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Anyone who's on the go and has to carry a laptop for any amount of time is well acquainted with the stiff neck and aching shoulders that result. Whether you're a student, a business person or a soccer mom, a standard laptop is often one too many things to haul around.

A netbook can help. These under three pound mini-laptops were developed as companion machines for people who need mobile computing facilities, but don't require a muscle machine while out and about. They supplement a more powerful home or office computer, they don't necessarily replace it.

Nineteen-year-old University of Guelph students Michael and Steven Caswell are entering their third year of Criminal Justice and Public Policy, and for them, standard laptops don't work well. Netbooks might - let's look at their issues.

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Says Michael, "Some classrooms don't have anywhere to put your computer, or if they do it's just a small fold-out table. A lot of times I end up balancing my laptop on my knee, which isn't exactly ergonomic, and is a pain, especially for three-hour lectures."

A netbook, at a fraction of the size of that laptop, would fit nicely on those tiny lecture hall desks, and since their curriculum doesn't involve heavy-duty computing, the Caswells would have no issues with a netbook's lower processing power.

"Since I have to carry my computer for most of the day walking between classes or going to the library, portability is also a significant issue," Steven adds."

Portability is also important because as a student, I never live in one place for long." Netbooks weigh less than three pounds, and their footprint is smaller than a sheet of letter paper.

A third issue is battery life. Michael points out, "Some classrooms have outlets at every seat, but a lot don't, so occasionally if I don't get a seat near an outlet, I have to switch to pen and paper." Many netbooks offer significantly better battery life than full-sized laptops.

What else can you expect? Here's a quick look at three typical netbooks.



Asus Eee PC 1005HA Seashell

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Available online or at many retailers in white, black, pink or blue, this little $449 Seashell is cute as well as functional. Its major claim to fame is its amazing battery life. With the optional 6-cell battery I got about eight hours, with wireless active.

The 10.1 inch screen offers 1024 x 600 resolution. It's quite readable, although highly reflective, generating a lot of glare in bright environments. A VGA port lets you plug in an external monitor if need be.

The specs are on par with most modern netbooks: 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor, 1 GB RAM, and 160 GB hard drive (you also get 10 GB of eee online storage free for 18 months). The operating system is Windows XP Home. Performance is good for netbook-friendly functions such as word processing, Web surfing, e-mail and so forth; as with any netbook, I wouldn't try demanding number-crunching. A 1.3 megapixel webcam is built into the bezel.

Three USB 2.0 ports and 10/100 Ethernet provide wired connectivity, and 802.11 b/g/n and Bluetooth handle the wireless duties. I found the 802.11 wireless a bit cranky; from time to time it dropped connections and refused to reconnect in a location where other machines had no issues. For removable storage, there's an SD card slot, and of course there are headphone and mic connections.

I'd call the keyboard merely okay, but since keyboard preferences are intensely personal, I'd advise trying for yourself. The keys are an adequate size. The touchpad is differentiated from the rest of the palm rest by little bumps; you otherwise can't tell where it is by looking, unless you assume that it's above the chrome mouse buttons.

My review unit was a shiny black that picked up fingerprints like crazy. Be prepared to polish your Seashell a lot.

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LG X120 "Whatchamacallit"

The LG X120 launched during Toronto's Fashion Week, paraded down the runway by models. It comes in matte white with discreet lime or pink trim; a black version is forthcoming.

Battery life with default power settings was about five hours with wireless enabled. The 10.1-inch 1024 x 576 screen is a readable and the rest of the specs were the usual Intel Atom, 1 GB RAM and 160 GB hard drive.

Ports include three USB 2.0, external VGA, headphone and mic, 10/100 Ethernet and a SmartLink port to connect PCs for direct data transfer. Wireless offers 802.11b/g and Bluetooth 2.1, external storage needs are met through a 4-in-1 slot supporting SD, MMC, Memory Stick and Memory Stick Pro. A 1.3 megapixel webcam is built-in.

The $499.99 X120 has two power buttons. One takes you into Windows XP Home, as expected, while the other Smart On button quickly launches a simplified OS from Splashtop that lets you surf, browse photos, instant message, use Skype or play music, without having to fire up Windows.

The keys are 93 per cent the size of a full-sized keyboard, and I found the unit easy to type on. As I mentioned above, your mileage may vary.

LG supplies the machine with several utilities installed, a trial version of Norton Anti-Virus, plus a copy of OpenOffice so you can be productive right away.





Sony Vaio W Series

The Vaio W Series netbook is yet another tiny fashion statement, available in pearly white, pink or brown. The interior décor is textured metallic, with Chiclet-like keys.

The display is gorgeous, with a resolution of 1366 x 768. A Sony "Motioneye" webcam is mounted in the bezel.

Battery life, alas, in this $599.99 netbook is not so nice, providing a mere two-and-a-half hours with wireless active (the official specs state "up to" three hours).

The rest of the specs are typical: Atom processor (albeit a bit quicker one than that in the other machines we reviewed), 1 GB RAM, 160 GB hard drive, Windows XP Home. Wired connections include two USB ports, 10/100 Ethernet, VGA and audio, while wireless consists of Bluetooth and 802.11b/g/n. Sony sensibly provides a switch to let you turn off wireless, to save power, or during flight when it's not allowed.

For external storage, we have a MagicGate slot and an SD card slot.

The keyboard is not my favourite configuration, but the widely spaced keys will make it easier for large-fingered individuals to type. The touchpad is a generous size, and little lights across the top indicate whether caps lock, num lock and scroll lock are engaged.

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