When you're in the market for a new computer, it's always important to take a step back and look at what you really need from it. I'd venture to say that 90% of us do little more than some word processing, a bit of music listening, some online shopping, and a whole lot of extra Internetting. If you're looking for a little something to throw in your bag so you can do your basic computing anywhere, you might want to take a peek at the next big thing in computing: "Netbooks." Netbooks are lightweight, extremely portable laptops specifically designed to do all your basic computing needs and get you on the internet wherever possible. They come in various shapes and sizes, ranging from the basic, barebones Asus EEE PC, to Samsung's hybrid tablet Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC).
Most of the netbooks come preloaded with a modified version of Linux, an open source, easily customizable operating system that is specifically designed to run speedily on simple hardware. They use low-power processors to conserve battery life and usually feature small-capacity solid state hard drives, which load faster and last longer than normal hard drives that contain actual moving parts. If this all sounds a little too weird and cramped for your tastes, don't worry! You can easily choose to have a regular, high capacity hard drive with Windows XP or Vista in your netbook for a nominal fee. Just remember that Windows XP and Vista require more memory to operate, so you might want to opt for faster processors and more RAM if you plan on doing a lot of work on your netbook. Each notebook/UMPC has their strengths and weaknesses, so let's take a look at a few different ones to get a feel for whether or not they're right for you.
Price: Starting at $249 at Newegg.com
The Asus EEE was the first notebook to be labeled a "netbook" thanks to its low price, solid state hard drive, and emphasis on simple performance instead of power. It has one of the largest product lines of netbooks, ranging from the 8.9" EEE 4g Surf available at NewEgg for $249.99, to the $450 10" EEE 1000 that can be customized with a regular hard drive and an extended battery that'll last over seven hours. Even though the 4G sports a tiny screen and smallish keyboard, it still has a decent two hour charge to let you 'net on the go. While the newer versions of the EEE hover around $600 thanks to larger, traditional hard drives and Windows XP, the original simple, solid state version is still one of the cheapest netbooks out of there if you can dig the keyboard.
Price: Starting at $329.99 at Newegg
Acer's Aspire One netbook was one of the first true competitors to the Asus EEE, and with it came a few much-needed improvements that made it accessible to a larger crowd. Most notably, the folks at Acer reorganized the actual layout of the keyboard and touchpad, resulting in a keyboard that is considerably easier to use than the EEE or other similarly priced netbooks. Unfortunately they did this by moving the touchpad buttons from the bottom of the trackpad to the sides, which will certainly not please everyone. While many of their other innovations have been picked up by their competitors (such as larger hard drives, XP, and added memory card slots), the Acer One provides one of the most comfortable typing experiences for the buck if you can get with their nouveau touchpad stylings.
Dell Mini Inspiron 9
Price: Starting at $349 at Dell
Meet the newest netbook on the block: Dell's Inspiron Mini 9. Featuring a stock 8.9" LED display, 4GB solid state drive and Dell's special flavor of Linux for $349, the Mini 9 looks to be a serious competitor to both Acer and Asus. Early test reports say that the keyboard is a little on the small side (somewhere between the EEE 900 and the Aspire One), but the trackpad and quality of the included Linux OS is surprisingly high. Although the Inspiron Mini comes out September 16th, the Dell store is having a preorder sale with $25-$40 off normal prices. For those who are a little worried about trying a new operating system, $425 will net you an upgraded Mini with Windows XP and 1gb RAM, so see what setup works best for you. With Dell's strong reputation, a sleek design, and an attractive pricepoint, Dell's Mini 9 netbook just might be the hottest school accessory for this fall.
HP Mini Note - Great Deal!
Price: Starting at $399 at Newegg (after $50 savings and $100 mail-in rebate)
The HP Mini Note sits atop the netbook pile as the leader in price and features. Starting at a pricey, yet still affordable, $399 (after rebate), the HP Mini Note features a near-full sized keyboard and a sleek aluminum chassis that will look great for years to come. Unfortunately it appears to also feature a sideways touchpad like the Aspire One, but it seems to be the price you pay for a spacious keyboard. While the stock version at other websites come with a small solid state hard drive and less RAM, the $399 version offered at Newegg comes with a 1.2 ghz processor, 1GB RAM, and a regular 120GB hard drive that makes it much like any other "normal" laptop out there. On the whole, the HP Mini Note looks to be the netbook of choice for people looking to do extended typing, or for those who want a netbook that can do a little more than just jot notes and keep them entertained. And for $150 off of the normal price, it's hard to pass up this great deal.
Price: $849.99 (after $200 instant rebate) at Newegg
Suspiciously lurking about the grey area between home computers and laptops comes the Ultra Mobile PC, or UMPC for short. Intended for mobile professionals on the go who need both a tablet PC / PDA and a netbook, Samsung's UMPC gives power users an interesting middle ground to traverse. You can write your notes, use the stylus to open/use programs, and even attach a larger Bluetooth keyboard for extended typing sessions. UMPC's are currently a bit more pricey and niche, but depending on how well the "mobile professional" crowd adopts the portable tablet, they could be the next hot business accessory.
Fijitsu LifeBook UMPC
Price: Starting at $899 (after $100 instant rebate) at Newegg
For those who like the Samsung UMPC's features but want a built-in keyboard and an even smaller form factor, the Fujitsu LifeBook seems to be a perfect match. Touting the smallest tablet touchscreen seen in any UMPC to date (5.6"), Windows Vista Home Premium, and 40 GB of memory, the Fujitsu LifeBook seems to take everything you might want in a mobile computer and puts it in an even smaller package. Obviously its microscopic keyboard and LCD aren't going to appeal to everyone, but this tablet UMPC should be seen more like a "super PDA" than a true netbook. The only thing really keeping this sweet little PC from taking the crown is its high asking price and tiny size, but it's a great choice for those torn between a laptop and Samsung's (usually more expensive) UMPC.
And there you have it! While these four "netbooks" aren't everything that's currently out on the market, they're a good introduction to one of the largest growing subsets of laptops out there. For commuters and professionals on the go, there's nothing more portable and easy to use than these little mini notebooks. Give them a look if you're on the go, or just want to save money on a computer that will do exactly what you need, and nothing you won't. On top of the deals listed here, you'll also get your usual 2% Cash Back just for shopping through Ebates, so get out there and find the netbook of your dreams!