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Low Cost Notebook PCs Get the Job Done

One of the good things about netbooks is that they've put downward pressure on the pricing of larger and faster notebook PCs.
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Netbooks have been the rage for the last couple of years for very good reasons. These small laptops, which typically cost between $300 and $400, can do most things most people want to do with a laptop computer yet are cheaper, smaller and lighter than typical laptops.

It's ironic that smaller machines are now cheaper than bigger laptops. Until a few years ago, users who wanted a small notebook PC would pay a premium. It wasn't uncommon for machines under three or four pounds to cost two or three times as much as heavier notebook PCs. Netbooks turned the cost/weight equation upside down.

Consider this: For $269.99 (after rebate) you can order a Compaq Mini CQ10 machine that comes with Windows XP, a gigabyte of memory (enough for basic usage) and a 160 GB hard drive, which should be more than enough storage for many people.

The device, which I haven't tested, has an Intel Atom N270 processor running at 1.60 GHz. I've tested similar netbooks from Hewlett-Packard, Acer and Gateway and find them to be adequate for most common tasks, such as Web surfing and e-mail. They're also OK for viewing Web video, though I wouldn't rely on such a low-power device to edit video.

The Compaq Mini has a 10.1-inch screen, which is small but big enough to be useful. The keyboard on this and many other netbooks is 92 percent the size of a typical notebook PC keyboard. That doesn't bother some people but I'm a touch-typist who rarely looks at the keyboard, and the smaller size bothers me a lot. I can handle it for Web surfing but for word processing or even writing e-mail, I strongly prefer a full-size keyboard.

But one of the good things about netbooks is that they've put downward pressure on the pricing of larger and faster notebook PCs.

Bargain notebooks with full-sized keyboards

For example, Lenovo just loaned me a ThinkPad Edge with a 13-inch display and a full-size keyboard. A version with AMD dual-core processor and 2 gigabytes of memory starts at $599. The one they sent me has a 1.3 GHz duo-core Intel processor and 4 GB of memory and sells for $799. It also has 3 USB ports, an HMDI slot so you can plug it into a high-definition TV, and a really good keyboard.

The Edge weighs 3.6 pounds, which is only about 11 ounces heavier than the ThinkPad 301, which costs $2,154 with the same amount of memory. For that price, the 301 comes with a 128 GB solid state drive, which is fast. But the far-cheaper Edge comes with a 320 GB hard drive. If money weren't an issue, I guess I'd go for the slightly lighter 301. But considering the cost difference, I'd definitely buy the less expensive machine. I'm a fairly demanding road warrior -- I carry my machine with me everywhere I go -- and I'm certainly happy enough with this model.

On HP's and Dell's Web sites, I found plenty of impressive full-featured notebook PCs for under $700. If you need just the basics -- and most people will do just fine with that -- you can get a well-equipped Dell Inspiron 15 for $379 that comes with a dual-core processor, a CD/DVD burner, 4 GB of memory and a 320 GB hard drive. This machine has everything most PC users would need. At 5.8 pounds, it's a bit heavy for my tastes, but if you don't plan to carry it around all day, weight may not matter.

With the exception of netbooks, almost all the laptops I looked at feature Windows 7, which I've been using long enough to feel good about. I not only find it easier to use than XP and Vista, but it's more reliable. Although system crashes still aren't out of the question, they are infrequent.

Of course, there is that "other" camp, which also has some great laptops. Apple's MacBook, which starts at $999, is a fine machine. If you want a Mac with same 4 GB of memory and 320 gigabytes of storage you'd get on the $799 Lenovo or the $399 Dell Inspiron 15, you'll pay $1,149 -- and that's just for a MacBook. If you want the much cooler MacBook Pro with those specifications, it will cost you $1,399.

I'm not deriding the Macintosh, and I realize that some people would never consider buying a computer that doesn't have an Apple logo on it. But in a tough economy, these low-cost Windows laptops are definitely worth considering.

This article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News