Whether you re spending> less in the recession or not, scaling back on your college-bound kid s next computer purchase may be a smart move.
Netbooks are becoming a more popular alternative to laptops and desktops, thanks to new technology that has put considerable computing power in the small, ultraportable devices. The devices are also economical: netbooks rarely top $400, and many basic models cost half that. "For 95% of users, a netbook is their next computer," says Alex L. Goldfayn, an independent technology analyst who hosts the nationally syndicated radio show "The Technology Tailor Minute," where he helps consumers find the right gadgets to fit their needs. "Everyone should be looking at them as an option."
Netbook sales are projected to reach 32.7 million units this year, nearly double the number sold in 2008, according to a July report from DisplaySearch.com, a consulting subsidiary of the market research firm NPD Group. DisplaySearch.com also predicts 2009 will be the first year that laptop sales will be flat compared with the previous year.
If your back-to-school shopping list includes a netbook, here are five points you need to know to score a good deal:
1) Know their limits
Netbooks are cheap, lightweight and powerful enough to satisfy a wide range of computer users, says Michael Carnell, the founder of Charleston, S.C., information technology firm Palmettobug Digital, which helps consumers select and set up technology. Who won t be a fan? Avid gamers, web designers and anyone looking for advanced editing of photos or video are unlikely to get what they need. Netbooks don t have the horsepower or the visual space for those tasks, he says. For those buyers, a laptop is the better choice.
2) Stick with big names
Netbooks are one of the few hot categories among broadly slumping electronics sales, which means many gadget manufacturers are racing to put out a model. Check expert and consumer reviews to find models from manufacturers with a reputation for quality products and good service should something go awry, says Andrew Eisner, director of content for Retrevo.com, an online electronics marketplace that offers user manuals and consumer reviews. His picks: established brands including HP, Asus and Toshiba.
3) Try before you buy
Never buy a netbook model you haven t tried first in person. There s a lot of variety among manufacturers, and one size does not fit all. You need to put your hands on the keyboard, says Goldfayn. (Some keyboards are so small that they re uncomfortable for many adults or so condensed that they re awkward for typists.) Some users may also have trouble adjusting to a screen on the smaller end of netbooks 6-to-12-inch range.
4) Avoid cellphone bundles
AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint all offer cheap netbooks when you sign up for a two-year data plan contract. For example, Verizon sells the HP Mini 1151NR for $200 ($80 less than comparable HP models at retail), plus a $40-per-month mobile broadband access plan. Although the offers can be tempting, steer clear, Eisner says. Wi-Fi is faster than 3G, and it s more prevalent in places you d be likely to use a netbook, such as homes, libraries, coffee shops and hotels. Wi-Fi is going to satisfy you most of the time, he says.
5) Hunt down sales
With so many consumers looking at netbooks, retailers are using them as loss leaders to pull shoppers into stores, says Dan de Grandpre, the founder of deal-tracking site DealNews.com. That means tons of sales on an already-affordable item. Target sells the 7-inch Asus Eee 8GB netbook for $230. That s $50 cheaper than its regular price tag. Sears is offering an extra 5% off Acer netbooks for consumers who pay with their store credit card.