How to buy a minilaptop

Whether you call them minilaptops or netbooks, they are a lightweight way to compute. Here are some tips on how to choose the best one for you.

Minilaptops are among the hottest new products this year and with the back-to-school sales season upon us, I created a list of items to help you choose the right one.

The devices, which are becoming popularly known as netbooks, or my favorite term, "laptots," have caught on because they offer people a mobile, easy way to wirelessly access the Web.

They come with 7-in. to 10-in. LCD screens and are about half to two-thirds the size of a mainstream laptop. They weigh around 2.2 lbs each, carry batteries that last up to eight hours and generally cost between $199 and $699.

I've written several netbook reviews and after some consideration, offer these tips for your first netbook.

1. Know what you want to use it for and how much you're willing to spend.

This is a cliche in reviews and doesn't tell you much, but it's actually very important. What do you want this for? Do you want a lightweight device for easy Internet access? Or are you really looking for a full-featured laptop computer? Don't buy a netbook if you're really looking for a laptop, it would be a mistake.

To ensure longer battery life, some key components on a netbook, such as the microprocessor, are far less powerful than common laptops. That's why they're good for surfing the Internet, doing homework on a word processing program, and working on spreadsheets, presentations and other Office-like work.

Anyone looking for a gaming laptop or one for video editing or other multimedia work should shop for true laptops, not netbooks.

2. Buy a netbook with an 8.9-in. screen or larger.

I tried out an Eee PC with a 7-in. screen and the annoying part is not being able to see an entire Web page because the screen is too small.

That's less of a problem on the slightly larger-size screens and in the 8.9-in. screen size; the weight and size of the netbook is nearly the same as devices with 7-in. screens.

3. Make sure you get a 6-cell battery for your netbook, although you may have to pay $50 more and the device will weigh more.

Most companies are offering netbooks with 3-cell batteries as the standard, but that doesn't offer a whole lot of run time, just two to three hours. A 6-cell battery doubles that, and in some devices designed around a 6-cell battery, such as Asustek Computer's Eee PC 1000 and Eee PC 901, you can get up to eight hours.

In a mobile device, battery life is vital. You don't want to always be looking around for plugs, nor fighting over the last one.

Most vendors are now following Asustek's lead with 6-cell batteries. Micro-Star International recently announced a line of Wind netbooks with 6-cell batteries, and Acer recently put out a formal version of its Aspire One with a 6-cell battery and larger hard disk drives (HDDs) to boot.

Vendors generally offer 6-cell batteries for all models. But most devices come standard with a 3-cell or 4-cell battery, so if you want a 6-cell, then you have to ask for it and expect to pay a bit more.

Another benefit of the larger battery is that it props up the back of the device, putting it on a slight angle that makes typing easier. Keypads on netbooks are smaller than normal keypads, and comfortable typing was one area I was not willing to compromise on.

4. Try out the keypad and make sure it's right for you.

None of the devices I tested had a better typing pad on a cheaper netbook than Intel's ClassMate PC, which has a keypad far smaller than the Eee PC 1000. Keys on the ClassMate PC's keyboard are raised and there is a lot of space between them, making them easy to find by touch.

By contrast, the Eee PCs, Wind and Elitegroup Computer Systems' G10IL designed their keypads with flat keys and little or no space between the keys because, I was told by Elitegroup staff, it makes them look nice.

The trouble is, it also makes typing more difficult.

I really liked the keypads on Acer's Aspire One and Everex's CloudBook Max, but the best keypad was on Hewlett-Packard's Mini-Note.

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