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Are new, low-cost laptops good for business?

May 25, 2009

One of the harder investments to justify is a laptop.

They're usually pricey compared to desktop units, prone to theft and damage when you travel, and difficult and expensive to fix when something goes wrong, because everything in there is packed as tightly as pages in a closed book. Fragile a good combination, especially when the economy has shaken itself to pieces all around us.

Today, there are some small "notebook" machines on the market that mock the high prices of their bigger siblings. These can be had for $200 to $400, and have enough features to make them real business tools if you're not too demanding. Originally, many of them were meant for the education market, where price is even more critical than it is to businessfolk, but our profit-loving brethren are buying them, too.

One of the first of these mighty midgets to appear on the market was the Asus Eee, pronounced like the screech of tires. It came out in 2007 in Taiwan. Later models were offered in India and elsewhere in Asia before coming to the United States in 2008.

The Eee kept its cost down by using the free and open-source operating system Linux, rather than the proprietary Microsoft Windows. There are dozens of productivity tools available for Linux, all free. Later, Windows was offered, too, at about the same prices. The computer has built-in wireless and a solid-state flash hard drive, so there are no moving parts at all. You can order it with larger standard hard drives, though, if you need more capacity.

Today, there are many models of the Eee available. Most of them seem to be moving away from Linux and toward Windows, which disappoints the Linux purists but doubtless makes them more attractive to the business world.

Not to be outdone, other makers have rushed to make a cheap notebook. The Dell Inspiron Mini 9 is about the same size as the Asus, about the same money, and about the same features. It, too, has a choice of Linux and Windows. Unlike Asus, Dell doesn't offer a regular spinning-platter hard drive in the Inspiron, only solid-state.

Hewlett-Packard has the Mini-Note, which likewise started out as a Linux machine, but has added a Windows XP version. Samsung has an entry in this field, too, albeit at slightly higher prices, around $400 to $500. In the same price category is the Lenovo IdeaPad. Acer markets the Aspire One, also with the Linux option.

Less-well-known companies are jumping in, too. Everex was originally a harddrive company that quickly moved into the manufacture of inexpensive computers. Its CloudBook is clearly meant to challenge the big boys. The MSI Wind U120 predated many of the other machines in this market, but has since been overtaken in features and price. And there are yet others to be found if you want to look for a bit online.

The problem isn't finding options, but in working through them. For example, solid-state hard drives are durable and long-lived, but aren't as capacious for the money as the old-style whirling platter drives. The solid-state ones are less noisy, and often allow the computer to boot up faster.

The choice of Linux or Windows is an even tougher decision for many of us. Early on, using Linux permitted the manufacturer to keep prices dirt-cheap, but Microsoft has responded aggressively and now most notebooks can be purchased with some form of Microsoft Windows for little or no extra cost. Linux users claim that Windows uses more memory, more hard drive space and more processing time than the faster Linux, while Windows buyers tout the universality of Windows and the ease of learning the notebook's interface, compared with the less familiar Linux one.

For many users, it's essentially a religious argument. True techies may prefer the versatility, greater stability, smaller footprint and helpful community Linux confers. On the other hand, few business folk value these benefits, preferring an operating system that's familiar and compatible with their customers' own systems.

You also should try out the controls before you buy anything so compact. A lot of people have trouble using the diminutive keyboards and built-in pointing devices. Scrutinize the screen. Turn it to different angles, and move it to locations with different light levels. Screens vary widely in their fidelity and clarity.

Since the technology is advancing so swiftly, read only the latest reviews about the models you're considering. A review even a year old may now be seriously out of date. I realize these are small things, but when it comes to notebooks, small things add up to a good small thing, which can be a very good thing all around.
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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.

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