Mini-Notebook Mania, Part 1

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For reasons only a psychologist might understand, miniature things have always held an allure for me. As a kid, I collected Matchbox cars and foreign-language dictionaries no bigger than a half-eaten Fig Newton. I consider a hotel stay to be a dismal failure if I'm unable to load up on travel-sized toiletries. I love Tater Tots. And in case you're wondering: Yes, I drive a Mini Cooper.

But I'm not here to be psychoanalyzed. I'm here to discuss mini-notebooks, also known as "netbooks,'" "mobile Internet devices'" and my favorite, "laptots.'" These ultra-compact portables have become hot sellers since Asus introduced its first Eee PC last fall. This week: some background on the mini-notebook phenomenon and a guide to currently available models. Next week: the pros and cons of mini-notebooks.

The Back Story

The recent trend in mini-notebooks can be traced back to the One Laptop Per Child initiative. The high-profile XO laptop, in development for years and designed for schoolchildren in developing countries, is ultra-compact, rugged, low cost, and extremely cool. Originally it was touted as the "$100 laptop" but came in just under $200. The XO was available commercially during the 2007 holiday season, and will sell the laptop this holiday season, beginning around Thanksgiving.

The One Laptop Per Child project's XO soon had competition from Intel's Classmate PC. Asus was first out with a commercially available mini-notebook for education markets and the general public. The Eee PC 4G, introduced in October 2007, sold briskly right from the start. The Eee PC 4G offered something not previously available to business users and consumers: an extremely lightweight (2 pounds) and low-cost ($400 at introduction) laptop.

Of the tiny Linux-based portable, with its 7-inch color screen and just 4GB of storage, Senior Editor Melissa J. Perenson wrote: "The Eee PC is no power system...However, [it] provides a high level of functionality at a highly affordable price."

Though not designed to be powerhouse systems, as Melissa noted, many mini-notebooks offer features you'd find in traditional laptops, including multiple USB 2.0 ports, Secure Digital card slots, VGA-out ports, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, microphone and headphone inputs, speakers, and built-in Webcams. However, mini-notebooks typically lack optical drives; offer precious little in bundled software; and only some models offer Bluetooth, usually as an option.

In general, mini-notebooks are best suited for light computing tasks, such as e-mail, basic Web browsing, word processing, and spreadsheet work. They're not recommended for image or video editing, and they may not even deliver a smooth YouTube video viewing experience.

The Choices

Asus Eee PC 900: This mini-notebook earned a PCW Rating of 71 (Good). With the Eee PC 900, Asus bumped up the screen size to 8.9 inches and added Windows XP. You can buy a Linux version with 16GB of solid-state storage for about $350.

Worth noting: As of mid September 2008, Asus had 12 Eee PC models listed on its Web site. Check out online pricing for various Eee PC models using PCW Shop & Compare.

Hewlett-Packard 2133 Mini-Note: This model was among the first mini-notebooks from a major computer maker. HP's entry comes preloaded with either Linux or Windows Vista Business (which isn't ideal for such underpowered systems). When you order a Vista system, you can downgrade to Windows XP, meaning XP will be preinstalled but you'll also get Vista install discs. The Mini-Note also includes an ExpressCard slot. Prices start around $449. For a review, read "HP's 2133: A Tiny Laptop an Adult Can Really Use."

Acer Aspire One: Acer's entry into the mini-notebook market has one of the most comfortable keyboards for touch typing in this product class, says our reviewer, Darren Gladstone, who gave it a PCW Rating of 80 (Very Good). I'd agree, based on some limited hands-on experience I've had with the Aspire One. The 8.9-inch screen mini-notebook comes in three colors, and runs on either Linux or Windows XP. One of the machine's cool touches is a second Secure Digital slot. Pop in an SD card, format it, and you can use it as if it were a second hard drive. Current online prices are about $325 and up.

MSI Wind NB U100: The Wind offers one of the largest screens of any mini-notebook (10 inches, 1024-by-600 resolution). It also has a reasonably comfortable keyboard, as reviewer Darren Gladstone discovered, though not quite as good as the Aspire One's. Recent online prices began at $535.

Dell Inspiron Mini 9: Want choices? Dell's tiny Inspiron is probably the most configurable mini-notebook available now. You can choose between Webcams with 0.3 or 1.3 megapixels, for instance. That's no surprise, given Dell's tradition of letting customers customize systems online. Like the Aspire One, the Inspiron Mini 9 lets you use an SD card as an extension of the machine's internal storage-a good thing, given current models max out at 16GB solid-state drive. Our go-to-guy for mini-notebook reviews Darren Gladstone says the Inspiron Mini 9 offers a terrific design at a good price. (Our test unit was $474.)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10: Lenovo's offering won't be available in the U.S. until October. The IdeaPad sold in the U.S. will come with Windows XP only, though buyers in other countries can choose between XP and Linux. It will have an ExpressCard slot, come in three different colors, and cost $399 and up.

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Mobile Computing News, Reviews, & Tips

Best Power Laptops: Power laptops live on the opposite end of the spectrum from mini-notebooks. Known as desktop replacements, these machines deliver raw power and performance in a package that weighs 6 pounds or more. Among the systems in our roundup of power portables is the HP Pavilion dv7t. With its 2.53-GHz Core 2 Duo T9400 processor and 3GB of memory, the system delivered a roaring score of 98 in our WorldBench 6 tests.

Creative Zen Mozaic: The Mozaic is an eye-catching portable media player that plays MP3, WMA, and WAV audio files. It includes an FM radio, audio recorder, external speaker, and support for Audible 4 audio book files. We tested a 2GB model ($60) and found the Mozaic delivers more style than substance.

iPod Touch 2.0: The second-generation iPod Touch offers some welcome features that its predecessor lacked, such as hardware volume controls, an integrated speaker, support for the Nike + iPod Sports Kit, and improved battery life.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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