Computing On The Go: The New Breed of Ultra-small Laptop

Looking for just the right laptop for the new school year? On a budget? A netbook may be just the right computer for you. Really a type of subnotebook, the so-called netbooks all have certain features in common: They are all small, light, inexpensive, and provide word processing, spreadsheet capability, wireless internet access, and some kind of music manager/digital media player.

There are literally dozens to choose from, including the Skytone Alpha-400, the Everex Cloudbook, the Elonex One, and the new Dell Inspiron Mini 9, released just last week. They vary in terms of operating system (XP, Vista, or Linux), screen size (7-10"), storage space, and price, with some as low as $100.

I recently had the opportunity to test one: The Eee PC 701 from Asus for $299. Weighing in at only 2 pounds, and available in a variety of colors, the 701 is hardly bigger than a paperback but still sports an 800x480 WVGA display and stereo speakers. The seven inch screen is small but surprisingly clear, as are the speakers. The keyboard is a little cramped but serviceable and includes a built-in touchpad mouse. With a two gigabyte solid state drive, three USB ports, an SD card reader, a J45 socket, microphone and headphone jacks, a Kensington security jack, and even a serial port for an external monitor, the Asus seems to have all of its hardware bases covered. The one real shortcoming is the battery, which lasts no more than three to four hours. Fortunately, the wall charger (included) is only about the size of a clamshell cell phone. If you buy the Asus, you'll need to keep it handy.

The Eee PC - short for Easy to learn, Easy to work, Easy to play - comes with one of two operating systems. The model that I tested was equipped with Xandros Linux, although it is available with Windows XP as well. Using Linux through the IceWM GUI was a snap, and I was easily able to access the trove of Windows knock-off applications pre-installed with the bundled OpenOffice suite.

Connecting to the internet was easy, and, despite the small screen, I was able to surf with Mozilla Firefox almost as comfortably as on my desktop machine. When word processing or working with spreadsheets, the screen was, indeed, looking a bit small but still tolerable. Skype, which was also included, worked flawlessly. And even though I prefer iTunes, I had no problems with the Amarok music player, which interfaced well with my iPod.

Overall, I would give the Asus high marks: It is small, light, boots quickly, and has just about everything I need for computing on the go. But be forewarned: Battery life is short, there is no CD or DVD ROM drive, and disk space is limited. But then again, that's what my desktop machine is for. And for three hundred bucks, how can you go wrong? The netbook is an idea whose time has come.