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.

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5. Software: See what it comes with and consider trying the Linux OS.

There are two lessons on software.

First, some vendors have skimped on including software in their netbooks on the pretense that users can download a lot for free on the Internet. That's true, but it's a bogus excuse. Who wants to spend time downloading when many netbook makers have added lots of software so users can play with their new netbook right away?

Asustek included a lot of useful software on its Eee PCs 1000, 1000H and 901, as has Acer, which also added a nice opening screen that boots up in just 12 seconds.

Second, it may be time to the give the Linux operating system a try.

The Acer opening screen I just referred to is based on Linux, and Aspire One comes with the Linpus Linux Lite operating system, which is very user-friendly. I've used Windows for most of my life but switching to Linux to try out Aspire One was smooth and easy.

Most of the netbooks I tested with Linux operating systems booted up far faster than Windows XP or Windows Vista (I would not buy a netbook with Vista, it's just too slow).

There are also free Linux-based word processing programs, spreadsheets and so on available on the Internet such as Open Office, Google Pack, which includes Sun's StarOffice or Web-based software such as Google Apps.

Of course, it would be nice to see a Web site devoted to netbooks, with software specifically designed for low-power devices and smaller screens. Netbookdownload.com, anyone?

6. Price: If it costs more than $500, start looking at a regular notebook computer.

Companies have started promoting a wide range of netbooks at higher prices, but once you pass $500, netbooks start to compete with laptops, and a laptop will almost always give you more value for your money in that case.

Laptop computers have far more powerful microprocessors and other components than netbooks, and sport DVD drives. There are no DVD drives on netbooks.

If size and weight are your main concerns, there are plenty of small, full-featured laptops, including the Sony Vaio VGN-TZ340, Lenovo Ideapad U110-23042BU, and, of course, Apple's lightweight MacBook Air.

7. Look around at what's available.

There were a lot of devices that impressed me and that are worth considering.

Giga-byte's M912, is the netbook that has by far the coolest technology on board with its touch screen. The screen can also swivel around so you can show someone else what you're working on or looking at on the Net.

But I was quoted a price of $632 for the device, and since I'm not really sure how much I'd use the touch screen, I figured it wasn't right for me.

I almost decided on one of the netbooks with the bigger, 10-in. screens. My top choices were Asustek's Eee PC 1000 with the Xandros Linux OS and a 40GB solid-state drive for storage and 6-cell battery, or Micro-Star's Wind with a 6-cell battery.

Both devices are very nice to use but were a little bigger and more expensive than what I was looking for. Size is important to consider in terms of weight. Ten-inch screens, HHD and 6-cell batteries add a lot of extra weight to a netbook.

All of the netbooks I tried out include wireless Internet access through Wi-Fi 802.11b/g, but only Asustek's Eee PCs 1000, 1000H and 901 offered speedier 802.11b/g/n as of this writing.

The CloudBook Max will be sold with subscriptions for WiMax wireless networking, and some netbooks will also be sold with built-in 3G modules so mobile phone service providers can offer them with third-generation telecommunications contracts, so people can access the Internet from anywhere on their mobile phone network.

People can also buy add-on 3G or WiMax cards for any netbook.

8. And finally, the best netbook available is. ...

I tested several different netbooks and published reviews on them all, and after trying out some pretty cool devices, I decided to buy the one that's right for me: Acer's Aspire One.

Based on the criteria above, here's why:

I already have a laptop PC, so I don't need a powerful netbook. I just wanted a smaller, lighter device easier to carry around that I can use to surf the Web and write outside my office.

Aspire One comes with an 8.9-in. screen and a 3-cell battery, standard, but I will pay a little more for a 6-cell battery. I get stranded in airports sometimes, often take trains and simply like to sip my coffee very slowly. I need a long-lasting battery.

The keypad on the device is quite comfortable, and the software it comes with is easy to use, especially the Linpus Linux Lite operating system.

The price sealed my decision.

Last Friday, Acer slashed prices on three Aspire One models in the U.S., to $399 for an Aspire One with Windows XP, a 160GB HDD and 6-cell battery. An Aspire One with Windows XP, a 120GB HDD and 3-cell battery costs just $349, and a similar device running on Linpus Linux Lite is just $329.

I plan to buy the $329 Linux-based Aspire One, which has an 8.9-in. screen, a 1.6-GHz Intel Atom microprocessor, 512MB of DRAM and 8GB of flash memory storage and a 3-cell battery. I'll add more DRAM and buy an additional flash card, as well as trade up to a 6-cell battery, which will likely raise the price to around $420, in all.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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