Portable PCs: From the TRS-80 to the Mini 2140

Today's netbooks harken back to the earliest laptops: super-convenient, but functionally limited. So consider the alternatives

The First Portable Computer I ever used was RadioShack's TRS-80 100, back in the 1980s. (I know. I'm dating myself.) It was very light, easy to use, and best of all—from my boss' point of view—cheap. The Trash 80, as we called it, wasn't elegant, but you could write a story on it—as long as it wasn't too long—and even do some simple programming. That was about it, but it was enough.

Flash forward to 2009. The TRS-80 is a museum piece, of course. But many of its virtues, and limitations, have resurfaced in the netbook. These mini-laptops sport screens of 10 inches or less, weigh less than three pounds, and feature built-in wireless connectivity. They're great for mobile computing, and most cost just $300 to $500. You can use netbooks to surf the Web, check e-mail, compose a modest-sized document, or make a presentation, all while running familiar Office or Windows applications (although some do come loaded with Linux).

That's not to say they're perfect. But when I tested Hewlett-Packard's netbook, the Mini 2140, I was surprised by how much I liked it. At $479, the Mini is pricier than many competitors, due mostly to its brushed-aluminum case, a bright, 10.1-inch screen, 1 GB of memory, and a 160-GB hard drive. It weighs just 2.6 pounds without the AC adapter and comes with Windows XP.

I had no trouble surfing the Web, watching streaming video, or running standard applications, although some, notably Internet Explorer, were slow to open. The big downside? The keyboard. At 92% of standard size, it's about as big as netbook keyboards get, but you'll still make typos if you have large hands. The lack of a CD or DVD drive is another shortfall. HP plans to offer one, but hasn't yet set a price. Until then, you'll have to download programs from the Web or pull them from your network.

Before you run out and buy a netbook, of course, you'll want to be sure that a smartphone such as the BlackBerry or a full-size laptop isn't a better choice for you. Nothing beats the pocket-friendly BlackBerry and its cousins when it comes to checking e-mail, grabbing a quick bite of information from the Web, or updating a calendar and address book. If that's all you or your staff need to do on the road, there's no reason to buy a netbook. One caveat: Monthly charges can make the BlackBerry or iPhone the more expensive option in the long run.

If you need a portable device that can serve as an all-purpose business machine, choose a standard laptop. When I'm in the office, I use a full-size notebook connected to a large monitor and ergonomic keyboard, and I never miss my old desktop PC. When I go on the road, I pack it up and have everything I need to do my job—not to mention a sore shoulder when I get done traipsing through the airport.

Another choice is a high-end business laptop, such as the Apple MacBook Air or HP EliteBook, which each weigh about three pounds and cost $1,800 and $1,450, respectively. If you can afford it, those offer the best of all possible worlds.

So we have the usual trade-offs: money, weight, processing power, size. My old Trash 80 didn't do much—but what it did, it did well. Netbooks are like that. If you only need the basics, they're the way to go.

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