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 1.3 kilos and sell for between US$2,500 and $3,000.
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 1.3 kilos and often cost less than $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 $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 $330 to $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.
How we tested
The biggest challenge with Linux notebooks is the lack of benchmarks available to compare their performance and battery life. Instead, I put together a suite of tests that mimics the way most people work and play.
-- Start-up: I used a stopwatch to time how long it took to get each machine up and running. For systems that required a password, I stopped the watch to enter the information and then resumed the timing. The test was completed when the file activity light stopped blinking.
-- Open an Acrobat file: Each system was timed for how long it took to open a full-color six-page PDF that contained several photos and charts.
-- Print a Word document: This was a two-part test. First, a standard .doc file was opened using the system's included word processing program. Then, the 15-page all-text document was printed using an HP DeskJet 995C inkjet printer.
-- Battery life: With Wi-Fi turned on and the browser tuned to an Internet streaming "radio" station, I timed how long it took to run the battery down until the machine stopped; the results are rounded to the nearest five-minute interval.
-- Wi-Fi range: With the system playing the streaming radio station, I slowly walked away from the Wi-Fi router, noting where the system lost connection to the server. This was repeated to make sure of its location; results are rounded to 5 feet.
-- Compatibility: In addition, to make sure that these systems would not let you down on the road, I played several YouTube videos; composed, sent and received e-mail; viewed and edited and image; listened to streaming Internet radio; opened Acrobat, Word and Excel files; transferred files from a flash drive; and played an audio CD on an external Toshiba DVD drive.
I'm glad Acer waited out the first round of mini-notebooks. To my thinking, the recently introduced Aspire One is the best of this young breed, offering the killer combination of top performance and five hours of battery life in a design that is as good looking as it is functional. At $375, it fulfills the promise of mini-notebooks at a great price.
At 1 by 9.8 by 7.4 inches, the Aspire One is right in the middle of this group of mini-notebooks; bigger and slightly heavier than the Sylvania G Netbook but smaller and lighter than the Eee PC 1000. With its standard battery, it weighs 2.2 pounds, but with the extended battery pack it came in at 2.5 pounds and ran for a class-leading five hours 15 minutes.
The small AC adapter adds 5 ounces, giving the Aspire One a petite travel weight of 2.8 pounds with the bigger battery, half a pound less than either the 2133 Mini-Note or Eee PC 1000. Its three-prong power plug will probably prove to be a nuisance in older buildings that don't have grounded outlets; the 2133 Mini-Note also has a three-prong plug.
I looked at the sleek white model, but Acer also sells ones that are black, blue and pink. Whichever color strikes your fancy, the Aspire One is well made and looks like a computer costing hundreds of dollars more, but it comes with a cheesy vinyl slip case.
At a Glance
Price (as tested): $399
Pros: Exceptional battery life, top performer, excellent software, low price
Cons: Awkward three-prong power cord, small amount of storage space
Powered by a 1.6-GHz Intel Atom processor, the Aspire One has 1GB of system memory and 8GB of solid-state storage space, of which 6.4GB is available for files. This can't compare with the 104GB hard drive that the 2133 Mini-Note has and will quickly fill up, so you'll be well served by getting a memory key or flash card for more storage.
Like the 2133 Mini-Note, the Aspire One has an 8.9-in. wide screen, which may be a little short of the Eee PC 1000's 10-in. panel but shows the same 1024-by-600 resolution; it is also significantly brighter. There's a webcam above it.
While the 17.3mm keys can feel skimpy, they have a generous 2mm of depth. It was the firmest keyboard and the easiest to get used to of the test systems.
In the lower left is a handy home key that brings up the system's opening screen. Instead of a cluttered desktop, the Linpus Linux Lite operating system's home screen is divided into four groups: Connect (Web, e-mail, IM), Work (word processing, presentations, spreadsheets), Fun (games, media, images) and Files (links to storage). There are more choices for each category that you can get to by clinking an arrow as well as a settings section for adjusting the system's parameters. It's different from what the others -- and Windows -- provide, and I've found it to be a powerful paradigm. The system comes with the OpenOffice 2.3 suite, which includes all the basics, including word processing, presentations, Web browsing, e-mail and more.
Ports on the Aspire One are on a par with the others: three USB ports, external monitor, headphone, microphone and a LAN jack. There's also a pair of flash card readers that work with Secure Digital, Memory Stick and the tiny xD modules.
The notebook's 802.11b/g wireless client had a range of 115 feet, the longest of the four minis I looked at.
After passing every compatibility test I threw at it, the Aspire One sped through the performance tests, with the fastest times for starting up, opening an Acrobat file and printing a Word document. Paradoxically, it also ran for five hours and 15 minutes on a charge, the longest of this bunch of notebook runts and about three times longer than the 2133 Mini-Note. Even with the standard battery, the Aspire One would have outrun the 2133.
