Mini-Notebook Mania, Part 2

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Last week, I provided background on mini-notebooks and a brief overview of current and upcoming models. This week, the focus on "laptots" continues with a look at their pros and cons, plus recommendations for who should consider buying one--and who should steer clear.

Why Mini-Notebooks Are Worth Considering

They're extremely easy to tote. Mini-notebooks only weigh 2 to 3 pounds, and they're small. For example, the Acer Aspire One measures 9.8 by 6.7 by 1.14 inches, about the size of a standard hardcover book.

Because they're petite, mini-notebooks can travel with you more often and go more places than a conventional laptop. In San Francisco, I sometimes carry a small Tumi tote around town. My The Acer Aspire One I've been testing fits easily into the bag along with car keys, wallet, sunglasses, pens, notepad, and my Apple iPhone. I barely notice I'm carrying a computer. Yet in a few otherwise idle moments away from the office, I can tap out a quick e-mail or get some work done.

They're fully functioning computers. Though not designed to be powerful computers, most mini-notebooks offer standard features found in conventional laptops, such as multiple USB 2.0 ports, a Secure Digital card slot, a VGA-out port, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and a Webcam. They're the first affordable, ultra-compact devices to offer a fully functional PC complete with physical keyboard in a form factor that's easy for most people to afford, carry, and use.

By comparison, Hewlett-Packard, NEC, IBM, and other makers sold devices during the late 90s that were similar in size to today's mini-notebooks. But those systems ran a version of the Windows CE operating system, making them, in essence, oversized PDAs. You couldn't load standard Windows programs on them. Also, the Windows CE laptops were quite expensive, usually around $1000. You can read about my experiences using Windows CE laptops in "Handheld PC Redux," Part 1 and Part 2.

More recently, Ultramobile PCs (UMPCs) from Samsung and others offer super-light and portable designs. But they typically only offer on-screen keyboards.

A few ultra-ultra-small computers, such as handheld PCs from OQO, are extremely tiny. While these are fully functioning Windows machines, their keyboards are closer to what you'd find on a BlackBerry than on a laptop. And compared to mini-notebooks, handheld PCs can be quite expensive. The OQO Model 02 was recently available online for $1785 and up.

They're (mostly) inexpensive. Some mini-notebooks don't cost much, as laptops go. The 2GB version of the Linux-based Asus Eee PC was recently selling for as little as $250. The majority of mini-notebooks fall somewhere between $350 and $500. But be aware that high-end models can cost a good deal more. Prices for the top of HP's 2133 line, a model with Windows Vista, recently started at $719 online.

Also, consider what else your money could buy. For example, $449 gets you a Dell Inspiron Mini 9 with Intel Atom processor N270 at 1.6GHz; Windows XP Home Edition; a bright, glossy 8.9-inch LED-backlit display; 1GB of memory; and a 16GB solid-state drive. For just $50 more, you can buy Dell's low-end Inspiron 1525, a full-size laptop with a 2-GHz Intel Celeron 550 processor; Windows Vista Home Basic Edition; a glossy, widescreen 15.4-inch display; an integrated CD burner/DVD player; 1GB memory; and a 120GB hard drive. The Inspiron 1525 earned a PCW Rating of 81 (Very Good) and delivered good performance and battery life.

The catch: the Inspiron 1525 weighs 6 pounds, compared to the Inspiron Mini 9's 2.28 pounds. As always, portability comes with a price.

Why They Aren't

Their usefulness is limited. Unlike a general-purpose laptop, a mini-notebook comes with compromises. For example, YouTube video playback can be frustratingly stop-and-go as the low-level processor and modest system memory struggle to meet streaming video's demands. Because mini-notebooks lack optical drives, watching a DVD movie on a long plane ride is out of the question. Depending on the model, a mini-notebook's keyboard may be too small for big-fingered touch typists. And their small screens (7 to 10 inches) can tire your eyes after an hour or so.

The battery life can be disappointing. You'd think such a small, unambitious computer could go forever before its battery expired. Unfortunately, that's not the case. PC World testers have gotten about 2.5 to 3.5 hours on a charge, depending on the model. In my informal tests, the Acer Aspire One's standard three-cell battery lasted only 1 hour and 45 minutes (with the screen's brightness level at 100 percent and Wi-Fi turned on). Some mini-notebooks such as HP's 2133 and the Aspire One offer optional, higher-capacity batteries that reportedly last 4 to 6 hours.

Who Are They For?

I doubt that anyone, except perhaps a child, would want a mini-notebook as their only computer. They weren't designed for that role, nor can they fill it. That said, I believe mini-notebooks are worth considering if you fit into one of these categories:

  • Mobile professionals who need an ultra-compact computer for note taking, e-mail, and basic Web searches during meetings. Realtors and other professionals who often travel to nearby locations for meetings are also good candidates.
  • Students who want a small computer for taking notes in class or carrying around campus.
  • Anyone who'd enjoy having a petite laptop around the house for quick Web searches while watching TV, looking up recipes or grocery shopping online in the kitchen, or quickly checking e-mail and news headlines at the breakfast table.
  • Anyone who wants a low-priced laptop to take to the park on a sunny day. Some mini-notebook screens are LED-backlit and glossy, which makes them reasonably viewable in bright sunlight (especially when the sun is at your back). So if you'd love to take your work outdoors, without worrying about carrying an expensive laptop, a mini-notebook could be just the ticket.

Who Should Avoid Them?

  • People with big hands and fingers. Mini-notebook keyboards are smaller than those on conventional laptops. At a minimum, you should go to Best Buy or other electronics retailer and try typing on a floor model before you buy one.
  • Frequent fliers who work for hours on a laptop. If you frequently travel internationally or cross-country, a mini-notebook probably isn't your best choice. Their smallish screens and keyboards would become tiresome after a few hours. Also, as mentioned, their standard batteries typically don't last much beyond 2 or 3 hours.

Buying Tips

If you decide to buy a mini-notebook, I have some suggestions:

Set your expectations low. Understand from the get-go you won't be using your mini-notebook to watch movies or YouTube videos, edit videos or images, or perform anything other than basic Web surfing, e-mail, spreadsheet work, and word processing. If you start with that attitude, you won't be disappointed.

Go with Windows XP. On these underpowered notebooks, Windows Vista is overkill and should be avoided. Some mini-notebooks are based on Linux, which is great for those familiar with Linux and love to hack and tweak their systems. But the majority of mainstream users, I suspect, don't know Linux and don't want to deal with another operating system. If you match that description, go with a Windows XP mini-notebook.

Sync your files with FolderShare. I'm still amazed by how many people don't know or use Microsoft's FolderShare, a free peer-to-peer file synchronization service. By downloading FolderShare on your mini-notebook as well as on your primary computer, your selected folders are always in sync between the two, as long as both are connected to the Internet. With FolderShare, you don't have to worry about copying files from one system to another. I reviewed FolderShare nearly two years ago, but its basic tools and usability haven't changed much since then. My conclusion then still stands today: "Because FolderShare is so easy to use, unobtrusive, and free, I can't see why you wouldn't want to use it." Worth noting: Like Gmail, FolderShare has been "in beta' for years. But FolderShare is reliable, so don't be concerned about the "beta' tag.

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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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