As laptops have shrunk in size and price, and cellphones have expanded in size and capability, the two are increasingly overlapping in function. Now, their pricing and sales models are blurring, too.
For a while, some wireless carriers in Europe and in Asia have been selling tiny laptops, called netbooks, equipped with built-in cellular modems, at low, subsidized prices, just as they do with mobile phones. And, just as with a subsidized phone or a plug-in laptop data card, there’s a catch: To get the low upfront price, the customer must agree to a contract and pay a monthly data fee.
Starting May 17, Verizon Wireless, the largest U.S. wireless carrier, will try the same thing on these shores, selling a netbook model made by Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) at $200, after a $50 mail-in rebate — less than half its usual price of $520. To get this price, the customer must sign a two-year contract and pay either $40 or $60 a month, depending on the amount of data to be consumed.
I’ve been testing this netbook, the H-P Mini 1151NR, a version of H-P’s Mini 1000 series with a cellular modem built-in. This model sports a 10.1-inch screen, and yet is very compact and easy to tote. It weighs just 2.45 pounds, is about an inch thick, and is only about 10 inches long and 6.5 inches deep. It has an Intel (INTC) Atom processor, common in netbooks; runs Windows XP; and includes one gigabyte of memory, a built-in Webcam and an 80-gigabyte hard disk. Like most netbooks, it includes Wi-Fi, but lacks a DVD drive.
My verdict: This netbook is an adequate light-duty computer, and $200 is a low price for a PC with a hard disk running Windows XP. But Verizon’s charge for Internet service is high if you intend to rely on that service as your main online connection, because the data levels covered by the carrier’s plans aren’t unlimited, and cost extra after you exceed a certain amount. It makes much more sense if you travel a lot, stay within the data limits each month, and want to avoid hotel and airport Wi-Fi fees.
But the Verizon (VZ) service is slower than many Wi-Fi connections, and it can be obtained for almost any laptop by buying a plug-in card that carries the same monthly fees. In my tests, at a typical Marriott (MAR) hotel, the Verizon cellular service achieved download speeds of around 1.6 megabits per second, while the Wi-Fi modem in the same PC got over five mbps.
Also, even for a netbook, the computer itself is underequipped. Its 80-gigabyte hard disk is cramped by today’s netbook standards, and it has only a small three-cell battery that doesn’t last long. In my tough battery test, where I left the cellular Internet connection on, disabled all power-saving features, and played music continuously, the H-P Mini 1151NR lasted a pathetic one hour and 55 minutes. That suggests that, in normal use, you might get around 2.5 hours of use.
A bigger six-cell battery is available for $130 from Verizon, but that’s a huge price premium on a $200 PC, plus it makes the netbook 75% thicker and 30% heavier. Verizon doesn’t offer a larger internal hard disk.
By comparison, you can buy an Acer One Windows XP netbook with the same size screen as the Verizon netbook, and twice the hard disk and battery capacity, for $340. The Acer lacks the built-in cellular modem, but you can buy that from Verizon in plug-in form for $30, with the same monthly fees. Total upfront price: $370, versus $330 for the Verizon model with the bigger battery.
You could also pay much less at a RadioShack (RSH) store, which is selling a subsidized netbook with a built-in cellular modem and required contract (with AT&T) (T) at $60 a month. This model, also an Acer running XP, has a smaller 8.9-inch screen, but most other specs are similar to those on the Verizon model. Yet there’s one enormous difference: It costs only $50, plus a $36 activation fee.
In my tests, the Verizon/H-P netbook handled all common tasks well, if not at blazing speeds. It lacks Microsoft Office, but includes the lesser Microsoft Works productivity suite. I was able to download and run common third-party programs like Firefox and iTunes. The built-in Verizon software for managing the cellular and Wi-Fi connections worked very well, and can be upgraded to a new version with added features.
The hardware has some notable downsides. The keyboard feels too flexible, and some symbols on the function keys are hard to read. The mouse buttons are awkwardly arrayed on the sides of the touch pad, not below it. And the speaker, while loud, is tinny. Also, the machine has a bunch of craplets, mostly links to H-P Web sites or to companies like eBay (EBAY) and Pandora.
Still, if you travel a lot and like using a cellular modem, the machine’s $200 price is compelling, so long as you can handle the wimpy battery and small hard disk.