The Mini-Laptops of Summer

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A new breed of extremely small and light (2 pounds or so) laptop has emerged just in time for summer travel. Called mobile Internet devices (MIDs), and also known as mini-laptops, mini-notebooks, or mini-notes, these lightweight laptops are practically naked, stripped of all extraneous features. And starting at around $400, they're far cheaper than other mobile PCs.

There are other lightweight options, of course. One is the ultramobile PC (UMPC), which is roughly the same size as a mini-note, but has more features, a more ambitions design, and a much higher price. Another is the ultraportable laptop--once the smallest and lightest of all notebook types, with representatives such as the MacBook Air.

Mini-laptops aren't designed to compete with either UMPCs or ultraportables. When push comes to shove, a MID can handle Web browsing and document creation--but little else. These machines pack low-end processors and run Linux or Windows XP (or in some deplorable instances, resource-hogging Vista). But if your needs on the road are modest, a mini-laptop may be a good fit in your luggage.

Mini-Laptops, Mini-Prices

A quick survey of the summer stock of mini-laptops turns up several rivals for your affection, either on the market or in preview form.  

The Asus Eee PC 4G
Photograph: Robert Cardin
 To this point in the history of mini-laptops, the Asus Eee PC 4G has been the category's poster child. In fact, MID madness really took off when the $399 Eee PC 4G debuted late last year. Asus made it happen by jamming an 800-MHz CPU, 512MB of RAM, and a 7-inch screen into a pint-size laptop PC about the size of a paperback book; the unit weighs about 2 pounds, and its dimensions are 8.8 inches wide by 6.5 inches deep.

Its price and compactness are certainly appealing, but achieving them entailed making some significant compromises. Two, in particular, stand out: The Eee PC 4G has a keyboard too tiny to accommodate adult hands, and its hard drive is very small (4GB).

The Asus Eee PC 900
Photograph: Robert Cardin
Subsequently, Asus released a version of the Eee PC 4G that runs on Windows XP; and most recently, it unveiled the slightly larger (and slightly pricier) Asus Eee PC 900 --a $549 unit that manages to increase the screen size from 7 inches to 8.9 inches while remaining almost as small overall as its predecessor.

The Eee PC 900 comes with a convenient multitouch touchpad, too. Finger combinations on the pad let you zoom out, magnify, or scroll through documents. If that sounds similar to the way a certain manilla-folder-size Apple notebook works, you know your way around an MacBook Air. 

But Asus is far from alone in the potentially lucrative toyshop of Mobile Internet Devices.

The MSI Wind
Photograph: Robert Cardin
Micro-Star International hopes that its MSI Wind will blow away the competition when it hits store shelves on June 16. Will it? The Wind improves on the Eee by building around Intel's new 1.6-GHz Atom CPU, including up to 2GB of RAM, stretching out with a 10-inch screen (at 1024-by-600-pixel resolution), and topping things off with an 80GB hard disk.

The Wind appears to be solidly constructed out of hard plastic--unlike some early mini-laptops, which feel about as sturdy as a Styrofoam mini-cooler. At 10 inches by 7 incches by 0.8 inch, the wind resembles some pricier portables--enough so that the list price of $399 (or $499 for the Windows XP version) seems like a bargain. Wait a week and we'll be able to tell you whether it's worth the money.

The Acer Aspire One
Photograph: Robert Cardin
Meanwhile, the Acer Aspire One crams a lot into a very slim, very appealing package. It's smaller than the Wind (at 9.8 by 6.7 by 1.14 inches) and yet it finds room to house the same Intel Atom processor and a reasonably large 8.9-inch display (with a resolution of 1024 by 600 pixels).

The preview model that we looked at felt well polished. The Aspire One's plastic superstructure seemed a bit less rugged than the MSI Wind's, but this mini-laptop has a great keyboard.

The model we looked at is priced at $400; it comes with Linux preinstalled and packs an 8GB NAND flash drive. Pop in an SD memory card and you've got an instant memory upgrade. A $600 version of the Aspire One has Windows XP and an 80GB hard disk.

And let's not forget the Intel Classmate PC and the One Laptop Per Child program--two budget-friendly options contending for the low-cost education market.

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