Networking

3G netbooks: Are they the cell phones of the future?

Sometimes it seems that netbooks are everywhere. I've spotted them at airports, coffee shops and on commuter trains. No wonder that ABI Research forecasts sales of 35 million netbooks this year, more than double the 15 million systems sold in 2008.

What's been missing until recently, however, is the cherry on the netbook cake: the ability to get online with a built-in 3G modem. By tapping into a cell network, netbook users could get online just about anywhere the day takes them.

That's changing quickly as netbook makers scramble to include 3G data cards in these small wonders of the notebook world. “By adding a 3G data radio, an ordinary netbook becomes a powerful online tool,” explains Phil Solis, principal analyst at Oyster Bay, N.Y.-based ABI. “By delivering wireless broadband speeds, it brings the office out into the field.”

With a connected netbook, a mobile executive can not only do the basics, like check on e-mail and keep up with the news on Web sites, but also view online videos, download media-heavy presentations and sit in on videoconferences. In other words, if it can be done in the office with a wired data connection, chances are that it's now fair game on the road. About the only thing it can't do is help get the day's gossip at the coffee machine.

At the moment, only a handful of netbooks come with a 3G option, but Solis forecasts that by 2013, 72% of netbooks will have 3G built in. The irony is that on top of putting mobile mavens in touch with the world, adding a 3G data modem could actually lower the price of such systems.

How? Some netbooks are now being sold the same way as cell phones — the network that supplies the data service effectively subsidizes the purchase price of a 3G netbook by between $200 and $400 in return for a contract for delivering data. For example, you can purchase a Dell Inspiron Mini 9 netbook for only $99 with a two-year AT&T LapConnect contract. You can get the same deal on an Acer Aspire One from RadioShack. Word is that 3G versions of the HP Mini 1000 and the MSI Wind U120 should arrive in the coming weeks.

Sound too good to be true? It might be. With the service costing about $60 a month, the discount turns into a profit over two years. So the $400 subsidy that lowers the price of the netbook to $99 is more than made up with the $1,440 that the user will be spending on data over the next two years.

Already have a netbook? An alternative is to install a USB 3G card. Although it will, in all likelihood, deliver the same flow of data, add-ons do eat more battery life. As with subsidizing the cost of the notebook, the card is usually free or offered at a low price if you sign up for two years of service.

To see how connected netbooks can help those who live and work on the road, I tested two netbooks with built-in 3G capabilities (the Acer Aspire One and the Dell Inspiron Mini 9), along with a Lenovo IdeaPad S10 outfitted with AT&T's external USBConnect Mercury card.

All three systems are similar in that they weigh the same and tap into the same AT&T network. But how they get online and how they handle the data they get couldn't be more different. The Mini 9 uses an Ericsson-made card, and the IdeaPad uses a card manufactured by Sierra Wireless; both can work only with AT&T's network. The Aspire One, on the other hand, uses a Gobi card that can connect with any of 350 networks throughout the world, including AT&T and Verizon in the U.S.

The beauty of incorporating a 3G modem into a netbook is the ease and convenience that it can provide. Rather than searching around for a Wi-Fi hot spot, you have access to over 900Kbit/sec. just about anywhere in the U.S. While their broadband speeds varied widely from place to place, the two netbooks were more than fast enough for working the Web, downloading media-heavy presentations and even watching a few YouTube videos.

Acer Aspire One

If all that matters is getting a netbook that downloads faster than the others, Acer's Aspire One is the speed king, if only by a digital hair. Too bad it does this at the expense of battery life and travel-oriented creature comforts.

The device: At 1.1 in. by 9.8 in. by 6.7 in., the Aspire One is a little thinner and wider than the Dell Mini 9. It weighs 2.4 lb. and, with its AC adapter, can hit the road at just a hair over 3 lb. Oddly, Acer uses a three-prong grounded power cord for the Aspire One, which might prove awkward in older buildings with two-prong power outlets.

Like the Mini 9, the Aspire One has a 1.6-GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB of system memory and an 8.9-in. screen that's capable of showing 1,024-by-600 resolution. It comes equipped with a conventional 160GB hard drive rather than a low-capacity solid-state flash memory drive.

The system has three USB ports, along with ports for Ethernet, an external monitor, headphones and a microphone. To that, the Aspire One adds two flash card readers: one for just Secure Digital (SD) modules and another that also works with memory sticks and xD cards.

The service: The Aspire One contains a data card with Qualcomm's Gobi communications chip that can work with 350 different data carriers. To get online, you use a switch along the front of the system for going between 3G and 802.11 b /g Wi-Fi. I was able to download and upload data at 955Kbit/sec. and 799Kbit/sec., respectively — slightly faster than the Mini 9.