Priced at $399, the Aspire One that I looked at is a bargain, but if it's too expensive, you can get one with a smaller battery that weighs less for $330; a version with Windows XP Home runs to $350. For travelers or those looking for an inexpensive second (or third) computer, the Aspire One is a digital dream come true.
Asus started the inexpensive mini-notebook party a year ago with the $400 Eee PC 701, but not content to leave well enough alone, the company upsized the system, releasing the $550 Eee PC 900 in May. Now we have the Eee PC 1000, which to my thinking goes too far, is too big and -- at $600 -- is too expensive.
Easily the largest and heaviest of the bunch, the wedge-shaped Eee PC 1000 is 1.2 inches thick in the front and 1.5 inches thick in the back. Its 10.4-by-7.5-in. footprint is more than an inch longer than the G Netbook. It weighs 2.9 pounds -- nearly a pound heavier than the G Netbook -- and with its AC adapter, the Eee PC 1000 has a travel weight of 3.3 pounds. It comes with a padded case.
The Eee PC 1000's specs match that of the Aspire One almost perfectly with a 1.6-GHz Intel Atom processor and 1GB of system memory. But its solid-state flash memory can hold 40GB of data, files and programs, five times that of the Aspire One. Plus, the company includes 20GB of free online storage for archives, backups, and the flotsam and jetsam of a digital life.
At a Glance
AsusTek Computer Inc.
Price (as tested): $600
Pros: Large screen, good performance/battery life, padded case
Cons: Expensive, heaviest in class
Bigger can be better, and the 10-in. display provides nearly double the viewable space that the G Netbook's 7-in. screen does. Its 1024-by-600 resolution matches that of the 2133 and Aspire One, although the Eee PC 1000's display looks dull and dim by comparison. It's got a high-resolution webcam above the display.
As with the others, there's no modem, but the Eee PC 1000 can get online with a wired Ethernet plug or an 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi client. It had a range of 90 feet, a bit short of the group's average. The array of connections also matches that of the Aspire One with three USB, external monitor, microphone and headphone jacks, although it lacks the 2133's Express card slot. The Eee PC has a slot that accommodates Secure Digital, Memory Stick and xD flash cards.
The system's 17.6mm keys with 1.9mm of depth make for reasonably accurate and comfortable typing, although the touchpad's buttons were quite stiff. There's a handy home key that brings up the operating system's tabbed main page.
Based on the Xandros Linux, the page has tabbed selections for Internet, Work, Learn, Play, Settings and Favorites. It comes with the OpenOffice suite, a Web browser, e-mail and other programs. There's a good assortment of software, but its best programs are the educational ones, including a star map program and an interactive periodic table.
The Eee PC 1000 passed each of our compatibility tests and finished in the middle of the pack on the performance tests. The 6,600 milli-amp hour battery, the largest of the group, lasted for three hours 50 minutes, an hour and a half less than the five hours and 15 minutes of life the Aspire One got out of its smaller battery.
Overall, it's too much of a good thing. For a mini-notebook, the Eee PC feels bloated, oversized and at $600, expensive compared to the others. It pushes the limits of this new category but offers little more than a bigger window on the world.
Style and performance go head-to-head on Hewlett-Packard's 2133 Mini-Note PC -- and power loses out to appearance. While its rounded brushed aluminum case is cool looking, the system comes up short when it's time to work or play. Still, at $550, it's a lot of computer stuffed into a small package with excellent audio.
Weighing 2.6 pounds, the 2133 is the second heaviest mini in this group, but with its AC adapter it weighs 3.3 pounds, as much as the bigger Eee PC 1000. Annoyingly, like the Aspire One, it requires a three-prong AC plug to charge up, which sooner or later will be frustrating.
At 1.1 inches thick, the 2133 fits comfortably in the hand. The system's footprint is a long and narrow 10.1 by 6.5 inches; it doesn't come with a case.
What it does have is a 1.2-GHz Via C7-M processor, which ties the 2133 with the G Netbook as the slowest in the group. The 2133 came with 512MB of system memory and a 104GB hard drive, the largest storage of the group. There's a model that has 4GB of flash memory instead of a hard drive for $500; systems with Windows Vista start at $600.
Like the Aspire One, the 2133's 8.9-in. screen can show 1024-by-600 resolution, but the display has a scratch-resistant coating to protect the glass from damage. With speakers on each side of the screen, the 2133 had the best audio of the bunch. The output was loud and clear for spoken word as well as music, and the system has a webcam above the display.
At a Glance
Hewlett-Packard Development Co.
