These 'Netbooks' Mean Business

Kid-Sized Cases

The Eee PC's tiny keyboard is its biggest drawback. All of my test subjects struggled with its Chiclet-sized keys. Touch typing is extremely difficult. But my own, unorthodox hunt-and-peck method served me adequately, and before long I could maintain a rapid rate with few errors. If you can, definitely try it yourself before you buy (and note that some Eee PC models now come with larger keyboards).

I did like the Eee PC 901's hotkeys for applications and power-saving functions, and its iPhone-like multi-touch trackpad made zooming and scrolling easier -- though the trackpad functions weren't as responsive as they could be.

By comparison, the Mini-Note's keyboard raises no eyebrows. HP claims that it's 92 percent of standard size, and that feels about right. The silver keys are comfortable and have good travel, and most users should take to them without difficulty. The trade-off is that the Mini-Note's chassis is wider than the Eee PC's by more than an inch.

Tiny screens could also be a problem for some users. Of the two devices I tried, the HP 2133's screen had higher resolution, but that just made fonts harder to read. At the same 8.9-inch size, the Eee PC's screen seemed crisper, brighter, and more legible overall. I also appreciated the keyboard hotkey that flips the Eee PC's screen sideways for reading documents in portrait mode.

For presentations, however, the screens are a non-issue. Both devices also include standard audio jacks and a VGA port, making them practically ideal for PowerPoint.

The Solid-State Advantage?

The Eee PC's SSDs (solid-state drives) are one of its more intriguing features, but in practice I found them to be a mixed bag. Asus boasts of fast boot-up times, but the SSDs definitely write more slowly than traditional hard disks. When downloading large files, for example, drive I/O is the bottleneck, not network bandwidth.

What's more, the Eee PC 901 actually ships with its storage divided across two SSDs: a 4GB boot drive and a separate D: drive. Running Windows XP in 4GB without running out of space takes care and vigilance. If you're tasked with maintaining these devices, expect to devote a lot of time to freeing up megabytes that the OS has mysteriously swallowed.

My HP 2133 model used a standard hard disk (SSDs are optional), so it had storage space to spare. But compared to the Eee PC it booted slowly, and its internal fans were much noisier. Hard drives are also less rugged than SSDs; but then, neither of these machines is exactly built for combat. I haven't much faith that either machine could survive any major blows.

Cost vs. Benefit

So are netbooks worth it? Whereas early Eee PC models were notable for their rock-bottom pricing, Asus seems to be distancing itself from the notion of the Eee PC as a "disposable laptop." The latest models feature improved build quality but higher price tags, with the 901 listing at $599. And HP's 2133 Mini-Note line is even more expensive, at $499 for a stripped-down configuration running Linux.

Even at $750 for a well-equipped model, however, the 2133 retails for a fraction of the price of earlier ultralight notebooks, yet delivers most of the capabilities. If you value performance over size, standard-format notebooks can be had even less expensively; but in the ultralight category, the Eee PC and the HP 2133 are both incredible bargains. Either should come as a breath of fresh air to weight-conscious customers, who have traditionally paid a premium to lighten their carry-on bags.

When I say not to expect too much of these machines or their forthcoming competitors, then, "too much" is really the operative phrase. Long-term use will surely be fatiguing, and lack of an optical drive could make netbooks a hassle to configure and maintain in department-wide deployments.

Still, these are real PCs -- not toys -- and they pack more than enough juice for word processing, presentations, spreadsheets, and Web-based apps. If you can accept their limitations, netbooks are an exciting, breakthrough category for mobile customers who are willing to trade processing performance for a lighter load (and who don't want to break the bank to do it).

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