On a recent flight to Idaho, I was deep into The Dark Knight when the guy sitting in front of me rocked his seat back so hard that my laptop crunched shut and nearly took my face with it. That was the moment I first longed for a netbook, the nascent class of micro-PCs that are half the size, weight, and cost of traditional laptops. Even in an industry slump, netbook sales are booming. Market research firm ABI expects 35 million units to be shipped worldwide this year and 139 million annually by 2013. Not bad for a product that virtually didn’t exist until late 2007. And that’s a crucial point: Netbooks are not just smaller laptops. They are a new breed of electronics, designed primarily to get online, view photos, watch videos, and do a little processing—in other words, the basic functions that occupy about 75 percent of our screen time. If it’s a sophisticated computer you’re after, look elsewhere. But for those of us who spend our lives in transit—for business or pleasure or both—a lightweight, no-frills machine with a screen that’s bigger than a smartphone’s is a godsend. If you really crave computing power, limited memory is offset by free online storage services. And netbooks offer peace of mind that laptops don’t: While $500 isn’t pocket change, you wouldn’t be devastated if the thing broke or got lost. If I were planning an extended trip—a month of trekking, say—I’d pack a netbook, rely on Wi-Fi, and avoid Internet cafés altogether. There are dozens of options out there, but if you ask me, it really comes down to these three.
Sony’s first entry into the netbook fray banks on a slick upmarket case, the highest speed Wi-Fi, and a fancy metallic touch pad to win you over. Though not as versatile as others in its price range, it has a super-sharp screen that’s by far the best whether you’re working, playing, or just keeping in touch ($500; sonystyle.com).
Lower priced netbooks have nearly identical specs, so stick with a reputable brand. Acer’s 2.4-pound Aspire One sports a bright ten-inch screen, three USB ports, and an SD card slot for uploading vacation pictures. Web surfing is fine—until you try viewing HD videos, which can lag and sputter ($298; acer.com).
This 2.1-pound machine is only a shade lighter than the Acer, but it’s significantly smaller. It’s also much, much cooler, thanks to a hinge that flips the display 180 degrees and turns the Asus into an even more compact touch screen tablet computer. The built-in camera is great for video chats via Skype ($499; asus.com).