The Incredible Shrinking Laptop

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At the recent Macworld expo, Steve Jobs famously introduced the new MacBook Air by slipping it out of an intraoffice envelope.

Memo to Steve: While the MacBook Air may be the world's thinnest laptop (at least according to Apple), plenty of other models are smaller and weigh less. In fact, supersmall laptops such as the Asus Eee PC and the FlipStart are redefining what a portable PC is all about.

Small computers are currently a big deal: Asus says it sold 350,000 Eee PCs in just three months. And these marvels of miniaturization are undeniably cool. Their diminutive size necessitates some compromises, however; for example, compared with using a traditional-size laptop, touch typing on one of these devices can be a challenge.

Also, though some supersmall portables such as the Sony VAIO Micro PC VGN-UX390N are genuine business machines, others--the Asus Eee PC comes to mind--may not suit all of a business traveler's computing needs.

If most laptops seem too big to you and most smart phones are too small, take a look at our guide to today's incredible shrinking laptops, which fall somewhere in between. Following are snapshots of five ultrapetite portables, plus four questions to ask yourself before you spend big bucks on a small PC.

Understanding the Differences

But first, a little background.

UMPCs: Today's ultracompact computers go by different names. The smallest, Ultramobile PCs (UMPCs), are also called "tweeners" because in size they fall somewhere between a PDA phone and a thin-and-light laptop. Some models in this category, such as the Samsung Q1 Ultra-V, lack the traditional keyboard you'd have with a laptop.

Also worth noting: UMPCs have so far failed to find a mass market. The very thing that distinguishes them--their size--is also their biggest limitation. Often, UMPCs are too big for your pocket and too small for any serious work, such as Word document editing. (See "The UMPC: Still Evolving! Still Pointless!" for more.)

Not all UMPCs go by that category name. The Sony VAIO Micro PC VGN-UX390N is dubbed a "micro PC," for instance. In contrast to other UMPCs, it has a traditional QWERTY-style keyboard (though its keys are microscopic).

Ultraportables: Unlike most UMPCs, ultraportable laptops are full-fledged computers that weigh less (usually 3.5 pounds and under) and are smaller than all-purpose laptops and powerful desktop replacements.

Other terms you may encounter for smaller-than-usual ultraportables include "subnotebook," "mini-notebook," and "ultramobile laptop."

MIDs: Most recently, a new class of ultracompact gadgets called Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) has debuted. MIDs, such as Nokia's N810 Internet Tablet, are intended primarily for Web surfing.

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