Sierra Wireless as the Compass 885 USB Modem). At 1.2 oz., the Mercury is not as heavy as many of the other cards out there, but it still adds more weight than the integrated devices that the Aspire One and Inspiron Mini 9 use.

The service: In all, it took 10 minutes to install the card and go from an unconnected netbook to an online data machine. The best part is that there's no software CD to load, and the card does all the installation work.

AT&T's Communication Manager shows the current signal strength, which network you're connected to and how long you've been connected. For the compulsive, it also displays how much data has been uploaded and downloaded.

The Mercury card achieved download speeds of 947Kbit/sec. and upload speeds of 823Kbit/sec., right in between the times I logged for the Aspire One and the Mini 9. On the downside, it used an extra 29 minutes of battery time, 10 minutes longer than the 19 minutes that was eaten up by the 3G cards in the Aspire One and Inspiron Mini 9.

3G netbooks
AT&T's Communication Manager shows the current signal strength, which network you're connected to and how long you've been connected.

Cost: The card goes for $250 on AT&T's Web site or $100 with a two-year contract. There's a $100 rebate available, making the card a freebie if you can handle the $60-per-month online bill.

Conclusion

When it comes to online abilities, the bandwidth available to each of these netbooks -- whether they have internal or external 3G modems -- can transform them into lean, mean online machines. I really liked the Aspire One's top-shelf performance and its Gobi modem, which works just about anywhere in the world.

As far as battery life is concerned, both of the systems equipped with internal 3G modems lost about 18 minutes of battery life, while the external modem ate close to half an hour.

For my money -- which is especially tight these days -- I like the idea of having a network like AT&T pitching in to help me buy a new computer (or a 3G card for an existing netbook). Any of the three is a great deal, but because I was so impressed by the Acer Aspire One, I'd pay the $99 for the Acer system with a two-year AT&T contract and get an extra battery pack for $70. It's such a good deal that I'll be laughing all the way to the bank.

Brian Nadel is a freelance writer in the New York area and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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