Smartphones and PDAs can do a surprising amount these days, but sometimes you need a real keyboard—and a screen that’s larger than a playing card. Until recently, the only alternative was a subnotebook, such as Lenovo’s ThinkPad X301 or Apple’s MacBook Air (see ”Small Is Big in Notebooks—But Not Too Small,” IEEE Spectrum, December 2008). They’re great, but they come in at 1.4 kilograms (three pounds) and cost US $2000 to $3000 dollars.
How low can today’s cost- and shoulder-conscious travelers go?
Until a year or so ago, to get under a kilogram you had to spend $2500 or more, for a Fujitsu LifeBook P1630 or a Toshiba Portégé R500. Then came the ”netbooks”—tiny notebook computers with lower-powered processors like Intel’s Atom or Celeron, flash storage often instead of a hard drive, and prices that sometimes start below $300. Netbooks may not be good for Photoshop, but they’re more than adequate for browsing, e-mail, iTunes, and the occasional spreadsheet. Yet, even though they don’t require any heavy lifting themselves, only a few netbooks slide under the thousand-gram mark. They do so in part through fewer-celled batteries and displays under 10 inches.
As of mid-April 2009, here are the vendors with netbooks under 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) and 1 kilobuck ($1000).
Acer Aspire One
US $350 as reviewed
The Acer Aspire One AOA150-1987 and related models squeak in under the weight limit by having NAND flash memory drives—a hard drive version is 1.04 kg. They have 8.9-inch, 1024-by-600 thin-film transistor displays, 1 gigabyte of RAM, 8 to 16 GB NAND flash storage, and either Windows XP Home Edition or Linpus Linux Lite. Other features include 802.11b/g, card reader slots, a webcam, and optional HSPA mobile broadband.
Asus Eee PC 900 Series
Starting at US $230
Asus kick-started the netbook category; it now has around two dozen models up to 1450 grams. The 900 series includes several with 8.9-inch screens that are under 1 kg. The 900A (Atom-based) and 900 (Celeron-based) models weigh 990 grams, have 8.9-inch 1024-by-600 displays, come with 8 to 16 GB of flash memory, and run either Windows XP or Gnu Linux. Asus’s 700 series, with 7-inch screens, are even lighter, from 892 to 922 grams.
Always Innovating Touch Book
Unveiled at DEMO in March 2009, Always Innovating’s Touch Book is like other netbooks in having an 8.9-inch 1024-by-600 display and 802.11b/g/n. But its CPU is a Texas Instruments ARM; it becomes a tablet when you detach the keyboard, and it allows a choice of operating systems (Google Android, Ubuntu, Angstrom, Windows CE, or the default Touch Book OS). It also has two batteries that last up to 15 hours.
Sony Vaio P Series Lifestyle
US $899 and up
Sony’s Vaio P Lifestyle PC has the same shape and is only slightly thinner than the obsolete Win CE–based NEC MobilePro 780 Pocket PC that I still use as my trade-show note taker. Yet the LifeStyle weighs a mere 635 grams (1.4 pounds), includes GPS, and runs Windows Vista. Most remarkably, its 8-inch 1600-by-768 display resolution is twice that of the other computers listed here. But when I tried one briefly at a local computer store, it didn’t reliably display important browser areas. For example, it clips the top so the URL field wasn’t visible. And the nubby ThinkPad-ish ”pointing stick” takes getting used to.
Over in the UK, Zoostorm announced its Freedom netbook in early February 2009, at 900 grams, with an 8.9-inch WSVGA 1024-by-600 screen, 802.11n, PCI Express Mini Card slots, and Windows XP Home. In mid-April, I found it available from the UK at £238.69, including VAT (about $377).
Sylvania had a 992-gram netbook, the Meso G, that met our weight and price requirement. It got great reviews, but the company doesn’t appear to be making or selling it any longer. You may still find it available online.
About 30 grams (1 ounce) over the weight limit, there’s Dell’s Inspiron Mini 9 netbook, with an 8.9-inch screen, a choice of Windows XP or Ubuntu Linux, and optional AT&T HSPA mobile broadband. Pricing ranges from $279 to $558.
So, what to get? Even with its extra 30 grams, the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 has a keyboard too small for serious typing. For me, it’s worth toting an extra half-kilogram or so in return for a 10.2-inch display, a good-size keyboard, and a battery able to go 5 to 7 hours on a charge.
I haven’t yet found the perfect-for-me netbook. Lenovo’s IdeaPad S10 netbook is very nice, but I found the keys just slightly too small for my taste. I’m still looking at a couple of other 1.4 kilogram models (three pounds), the MSI Wind U100, and the Asus 1002HA—and keeping my eyes peeled for what the next few months bring.
About the Author
In addition to his December article on ultralight notebooks, Daniel P. Dern wrote recently for Spectrum about fuel cells for mobile devices. A longtime tech journalist, Dern also contributes to eWeek and CIO.com, among other publications.