"It's so cute." That's what my wife, Maryam, said when I first brought home a netbook. What caught her eye? She could carry one in her purse without having to lug around an additional computer bag.
Lots of other people are finding netbooks cute too. Acer alone sold 5 million netbooks last year and expects to sell 10 million to 12 million in 2009. These $300 to $500 small computers — somewhere between a full notebook and a smartphone in size — have become popular because they're delivering value and portability with as much power as top-of-the-line laptops from just a few years ago.
Jumping into this market right now as a consumer, though, is like wading into a raging river. Companies are upgrading what constitutes a top-of-the-line netbook every three to four months, which makes it hard to avoid some buyer's remorse. I got a Samsung NC10 last fall, and I love it, but when I saw a pre-release version of the Asus Eee PC 1000HE ($400) in February, I thought, That's my next netbook.
You really need to get your hands on a netbook before buying one. Why? First, the screens can be small and unsatisfying, particularly on the cheaper units. The value-minded Acer Aspire One now has a 10.1-inch display, which should be your minimum. If you want more than four hours of battery life, you'll need to make sure you get what's known as a six-cell battery. The cheapest (and smallest) units have three-cell batteries and will last only about two hours. Note the storage capacity, too. Some netbooks rely on a solid-state drive (SSD), which does make them lighter (between half a pound and 1 pound), quieter, and less prone to break. But if you plan to use your netbook for more than email and Web surfing — say, for crunching spreadsheets — you may regret being limited to a puny 8 or 16 GB versus 160 GB.
Perhaps most important, you need to test-drive the keyboard. Netbook keyboards are smaller than a regular notebook's, so make sure you're comfortable with the layout, spacing, and squishiness of the keys.
At right are quick specs on my favorites for three types of users. Less bulk, good power, and cute? Netbooks are a net win for consumers.
1. Best for road warriors
Samsung NC10 ($469). Solid battery life (about seven hours), a good keyboard, clear and bright screen, great performance, and, yes, it's available in other colors.
2. Best for business
HP Mini 2140 ($449). Thanks to its integrated graphics chip, the 2140 handles video better than most in its class. If you work for a large enterprise, you may have a support contract with HP, which offers some peace of mind if you have trouble with the machine.
3. Best for deal hunters
Acer Aspire One ($350). Acer continues to redefine what a lower-priced netbook can be. The latest Aspire One, released in February, has a 160-GB hard drive, a fast processor, Windows XP Home (rather than Linux, which can't run Office), and a 10.1-inch screen.