Like a diamond, a digital media player or a rare coin, the latest mini-notebooks are good things in small packages. By squeezing a lot of computing power into a very mobile package at a hard-to-beat price, they are turning the established mobile pecking order on its head.
Until recently, the smallest and lightest notebooks commanded the highest price tags. Take, for example, Lenovo's ThinkPad X300 and Apple's MacBook Air -- they each weigh about 3 pounds, sell for between $2,500 and $3,000 and are the envy of travelers the world over.
That's changing quickly as a new generation of small laptops -- variously called mini-notebooks, ultrasmall laptops, subnotebooks, ultraportables, netbooks and probably something else tomorrow -- that weigh less than 3 pounds and often cost less than $500 come to market. According to the market analysts at IDC, 500,000 of these inexpensive mini-notebooks were sold last year. This is forecast to rise quickly to 9 million units by 2012. At that point, mini-notebooks could make up as much as 5% of notebook sales and add up to about a $3 billion market.
To see what all the excitement is about, I got my hands on four of the latest minis available: the Sylvania G Netbook, the HP 2133 Mini-Note PC, the Acer Aspire and the Asus Eee PC 1000. They range in price from $330 to $700.
With these systems what you get is as important as what you have to do without. Although they all have webcams, Wi-Fi connectivity and the ability to work with most files, they're a step behind today's mainstream systems. None have CD or DVD drives, and many of the screens are too small to use without squinting. The keyboards will prove to be challenging for most grown-ups, and all the systems have either small hard drives or even smaller amounts of flash memory to store programs, data and files.
But for many, the real showstopper is the lack of a familiar operating system, like Windows or Mac OS X. While Windows is an option on most models, Linux is the operating system of choice because of its low cost and modest hardware requirements.
In other words, if you're a Windows user, you'll likely have to do without some of your favorite programs. However, take heart: There are thousands of free or low-cost Linux programs available that in many cases are easier to use and more responsive than their Windows or Mac counterparts. I soon became accustomed to the software and was using these petite portables to e-mail and nose around the Web, view and edit images, write stories and use spreadsheets. In the final analysis, I barely missed Windows and OS X.
How We Tested
The biggest challenge with Linux notebooks is the lack of benchmarks available to compare their performance and battery life. Instead, I put together a suite of tests that mimics the way most people work and play.
-- Start-up: I used a stopwatch to time how long it took to get each machine up and running. For systems that required a password, I stopped the watch to enter the information and then resumed the timing. The test was completed when the file activity light stopped blinking.
-- Open an Acrobat file: Each system was timed for how long it took to open a full-color six-page PDF that contained several photos and charts.
-- Print a Word document: This was a two-part test. First, a standard .doc file was opened using the system's included word processing program. Then, the 15-page all-text document was printed using an HP DeskJet 995C inkjet printer.
-- Battery life: With Wi-Fi turned on and the browser tuned to an Internet streaming "radio" station, I timed how long it took to run the battery down until the machine stopped; the results are rounded to the nearest five-minute interval.
-- Wi-Fi range: With the system playing the streaming radio station, I slowly walked away from the Wi-Fi router, noting where the system lost connection to the server. This was repeated to make sure of its location; results are rounded to 5 feet.
-- Compatibility: In addition, to make sure that these systems would not let you down on the road, I played several YouTube videos; composed, sent and received e-mail; viewed and edited and image; listened to streaming Internet radio; opened Acrobat, Word and Excel files; transferred files from a flash drive; and played an audio CD on an external Toshiba DVD drive.