AT&T, Verizon Netbooks Are Cheap, But Slow

AT&T and Verizon's discounted netbook computers are a good deal if you're planning to sign up for a data plan anyway.
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If there has been one technology hit during the past six months, it's the so-called

netbook computer

.

Companies are expected to ship 35 million

netbook computers

this year, according to ABI Research. That number is estimated to grow to 139 million by 2013.

Netbooks won't win performance awards. These machines, built by

Acer

,

Dell

(DELL) - Get Report

,

Hewlett-Packard

(HPQ) - Get Report

and newcomers like

MSI Computer

, feature slow processors and screens smaller than 10 inches diagonally.

Microsoft's

(MSFT) - Get Report

Vista operating system won't work on most models.

Low prices are netbooks' saving grace. Some sell for less than $400. Still, that's not much cheaper than entry-level laptops, which hover around $500. The argument for buying an e-mail and word processing appliance in the age of the BlackBerry has been hard to make at those prices.

That might change as cell phone operators enter the scene.

AT&T

(T) - Get Report

and

Verizon Communications

(VZ) - Get Report

have started selling netbooks directly or through other retailers at steep discounts. The

HP Mini

, for example, which Verizon started selling earlier this month, costs $199, about 70% less than what you would pay on H-P's

Web site

.

AT&T offers an Acer Aspire One for $79 at my local

RadioShack

(RSH)

. The catch, of course, is the customer must sign up for the pricey service plan that comes with these units.

I have been testing an Aspire One netbook to see how the cell phone company models compare with those of traditional vendors. If your performance expectations are reasonable, they could offer real value.

What you get:

For $79, you get a fully functioning Acer Aspire that works anywhere on AT&T's network. It's a nice little solution.

My Aspire weighed less than 3 pounds including chargers and cords, and came with a reasonably powerful

Intel

(INTC) - Get Report

processor that could handle Windows XP. It has 160 gigabytes of storage, an 8.9-inch screen and a generous six hours of battery life. If you do word processing, e-mail, spreadsheets and presentations online, the broadband connection is helpful.

Cell phone data performance was a step or two slower than that of the average wireless connection. AT&T also limits downloads to five gigabytes a month, so you would need to use a wireless network for your heavy transfers.

What you don't get:

Netbooks aren't the cheapest way to stay connected while traveling.

Cell phone companies aren't stupid. They're not discounting these netbooks as part of some humanitarian mission. Do the math: $60 a month totals $1,440 over the required two-year coverage period. That's on top of your existing cell phone bill. That $1,400 can buy a whole lot of computer, especially if you rely on public wireless hot spots.

Bottom line:

Netbooks sold by cell phone companies are a good option for small businesses, especially if you're planning to sign up for data access anyway. They're cheap. They work. And they're slick. Just make sure the model you buy fits your needs.

Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.