This season's mini-laptops

The latest and least expensive breed of slimmed-down mobile PC--the mini-laptop--is ready for summer travel.

Meanwhile, the Acer Aspire One crams a lot into a very slim, very appealing package. It's smaller than the Wind (at 9.8 by 6.7 by 1.14 inches) and yet it finds room to house the same Intel Atom processor and a reasonably large 8.9-inch display (with a resolution of 1024 by 600 pixels).

The preview model that we looked at felt well polished. The Aspire One's plastic superstructure seemed a bit less rugged than the MSI Wind's, but this mini-laptop has a great keyboard.

The model we looked at is priced at US$400; it comes with Linux preinstalled and packs an 8GB NAND flash drive. Pop in an SD memory card and you've got an instant memory upgrade. A US$600 version of the Aspire One has Windows XP and an 80GB hard disk.

And let's not forget the Intel Classmate PC and the One Laptop Per Child program--two budget-friendly options contending for the low-cost education market.

The future and the growing mini-laptop

What's coming next? Well, even though the Wind hasn't even made its US debut yet, MSI is already talking about its new and improved Wind for 2009. And if you're not in a hurry for a mini-laptop, keep your eyes peeled for more information on the Asus Eee PC 1000, which could show up in August. A couple of options (such as the choice of Windows XP or Linux) are upgradable, but we're looking forward to a bargain machine that comes with a 40GB solid-state drive, a 10-inch (or 10.2-inch) screen, up to 2GB of memory, an Intel Atom CPU, and 802.11n Wi-Fi (a WiMax version should also appear). Better still, this 2.9-pound portable comes with a six-cell battery and promises a 7-hour battery life.

On the horizon, five companies (Arm, nVidia, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and Via) are independently prepping new CPUs to compete against Intel's Atom for future MIDs. Depending on their success and on other marketplace variables, the small notebook category could develop into something similar to what the mobile phone market is today, with an astonishing array of competing models emerging every year.

For a hint of the variety we may soon see, consider the high-style HP 2133 --a mini-laptop that is extremely well suited for students and light business users. The well-spaced keyboard and bright, 8.9-inch screen indicate that the system's designer actually envisaged an adult using it without incurring terminal finger cramping or eye strain. And the 2133's rugged metal casing helps you avoid feeling like a kid whipping out some plastic toy. Nevertheless, this machine does have two problems: First, it uses Via's C7-M processor to run Vista (big mistake, but at least you can overcome it by buying an XP or Linux version of the device). Second, the price--between US$500 and $750, depending on configuration--pushes this mini-laptop into the price range occupied by full-featured notebooks.

What to look for in a mini-laptop

Operating System: One reason that low-end mini-laptops are so inexpensive is that they come equipped with Linux. You can find mini-notes that run Windows XP, but that OS usually tacks an extra $100 onto the price tag. Before buying anything, think about which programs you'll use on it. And if the machine you're considering tries to combine anything less than a full-fledged notebook's guts with Windows Vista, think twice and then move slowly away from the counter.

Hard Drive/Software: Mini-notes aren't powerhouse machines by any stretch of the imagination, and mopst of them have very limited hard-drive space. Need a productivity suite that'll fit inside? Use OpenOffice! It's free, it doesn't require much memory to run, and it's available for Linux, Windows, and Mac.

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Darren Gladstone

PC World
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