October 2, 2008

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Netbook update
Tiny laptops get cheaper & awesomer
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Wi-Fi for Web browsing. A keyboard for typing up papers or e-mails. What else do you really need from your ultraportable laptop? You’d think there wouldn’t be much to distinguish one so-called netbook from another, but the sheer number of models flooding the market since I last wrote about them in April gives you plenty of choices.

As the number of netbooks grows, they’re becoming available at more price points, too.

• Under $200: Anything this cheap is really a glorified Pocket PC. Take the J-PRO Mini Laptop (www.jointech.com.hk). At $99, it would be a fantastic deal if it were a full-fledged netbook, but of course it’s not. The 400MHz processor barely limps along, and the 64MB RAM doesn’t leave much room for documents or extra programs. It comes with Windows CE 5.0 installed — nope, not even the latest Windows Mobile operating system. Still, you do get a 7-inch screen and a full keyboard, as well as a Secure Digital slot for adding your own storage. That is, if you can find it outside Hong Kong.

For a dollar less — again, in Hong Kong — there’s the HiVision Mini-Note, spotted at a European trade show and scheduled for release sometime in October. Rather than paying for Windows, you get more storage: 1GB. A free operating system, Linux, replaces the Microsoft one. Details are scant, but HiVision (www.hvsco.com) makes several other netbooks, all based on a 1.6GHz VIA C7-M processor. If the MiniNote is similarly speedy, it’s a darn good bargain. In Hong Kong.
Both the J-PRO and the MiniNote come in black, white and pink.

• $200 to $400: This is the sweet spot for netbooks: cheap enough that a regular laptop with beefier hardware isn’t a better value, and it’s actually possible to buy in the United States. You can find early 7-inch models of the Asus Eee PC for just over $200 online, and later models with 8.9-inch screens aren’t much more.

This segment also gives open-source Linux a real chance to shine. A number of netbooks come in both Linux and Windows versions, with the Linux version usually cheaper. The Acer Aspire One has an MSRP of $329 with 512MB of RAM, 8GB of flash storage built in and Linpus Linux Lite installed. The thing boots up in about 15 seconds to a simple desktop with icons for your primary programs — office apps, Web browsing, etc.

The Windows XP version is $399, comes with twice the memory (because Windows needs it) and a 120GB hard drive, which is great for storing lots of stuff, but isn’t as shock-proof as flash memory. Both versions run a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor.

Dell’s in the game as well, with the Inspiron Mini 9. Their Linux version, running the Ubuntu distribution, is less of a bargain at $349 for 512MB of RAM and 4GB flash storage. For Windows XP, it’s again $399, but with 8GB flash storage and no memory upgrade. It uses the same Atom processor as the Acer. The Dell does claim four hours battery life versus Acer’s three.

The Sylvania Meso offers Ubuntu on an 80GB hard drive for $379. It comes in black, white, pink and yellow and features 1GB RAM and that 1.6GHz Atom processor again. The Meso, Aspire One and Mini 9 all have 8.9-inch screens.

• Over $400: At this point, unless you need extreme portability, you might want to consider a full-size laptop. HP’s 2133 Mini-Note exemplifies the segment, and its 1.2GHz VIA C7-M is a step down from the Atom. With Linux, you get 1GB RAM and a 120GB hard drive; Windows has 2GB RAM with the same hard drive.

With all the competition, who knows how long netbooks will be profitable for manufacturers? At least the getting is good right now.