Is It Time to Buy a Netbook For Your Business?

As the economic downturn pushes PC sales through the floor, one category stands tall: netbooks. This emergent class of mini computer boasts two obvious appeals in the form of portability and affordability. With typical price points well below $600 per unit, a slick netbook is practically an impulse buy for those tech enthusiasts who still have a little change in their pockets. But are these cheap, slim systems right for your business? Let's see.

There can be little doubt that hardcore road warriors need more than a smart phone to really get things done. And sometimes a full-blown laptop just isn't practical for quick work. (Anyone who's had to perch their drink on their laptop's palm rest while reviewing PowerPoint presentations in a cramped coach airplane seat knows exactly what I mean.) So it can be incredibly handy to carry a tiny, 2-pound computer to handle small, simple tasks that don't require a whole lot of typing or processing power.

Of course, netbooks come with some pretty serious drawbacks, which make them a poor stand-in for a real laptop when you need to get serious work done. As someone who does a tremendous amount of typing, I can hardly see myself ditching my 15-inch laptop altogether. For that matter, I still try to do most of my keyboard-intensive work at my desk, if only to cut down the bodily wear and tear that inevitably results from haphazard ergonomics. (If you don't think carpal tunnel syndrome is a threat to productivity, think again.)

On a typical business trip, if 'typical' can even be used in this context, a mobile worker faces a complex and shifting work environment. From the taxicab to the airport terminal to the plane to the hotel to the board room, available work surfaces and power options change drastically. Ideally, you'd plug in and stretch out wherever you find the opportunity, and at those moments you want more features than a 10-inch netbook can afford. But in those intermediate spaces--the planes, trains, and automobiles, if you will--extracting your laptop from your bag and booting it can be more hassle than it's worth.

So it's a conundrum.

Fortunately, the cheap, lightweight nature of the netbook makes for a pretty good second or third computer, complementing your existing desktop and/or laptop. Weighing in at less than 3 pounds, a smaller netbook can sit unimposingly beside your real laptop in just about any tote. When you need to make good use of time spent in cramped traveling quarters, yank out the netbook and get to work. When you have more time and space at your disposal, go for the laptop.

It may sound like a waste of cash to add a second or third computer just to fill up your (or your workers') free time, but the regained hours of productivity can quickly offset the expense--especially if you go in for one of the sub-$400 models.

But here's the real rub: Switching constantly between a desktop at the office, a netbook on the plane, and a laptop at the hotel can leave your files and psyche in disarray. To keep it all straight, you need a robust synching solution that can keep your systems up to date even when you can't reach the cloud. And right now, this is a relatively tall order. Cross-platform syncing services like SugarSync can get you partway there, but you'll still have to supplement them with an old-fashioned thumb drive when you're away from a network connection.

The good news is that netbooks are still coming into their own, and some of the most 'net'-worthy features are just now finding their way onto the devices. Features like built-in 3G wireless service, for instance, which will go a long way toward eliminating file synching hassles.

Ultimately, if you work in more than one location, it's hard to deny the appeal of the netbook. So the big unanswered question isn't 'should you buy one,' but 'when.' The answer is an entirely subjective one, but there are some good cues coming from the marketplace right now. The netbook category is enjoying a sweet honeymoon with tech buyers, and manufacturers are taking notice. Even Apple is rumored to be entertaining some cheaper-than-Air options. So while it can look pretty enticing to jump in and grab one in the midst of the holiday sales, it may be wiser to hold out for some of the '09 models that are bound to debut at CES in January.

Robert Strohmeyer is a senior editor at PC World.

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