Keyboard: Because mini-laptops are so small, their keyboards may border on freakish. Remember, the same configuration that makes a great first computer for an elementary-school-age kid can become a medieval torture device when used by an adult to type a lengthy work proposal. If possible, visit a store and lay your hands on the device before you buy. For what it's worth, HP's 2133 mini-laptop currently has the biggest and best keyboard in its class.
Screen: Like the keyboard, the display gets scrunched on these wee PCs. The 7-inch screen on the original Asus Eee PC 4G is exceedingly small (with a resolution of 800 by 480 pixels), making the task of reading content on most Web pages a real challenge. Consider shooting for a slightly larger screen or one with 1024-by-768-pixel resolution so that you won't go blind trying to use it.
Extras: Some features are standard on today's mini-laptops. These include an SDHC/multiformat media slot, 802.11b/g, ethernet, two or three USB 2.0 ports, a built-in 1.3-megapixel camera, a built-in microphone, VGA-out, and microphone/headphone jacks.
The supertiny UMPC
What's the main difference between an ultramobile PC (UMPC) and the MIDs we've been discussing? A couple hundred dollars. UMPCs get billed as higher-end, professional devices, but at bottom they're little more than sexy (and not very practical) gadgets. But if expensive toys are something you live for, you'll find that two good ones in the UNPC category are the HTC Shift and the Fujitsu U810.
The HTC Shift feels more like a supersize AT&T Tilt smart phone than like a fully functional computer. And yet it carries an 800-MHz Intel CPU and 1GB of RAM. The touch screen slides back and up at an angle to reveal a full keyboard for knocking around in Vista; the Shift also supports wireless data, so you can shoot off e-mail and text messages without loading Windows. That functionality sounds pretty sweet for someone who is always on the go--and the machine looks good, too, right down to a protective cover that wraps around the Shift like a leather burrito skin. All that style provides some justification for the $1500 asking price.
Another hybrid of sorts is the Fujitsu LifeBook U810. This UMPC measures 6.5 inches by 5 inches by 1 inch, so it can fit in just about any pocket. Heck, the U810 is just small enough for you to try holding it in both hands and thumb-typing as if it were a T-Mobile Sidekick in sumo training. If the keys still feel too tiny, flip the screen around and you also have a teensy tablet. But like a real sumo, it's no speed demon. Pricing for the U810 starts at $1000 and varies depending on the amount of RAM, the hard-disk size (the model we looked at came with 40GB), and whether it includes WWAN support. Though these Intel-based machines are expected to run Vista, you can opt for XP instead.
The traditionalists: ultraportable laptops
Compared to a mini-laptop, the full-powered laptops known as thin-and-lights or ultraportables are behemoths, despite weighing less than 3 pounds. On the other hand ultraportables are hardly experimental devices: They have a long history as the notebook of choice for frequent travellers.
The most obvious current candidates for best in show in this class of notebooks are the Apple MacBook Air and the Lenovo IdeaPad U110. Both of these premium laptops offer sweet and stylish takes on mobile computing and pack 1.6-GHz CPUs and plenty of RAM. But where's the optical drive? Like the mini-laptops and UMPCs we've discussed, these ultraportables had to sacrifice something to achieve the desired weight and screen size.
That's really the punchline for all of these machines. Each of them fills a different need for people who need to travel light, but they have yet to solve the problem of how to provide certain things that haven't gone out of style. For example, suppose that you want to install a program. Though USB flash drives continue to get cheaper, you'll still probably need an external optical drive nearby to handle big loads--and that means more gear to lug around. So much for shedding pounds.