A buyer's guide to laptops -- from mighty mites to mobile monsters

Notebooks come in all shapes, sizes and prices. Here's help in picking the right one.

Netbooks

The runaway sales hit of 2008 (and possibly 2009), netbooks are an entirely new species of the mobile ecosystem that do something once considered impossible. By providing minimal processing power and viewing space in an economical package, netbooks can be inexpensive without being thick and heavy.

Asus's Eee PC started it all off as the first commercial netbook, but was quickly joined by Acer's Aspire One, HP's Mini models, and Sony's Vaio P series. It seems that every time I look around there's another netbook on the market. In other words, shop carefully.

Netbooks, whose screens range from 7 to 10 inches, are perfect as a person's second or third computer for home, travel or student use. With downsized keyboards, screens and ambitions, netbooks often leave you waiting for apps to open or tasks to complete. They won't win any awards for performance, but some provide more than five hours of battery life.

To cut the price tag to the absolute minimum, some systems, such as the entry-level EeePC 2G Surf, come with a small amount of flash memory storage and a Linux operating system by default rather than a larger hard drive and Windows. While you won't be able to use all the Windows-based applications you're accustomed to on these machines, you will be able to view, work on and save most of your files, such as images, videos and Microsoft Office documents, with included or downloadable Linux-based programs.

While early netbooks came with just 4 or 8GB of flash storage, newer models have larger capacities. The Sony Vaio P, for instance, includes a 128MB SSD or a 60GB hard drive.

The least expensive netbooks start at about $300, but newer "premium" models can rise to over $1,000. Because they might have trouble standing up to daily use and abuse, you might consider getting an extended warranty for any netbook; note, however, that this can add 50 percent to the price tag, making it less of a bargain.

On the other hand, if you subscribe to an online 3G data service, you might be able to find a provider that will chip in a couple of hundred dollars. You'll be obligated to pay about $60 a month for two years for the service, but if you want go-anywhere data, it makes for one of the notebook world's best bargains.

Ultraslim

It's funny, but ultraslim notebooks are defined more by what they do without than by what is included. To thin the machines down to their positively anorexic profiles, some notebook designers have cut out as much bone and muscle as fat, potentially reducing the system's usefulness on the road.

Still, because of their razor-thin profiles, these are the executive status symbols of our time. When you're carrying a beauty like the Apple MacBook Air, the Dell Adamo, or the Lenovo ThinkPad X301, those making due with a lesser model can only look up with PC envy.

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Brian Nadel

Computerworld (US)
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