Like a diamond, a digital media player or a rare coin, the latest mini-notebooks are good things in small packages. By squeezing a lot of computing power into a very mobile package at a hard-to-beat price, they are turning the established mobile pecking order on its head.
Until recently, the smallest and lightest notebooks commanded the highest price tags. Take, for example, Lenovo's ThinkPad X300 and Apple's MacBook Air -- they each weigh about 3 pounds, sell for between US$2,500 and $3,000 and are the envy of travelers the world over.
That's changing quickly as a new generation of small laptops -- variously called mini-notebooks, ultrasmall laptops, subnotebooks, ultraportables, netbooks and probably something else tomorrow -- that weigh less than 3 pounds and often cost less than US$500 come to market. According to the market analysts at IDC, 500,000 of these inexpensive mini-notebooks were sold last year. This is forecast to rise quickly to 9 million units by 2012. At that point, mini-notebooks could make up as much as 5% of notebook sales and add up to about a US$3 billion market.
To see what all the excitement is about, I got my hands on four of the latest minis available: the Sylvania G Netbook, the HP 2133 Mini-Note PC, the Acer Aspire and the Asus Eee PC 1000. They range in price from US$330 to US$700.
With these systems what you get is as important as what you have to do without. Although they all have webcams, Wi-Fi connectivity and the ability to work with most files, they're a step behind today's mainstream systems. None have CD or DVD drives, and many of the screens are too small to use without squinting. The keyboards will prove to be challenging for most grown-ups, and all the systems have either small hard drives or even smaller amounts of flash memory to store programs, data and files.
But for many, the real showstopper is the lack of a familiar operating system, like Windows or Mac OS X. While Windows is an option on most models, Linux is the operating system of choice because of its low cost and modest hardware requirements.
In other words, if you're a Windows user, you'll likely have to do without some of your favorite programs. However, take heart: There are thousands of free or low-cost Linux programs available that in many cases are easier to use and more responsive than their Windows or Mac counterparts. I soon became accustomed to the software and was using these petite portables to e-mail and nose around the Web, view and edit images, write stories and use spreadsheets. In the final analysis, I barely missed Windows and OS X.