Ultra-portable and super-affordable -- if not powerful enough to be a primary computer -- these guys make even a small laptop seem unwieldy. We see how well some top models carry their weight

By Margaret Lyons
Updated December 04, 2008 at 05:00 AM EST

Behold the newest member of the mobile-computing kingdom, the ”netbook.” Weighing in at around two pounds and sporting compact screens, these guys make even a 13-inch traditional laptop seem like an unwieldy beast. Lighter than a hardcover book, and cuter than a hamster in a top hat, the new mini laptops are poised to prove little is the new big.

Well, almost. I can’t imagine anyone making a netbook her primary computer. If a desktop computer is a balanced home-cooked meal (something a lot of us tend to forgo completely), and a laptop is a brown-bag lunch, a netbook is a PowerBar. It’s not a replacement, exactly, but it works in a pinch and under specific circumstances.

The primary advantage of the ”lilliputers” is that they’re ultra-portable, a result of their stripped-down approach to computing, which also makes them super affordable. Alas, the less-is-more strategy also means scaled-down keyboards, shrunken screens, and creative manipulations of the track pad to cram in all the essential features. While tiny hands and sniper-perfect eyesight are an asset for anyone considering a netbook, the mitten-fisted and bespectacled among us still can get in on the action.

The three models I test-drove are pretty similar, with comparable processors and software. The battery life for each was around two hours — another sacrifice netbooks make for the sake of size. Fortunately, spare batteries are small, so toting around an extra isn’t a real hassle.

HP Mini 1000
Starting at $399.99 (Linux OS); hp.com

The HP Mini 1000 has the largest keyboard of the bunch. Only 8 percent smaller than that of a typical laptop, it barely requires any adjustment, which is a huge advantage and a major selling point. Its track pad is also top-notch, smoother and more intuitive than the competition’s. The sleek Mini feels the most like a traditional laptop, and its only real drawback is that its crisp, bright screen doesn’t open far enough, which limits its viewing angles. I’m not sure if this says more about me or this delightful computer, but over the course of putting this story together, only one netbook made an appearance in my dreams, and this was it.