This is the year of the netbook, a new class of portable computer that found a hot niche between hand-helds and notebooks. These PCs are light in the hand, light on the wallet, and for light computing only. Their processors are too weak and storage often too limited for serious video editing or number crunching. But most are mobile delights designed for bursts of Web and E-mail access. Their cheap prices put less at risk amid the tumult of travel. They can also handle word processing and simple spreadsheets with a bit of fumbling on their small keyboards and screens. Just about every PC maker except Apple has jumped into the game. We slogged through the many models now available to help narrow your choices, depending on who you are:
Fashionista: HP Mini Vivienne Tam Edition ($700)
No competitor comes close to the fashion statement—nay, the fashion scream—of this HP Mini with its lustrous red paint and splashy peonies. Inspired by Tam's "China Chic" style, it was tagged the first "digital clutch" by HP. It doesn't hurt that the floral print comes on the well-received HP Mini, with its 10.1-inch screen and comfortable keyboard. All that and Tam also designed the keys themselves, where "Enter" bears a Chinese symbol for double happiness. Be ready to pay a $250 premium for that extra bliss.
(You can read how HP also is pioneering touch-screen PCs at home.)
Young Hands: Asus Eee PC 900 ($330)
Asus launched the netbook craze in 2007 with a model that had a tiny, 7-inch screen and equally tiny keyboard. The PC 900 was an early variation in a slew of netbook models released by Asus. It upped the screen size to 8.9 inches but kept that tiny, cramped keyboard. Adults can't really be expected to type at a reasonable speed. But kids will love its small size, at 8.5 by 6.5 inches and 2.2 pounds, and parents, its low price. Young users also can adjust better to the Linux system. The software is fast and useful, but it ain't Windows or Mac and will frustrate experienced PC users.
(You can check here for more great tech for kids.)
Tinkerer: Lenovo S10 Ideapad ($350)
This is the netbook for someone who wants to add more power or devices. Opening its belly makes for easy upgrades to the hard drive or memory. Many others bury those behind a screen of screws or a maze of components and cables. Lenovo also is one of the few to include an ExpressCard slot for attaching a range of fast hard drives, audio devices, or a FireWire port. Built-in Bluetooth can wirelessly connect a pair of speakers or a mouse and keyboard. And you'll want to attach a keyboard: We found the Lenovo keyboard somewhat cramped and didn't like having the shift key so far to the right.
(You'll find a list of gifts that will shock a techie here.)
Road Warrior: Samsung NC10 ($450)
Battery life is one of those factors that lurk in the netbook weeds. Some can last three times longer than others. The NC10 is at the good end, with a six-cell battery that can last six hours or more in careful use. The downside is weight near the top of the netbook scale, at 2.8 pounds. But an extra half pound or so should tire a traveler less than a repeatedly dead battery.The Samsung is also among the largest netbooks, at 10.3 by 7.3 inches. But it makes up for the size with a bigger keyboard that's among the best.
(We discuss how wireless charging is coming.)
The Rest of Us: MSI Wind U100 ($350)
Prize for best overall netbook goes to this model, which makes fewer compromises than the competition at an attractive price. Its bright, 10-inch screen allows for a nearly full-size keyboard. The keys are not only larger than much of the competition; they have a feel that's more typical of a stand-alone keyboard because they travel more when pressed. The Wind is a bit larger than some others, at 10.2 by 7.1 inches and 2.6 pounds. But the size is worth it for most users, given the better keyboard. Too bad MSI felt compelled to get cute with a single bar for mouse clicks that masks a proper right or left button.
(You can read how the keyboard is getting a makeover.)