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Talk about timing. The first netbooks arrived in fall 2007, selling for prices between $250 and $400 just before the current recession kicked in. Even though the economy continues to look gloomy, however, a funny thing is happening: Netbooks are going upscale. Exhibit A: the Sony Vaio P, which sells for $900.
Yes, you read that right: $900 for a netbook. Granted, it's a Sony, meaning it has style and sex appeal to spare. But like other netbooks, the Sony Vaio P isn't designed to be as powerful as a full-fledged laptop, which can sell for $500 and up.
The Vaio P is just one of several new upwardly mobile netbooks. Here's a quick reality check on the features some of these new netbooks offer. Caveat: I haven't tested any of the netbooks that I mention. My comments are based on past experience with other netbooks and laptops. Some of the netbooks mentioned below are pictured in our online gallery, "Hot New Notebooks Shine in Vegas."
Integrated Cellular Broadband
Sony's Vaio P is among the growing number of netbooks featuring a built-in cellular modem for surfing the Internet. The Vaio P connects to Verizon's EVDO network (monthly fees and contract apply). This is a nice feature to have, if you need Internet access on the go and can't rely on Wi-Fi hot spots.
Reality check: Cellular data connections can be a big battery drain, and most netbook batteries don't last more than 2 or 3 hours. (We don't have test data on the Vaio P's battery as of this writing. Sony's spec sheet claims the computer can run for 4 hours with a standard-capacity battery, depending on how the Vaio P is used.)
The Asus Eee PC T91 (available in March for about $500) adds an 8.9-inch touch screen to the Eee netbook lineup. The screen swivels, so you can use the netbook as a tablet PC.
Reality check: Asus started the whole netbook trend, and this sounds like a cool model. But beyond the medical and legal professions, tablet PCs haven't resonated with most users.
Dell's Inspiron Mini 12 ($400-$600) features a 12.1-inch display, the largest netbook screen thus far.
Reality check: Keep in mind that the bigger the screen, the faster the netbook's battery can be depleted. The basic Mini 12 comes with a 3-cell battery, which Dell says will give you about 3 hours of power (though manufacturer battery claims are often, shall we say, optimistic.)
Other Features on the Way
Improved graphics power. Graphics chip maker nVidia's Ion platform-based netbooks, coming soon, offer the promise that affordable netbooks will be able to play 3D games without a noticeable performance drag.
V tuner. The Asus Eee PC T91 is the only netbook I'm aware of that offers a TV tuner, so you can watch your favorite shows on the road. But I wonder how useful this feature will be. Most of the netbooks I've tested had a difficult time streaming typical low-quality YouTube videos without dropping frames.
Built-in GPS. The Asus Eee PC T91 and the Sony Vaio P can be used as navigational devices.
Ultra light weight. The Sony Vaio P weighs only 1.4 pounds, noticeably lighter than other netbooks.
Designer styles. Dell's Inspiron Mini netbooks are available in several 60s-inspired pop art styles, while HP's Mini 1000 Vivienne Tam Edition sports a peony-inspired design and is billed as the world's "first digital clutch." But starting at $700, this clutch might feel more like a squeeze.
Mobile Computing News, Reviews, & Tips
Google OS Netbook? Rumor has it Google is developing a version of its Android smart phone OS for netbooks. Far fetched? Hardly, given reports that two reporters were able to compile Android to run on an Asus netbook in just 4 hours.
Circuit City's Demise: Sales Now, Higher Prices Later? By now you've probably heard that Circuit City is closing all its stores. The chain is being forced to sell all its merchandise, which could mean good prices for consumers in the short term. But with Circuit City gone, that means less competition for Best Buy. Could that mean higher prices for in-store electronics purchases in the future? Read Melissa Perenson's thoughtful report.
Obama to Keep His BlackBerry? Our new president recently said he believes he'll be able to hold onto his BlackBerry, despite the huge legal and security concerns of a president freely communicating electronically. "So I make sure to think before I press 'send,'" Obama said. Also, read about Obama's top tech tools, including Twitter.
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.
Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.