- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2008

The netbook, also known as the “mininote” PC, is taking off. The netbook is a relatively small-screened, ultralight portable computer, with or without Microsoft Windows as the operating system. One research firm, DisplaySearch of Austin, Texas, said last week they expect as many as 14 million netbooks to be sold in 2008.

I’ve tried out a couple of these netbooks and have some initial findings. In short, this is a category with promise, although there are some speed bumps along the way.

Among the big pluses: the netbooks are light, convenient and a bit sexy. Schlepping around a big honking notebook can sometimes be necessary, but for road warriors, it’s a drag. When running Microsoft Windows XP (not Windows Vista, please!), the netbook is very nice to play with. Under Linux, it depends.

My first netbook experiment involves a netbook brand you can buy - Asus and the Eee PC and a service you can’t get just yet, SIMtone’s online virtual PC, which runs Microsoft Windows XP.

The Eee PC is small and light, but the screen could provoke squinting. Its appearance is a bit disappointing versus other netbooks: a “flat” screen versus the “glossy” screen found on some other models. The keyboard is also a bit challenging for those with the large fingers, but certainly usable.

What lifts the whole package is the SIMtone service (www.simtone.net), something the firm hopes to sell to other communication providers such as your cell company or Internet service provider, who then will offer you a “virtual” PC as part of the bundle. In operation, the SIMtone service is just delightful. It’s fast, its Windows emulation is flawless, and you don’t have to worry about file storage or program storage - as long as you trust the providers involved. The basic demo I took included the OpenOffice.org suite of applications, as well as Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird, so most users can get up and running quickly at a low cost.

My only frustration is that you, the reader, will be hard pressed to try this unless and until SIMtone makes a sale to some telecommunications outfit. I hope this will change, but for now, you’ll have to just take my word here.

As to the Eee PC, it’s widely available, but don’t buy it. Instead, toddle over to your favorite online retailer and grab a Samsung NC-10 instead.

The NC-10 will set you back around $480 when shopping at Amazon.com, and comes with 1 gigabyte of RAM and a 160 GB hard disc drive. It also has a 10.2-inch (diagonally measured) display screen, far better than the 8.9-inch of the Eee PC. You can expand the RAM to 2 GB by purchasing memory from an outfit such as Crucial.com. There’s a Webcam and built-in microphone to make online chating easier. No optical drive is supplied, but you can buy one if needed, to connect via a USB port.

Since the NC-10 runs Windows XP, however, you’re getting a pretty good portable computer for the money, and not just a netbook. I like the screen display, the keyboard (about 93 percent of the size of a regular notebook keyboard) and the machine works and travels well.

The Samsung NC-10 is perhaps the shape of things to come in portables. It merits your investigation.

• Send e-mail to Mark Kellner.