Correction to This Article
The Fast Forward column incorrectly identified one laptop computer in a discussion of flash-memory storage capacity. The Asus Eee PC 900 had about 15 gigabytes available; the Acer Aspire One had about 3.

Tiny PCs, Full-Size Problems

The Aspire One by Acer (top) costs only $329, but an add-on for longer battery life runs an additional $130.
The Aspire One by Acer (top) costs only $329, but an add-on for longer battery life runs an additional $130. (By Rob Pegoraro -- The Washington Post)
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By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, December 4, 2008

How little laptop is enough?

And how few dollars will it cost you?

The ultralight laptop has traditionally been a luxury item. But over the past couple of years, sanity has returned to this end of the computing universe: You can pay less for less of a laptop.

The WiFi-enabled laptops go by the term "netbook." Netbooks promise little more than Web access, weigh less than three pounds and start at under $400. They've become one of the few bright spots in the computer market.

That makes sense. Any netbook can provide an excellent alternative to computing as we know it. For little more than the price of a high-end smartphone, you can buy a machine with a real screen and keyboard and the ability to run programs you already know.

But many netbooks ship with cramped keyboards that defy touch-typing, screens that require constant scrolling to view Web pages and stripped-down software setups that make installing extra programs difficult -- if you can download copies, as these minimal machines lack CD or DVD drives.

A test of five netbooks -- Acer's $459 Aspire One, Asus's $549 Eee PC 900, Dell's $494 Inspiron Mini 9, Lenovo's $399 S10, and MSI's $349 Wind -- showed how much work the industry has to do on this concept. Despite major differences in software (Windows XP or Linux) and storage (hard drives or flash memory), these five models had one thing in common: obvious, avoidable errors.

Most of those were ill-considered design compromises forced by their tiny size and light weight. (The Asus, the lightest of the bunch, weighed only 2.2 pounds; the Lenovo was the heaviest, at 2.7 pounds.)

Their worst issue was keyboard design. The Asus, the Dell and the MSI feature narrow period and slash keys -- the most common punctuation in Web addresses. Those three and the Lenovo exile the right-hand Shift key to the right of the up-arrow key, inviting you to select a previous line of text by accident and then overtype it with the next keystroke.

Netbook screens also require some adaptation. The roughly 10-inch LCDs on the Lenovo and the MSI and the 8.9-inch displays on the other three leave little room for most Web pages, especially with the browser toolbars that Dell, Lenovo and MSI saw fit to pre-install.

Storage is yet another area of compromise. Limited amounts of flash memory left only about 3 gigabytes free on the Acer, 10 GB on the Dell and 15 on the Acer. The Lenovo and the MSI used hard drives with 50 to 60 gigabytes open.

Those drives took a toll in battery life, however. When asked to play through a loop of MP3s while reloading two news Web sites, the MSI expired in two hours, the Lenovo two hours and 15 minutes.

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