Price (as tested): $550
Pros: Sleek aluminum skin, good audio, 100GB-plus of storage
Cons: Disappointing performance, runs hot, three-prong plug
On the other hand, its assortment of ports is disappointing, with only a pair of USB connectors, one less than the Aspire One and the Eee PC 1000. There's an external monitor plug, wired networking connector, and microphone and headphone jacks. The 2133's Express card slot is balanced by its lack of a flash card reader. It's equipped with 802.11a/b/g wireless networking with a range of 105 feet.
The 2133's 17.3mm keys have only 1.6mm of depth, making for tentative typing. On the other hand, the notebook has a large touchpad and a switch to turn it off when you're using a mouse.
The system is built around the SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop, but oddly it has a Windows key as well. The key brings up the operating system's shortcut screen that leads to Applications, Documents and Places. The system comes with OpenOffice 2.3's suite of basic programs, including applications for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, e-mail and others.
The 2133 Mini-Note easily handled all our hardware and data files, and came with an impressive mix of software, including programs for instant messaging and making voice over IP calls. But, saddled with a slow processor, the 2133 could not keep up with the faster notebooks. It took the longest to open the Acrobat file and print the Word file.
Its 2,590 milli-amp hour battery came up short, lasting only one hour and 40 minutes on a charge, the shortest of the bunch. Clearly not for the road warrior, the 2133 Mini-Note PC might find an audience in those who are taken by its looks and high-quality sound.
It may look like a toy, but Sylvania's G Netbook mini-notebook is a full computer packed into a tiny case. Its $350 price tag may make this system seem like a bargain, but for most it's less than meets the eye or finger.
At just 2 pounds, it is one of the smallest computers available anywhere; even with its petite AC adapter, it weighs 2.5 pounds -- 10 ounces lighter than the Eee PC 1000 or 2133 Mini-Note. Its black plastic case measures 1.1 by 6.8 by 9 inches, easily an inch smaller than some of the others.
Inside is the minimum needed to work and play online: a 1.2-GHz Via C7-M processor, 1GB of system memory and a 30GB hard drive.
Unlike the others, the 7-in. screen folds back flat so it can be slipped under a monitor stand. The wide screen is bright, but shows only 800-by-480 resolution, and the system I tested was marred by a dead pixel in the middle of the display. There's a webcam on the right side of the screen. The 802.11b/g Wi-Fi has a range of 85 feet.
Most people will be disappointed by the notebook's basic connections. It does have an SD slot for flash cards, but only two USB jacks, as well as microphone, headphone and Ethernet jacks. Oddly, it uses a DVI plug for connecting with an external monitor and comes with a handy external monitor adapter.
At a Glance
Osram Sylvania Inc.
Price (as tested): $350
Pros: Very small and light, excellent price, good battery life
Cons: Tiny keyboard and touchpad, short Wi-Fi range, hot spots, dead pixel in display
The G Netbook's biggest flaw is its keyboard. The 15.5mm keys and postage-stamp-size touchpad will likely prove to be virtually unusable by anybody other than a small child. Plus, the keyboard flexes too much for accurate, quick typing.
On the other hand, I really liked the system's "g" key, which provides instant access to a variety of applications and online destinations. The system uses gOS, an offshoot of Ubuntu 8.04 Linux. Sylvania doesn't sell the system with Windows XP, but the company says it can be loaded on the system.
The system shows a traditional desktop, with a nice application bar at the bottom that provides instant access to the major programs. It comes with OpenOffice 2.4, a suite that has processing, presentations, Web browsing, e-mail and other programs. Like the other notebooks in this roundup, it worked well with the hardware and files I used, but it didn't automatically start playing an audio CD with my Toshiba external DVD drive. Hardly a speed demon, the G Netbook was the slowest at starting up, but was in the middle of the pack on opening the standard Acrobat file and printing a Word document.
As the computing gets intense, two areas of the left side of the keyboard heat up and get uncomfortable. The G Netbook's 2,200 milli-amp hour battery ran for an admirable three hours, about double that of the Mini-Note 2133, but still much less than the Aspire One's five-hour-15-minute battery life.
In the final analysis, the G Netbook is so small that it's not nearly as practical as the others. It's a sure bet as a system for a child or for when size doesn't matter.
Any of the four mini-notebooks I looked at will be more than good enough as a second or third computer. They all do the basics well, but I came away from each of them wanting both more and less.
The Sylvania G Netbook was just too small for my fingers, while the Asus Eee PC pushed the genre too far with a price that's more than twice as big. The HP 2133 Mini-Note PC is about the right size, but failed to keep up on battery life or performance.
Only Acer's Aspire One was just right, balancing size and weight with price and performance. It may not be the smallest or lightest, but it's the one I want to take on my next road trip because it runs for five hours on a charge while doing so many things well at the right price.