Premium netbooks: Good value or oxymoron?

With smartphones becoming smarter and larger laptops becoming cheaper, are higher-cost netbooks worth a serious look? We look at four of them.

The term "premium netbook" initially sounds like a self-contradiction, particularly given the evolution of this particular species. After all, netbooks were conceived not just to be small and light -- they typically weigh two-and-a-half to three pounds -- but also inexpensive. For instance, the Asus Eee PC, the first successful consumer-oriented netbook, cost $400, and there are now equivalent or better systems available for less than that.

However, since the initial release of the Eee PC, vendors followed one of the unwritten laws of technology: When something is successful, add features and increase the price. It didn't take long before high-end -- and more-expensive -- netbooks were hitting the market.

Most recently, though, prices of these high-cost netbooks have dropped, largely because of the reluctance of consumers and enterprises to make new purchases in the current economy. Here, we take a close look at four premium netbooks that range from $440 to $900.

While netbooks were initially pitched as inexpensive devices for school kids and mobile users who need to access the Internet while on the go, these higher-end devices have been edging closer to the functionality of traditional larger notebook computers.

They start with the slightly-better specs of most netbooks today. Instead of the 7-in. display of the original Eee PC, they typically have screens that are a bit more than 10 in. Instead of Linux, they frequently come with Windows XP. But they add Bluetooth connectivity, hard drives or solid-state drives with more capacity than what's available in most of today's netbooks, and more.

Still, while the capabilities of premium netbooks have expanded, they remain small and light and still aren't very powerful. For example, all the netbooks we reviewed in this roundup use low-power chip sets such as Intel Corp.'s Atom processor, and they come with only 1GB of RAM.

Another thing that has not changed is the underlying question that has always been asked about netbooks: Are they worth buying in light of the increasing popularity and power of smartphones and the availability, for just a couple hundred dollars more, of low-end notebook computers with 13- and even 15-in. displays? Are their keyboards usable for tasks beyond typing brief e-mail messages and Web addresses, and are their displays big enough for extended work sessions? And do their batteries store enough juice to be useful for road warriors?

To help you decide, we took a close look at four premium netbooks from Asustek, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung and Sony (because we couldn't get a review unit of the Sony Vaio P in time for this roundup, we looked at a working shelf model in a local store). We ran all four through performance tests and put all but the Sony through a battery test, in which we measured how long it took to run down the battery while using the device's built-in Wi-Fi for streaming music from the Web.

Equally important, we looked closely at usability issues, such as how pleasant it is to use the keyboard for extended sessions of typing.

Here's what we found.

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