Are netbooks worth a look as PC companions?

Machines like the HP Mini 5102 with built-in tools for mobile workers make welcome travel companions

While the Apple iPad and other emerging tablets may ultimately shift the playing field, netbooks from the big corporate suppliers offer an interesting mobile alternative to big, bulky laptops.

Don't confuse these solidly built machines loaded with helpful tools for the mobile professional with the cheap, plastic consumer netbooks you find at Best Buy and other outlets.

The recently announced 10- by 7- by 1-inch HP Mini 5102, for example, has an all-metal case, a 10-inch screen, a great 95%-full keyboard and feels quite substantial, yet weighs in at only 2.64 pounds. I borrowed one from HP for a month to see what it was like to live with what HP calls a "companion PC."

In a word: great. These aren't toys (this one is powered by an Intel Atom N450 1.66GHz processor with 1GB of RAM and a 160GB drive). While they don't boast the horsepower of a full-sized laptop, they are more than adequate for your average knowledge worker pounding on documents and spreadsheets and accessing e-mail and the Web (for a full review of the machine see here).

But if you're going to go this route look for machines with added value. The 5120, for example, comes with HP QuickSync, which synchronizes the contents on your netbook with your desktop over a wired or wireless link. To sync you start the password-protected programs on both machines and let them figure out what has been updated. This is a huge advantage if you are going to live with two devices.

Two other interesting tools on the the Mini 5102 are accessible from dedicated buttons above the keyboard. QuickWeb launches an HP browser without starting up the operating system. I was surfing in 16 seconds, compared to about 40 seconds for a full Windows 7 boot. Similarly, QuickLook lets you access Outlook calendar items, contact info and stored e-mail (up to 1,000 cached messages) without booting the computer -- great if you're on the run.

While the price seems right at US$399 and road warriors will welcome the light weight and small form factor (you can actually use one of these things on an airplane tray table), what it comes down to is this: can you really afford to add another layer of hardware/OS/apps for mobile workers?

That's a heavy price to pay. The same is true, of course, for the new tablets. If it isn't a one-for-one swap, you're just adding to device count and complexity, which aren't our friends. That said, if employees are going to start buying these things on their own anyway, at least you can point them in a direction that makes sense. Machines like this HP Mini 5102 with built-in tools for mobile workers make welcome travel companions.

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

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Tags iPadnotebookstablet PCsnetbooksapple ipad

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John Dix

Network World
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