Acer's Connection Manager app shows what network is available, its signal strength and how much data has been moved. It doesn't let you know how long you've been online the way the Mini 9 does, but it has excellent diagnostic software. The software lets you switch among the available networks, but the card doesn't have a GPS chip, as is the case with the Mini 9. So, don't forget your maps.

Dell Inspiron Mini 9

The combination of good battery life and a 3G data card that can grab raw data at over 900Kbit/sec. makes the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 a great companion on the road. However, it comes up short on performance and storage capacity.

The device: The Mini 9 measures 1.2 in. by 9.0 in. by 6.7 in. — a little thicker and narrower than the Aspire One. At 2.4 lb., it's an ounce heavier than the Aspire One, and its travel weight is just over 3 lb. with its AC adapter. The system's plastic skin is available in four colors, although this can add between $30 and $50 to the cost.

The netbook's basic layout mirrors the Aspire One with a 1.6-GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB of system memory and an 8.9-in. screen that shows 1,024-by-600 resolution. The Mini 9 carries 16GB of flash memory rather than a traditional hard drive for storage. As a result, it can hold only one-tenth the data and files of the Aspire One's hard drive. On the other hand, the Mini 9 includes an account for up to 2GB of online storage with Dell.

There's one thing you won't find inside the Mini 9: a cooling fan. Because Dell's designers cut power use and heat to a minimum, this is one of the first systems to not need a fan. The result is longer battery life and incredibly quiet operation.

Like the Aspire One, the Mini 9 has three USB ports, an external monitor port, wired networking, as well as jacks for headphones and a microphone. It has a single flash card reader that works with SD modules and memory sticks, but it doesn't work with the small xD cards.

The service: Along with its 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, the Mini 9 gets online with a Dell Wireless 5530 3G modem, which is made by Ericsson and works with AT&T's network. I was able to download data at 912Kbit/sec. and upload it at 857Kbit/sec., about what the Aspire One was capable of. A bonus is the data card's GPS capabilities, but you'll need to download an application from Dell to get it to work.

Dell's Wireless Manager displays data flow, which network you're connected to and how long you've been online. There are no built-in diagnostics, but the software can use contact-list information from any AT&T provisioned SIM card that's set up for data transfers.

The Mini 9's battery life of three hours and six minutes fell to two hours and 49 minutes when I used 3G, which means I got a total of 40 minutes more use than with the Aspire One.

Cost: While the basic system costs $449, AT&T is offering a $350 rebate with a two-year contract, cutting the price to $99.

Lenovo IdeaPad S10 with an AT&T USBConnect Mercury 3G card

While it's getting easier to buy a 3G-equipped netbook, what is there to do if you already have a mini-notebook? Adding an external USB-based 3G card to a netbook is remarkably easy, and it can get data as quickly as an integrated data radio. The downside is that it eats into the system's battery life.

The device: I started with a Lenovo IdeaPad S10, a 2.7-lb. netbook that has a 1.6-GHz Atom processor, 1GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive. I connected it to AT&T's USBConnect Mercury 3G card (manufactured by Sierra Wireless as the Compass 885 USB Modem). At 1.2 oz., the Mercury is not as heavy as many of the other cards out there, but it still adds more weight than the integrated devices that the Aspire One and Inspiron Mini 9 use.

The service: In all, it took 10 minutes to install the card and go from an unconnected netbook to an online data machine. The best part is that there's no software CD to load, and the card does all the installation work.

AT&T's Communication Manager shows the current signal strength, which network you're connected to and how long you've been connected. For the compulsive, it also displays how much data has been uploaded and downloaded.

The Mercury card achieved download speeds of 947Kbit/sec. and upload speeds of 823Kbit/sec., right in between the times I logged for the Aspire One and the Mini 9. On the downside, it used an extra 29 minutes of battery time, 10 minutes longer than the 19 minutes that was eaten up by the 3G cards in the Aspire One and Inspiron Mini 9.

Cost: The card goes for $250 on AT&T's Web site or $100 with a two-year contract. There's a $100 rebate available, making the card a freebie if you can handle the $60-per-month online bill.

Conclusion

When it comes to online abilities, the bandwidth available to each of these netbooks — whether they have internal or external 3G modems — can transform them into lean, mean online machines. I really liked the Aspire One's top-shelf performance and its Gobi modem, which works just about anywhere in the world.

As far as battery life is concerned, both of the systems equipped with internal 3G modems lost about 18 minutes of battery life, while the external modem ate close to half an hour.

For my money — which is especially tight these days — I like the idea of having a network like AT&T pitching in to help me buy a new computer (or a 3G card for an existing netbook). Any of the three is a great deal, but because I was so impressed by the Acer Aspire One, I'd pay the $99 for the Acer system with a two-year AT&T contract and get an extra battery pack for $70. It's such a good deal that I'll be laughing all the way to the bank.

By Brian Nadel, a freelance writer from New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

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