A Computer for the Price of a Cell Phone

Ultra-cheap netbooks offer an inexpensive option to computer users.

March 12, 2009, 4:22 PM

April 3, 2009 2009— -- Getting a laptop for the price of a cell phone may sound far-fetched, but it has become a reality, thanks to test offers from companies like AT&T for netbooks the new class of small no-frills portable computers.

The newest round of netbooks exemplify the term inexpensive. For $50 users in Atlanta can purchase one of these mini-computers from AT&T as long as they sign up for two years of high-speed Internet service. In Philadelphia, the mini-computers go for $100.

"This is something new in the united states. I mean, we've seen this with the cell phone model: Pay for the service, get a free cell phone, but with laptops, this is new," said Tom Merritt, executive editor of C-NET-TV.

Even without a subscription, netbooks have been big sellers. Amazon said nine out of 10 computers it sells right now are netbooks priced at or below $400.

"It's phenomenal. It's an awesome opportunity, especially for people who don't necessarily have a laptop and could use one," shopper Tammi Moore said.

The trend to cheap or free netbooks is changing the computer landscape for big companies and consumers alike, and for those who've been excluded from technology's advances.

Verizon Wireless plans to offer a $99 netbook with a service plan and there are rumors that Apple is considering a lower-cost netbook.

And the AT&T deal for the $50 netbook means you pay almost $60 a month for a wireless data service that's both in your home and out on the road.

This is really only the right deal for someone who needs to have constant connetivity, according to "GMA" technology contributor Becky Worley.

AT&T does offer another option, which is a $99 computer with a $40 monthly plan.

Keep in mind you don't have to get these notebooks through a data provider like AT&T. These machines can be purchased for $350 and used with the broadband you already have in your home, or at any WiFi hot spot.

If you are in the market buy a netbook, then get a six-cell battery machine. It has much better battery life than a four-cell battery.

If you plan to do more than surf the Web, such as write papers, create spreadsheets, run third-party software programs, for an extra $50 your life will be easier if you get a Netbook running Windows, Worley said.

The low prices are making for a whole new experience for buyers.

The last time Georgia Santos went computer shopping, she steered clear of the hulking desktops and barely glanced at the dizzying array of laptops.

Instead, the 23-year-old New York student made a beeline for the newest and cheapest species to emerge from the computing industry: the netbook.

She said she has an aging laptop at home, but instead of swapping it for a similar model, she wants to replace it with a sub-$300 Hewlett-Packard Mini netbook.

She knows this new class of computers can't compete with fully-functional laptops and desktops when it comes to memory, power and battery life. And, truth be told, she is a little worried that she won't be able to easily watch or burn DVDs on a netbook.

But she told ABCNews.com, "I work most of the time on the Internet and not with large files. ... I think it would work."

As the computing industry prepares for what is expected to be its sharpest decline in PC shipments in history, netbooks are providing a singular glimmer of hope. But though netbooks may cushion the overall downturn, they are also challenging the very definition of pesonal computers.

"They are kind of breaking the business model," said Robert Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

The recession, combined with our increased mobility and the spread of applications that let us store and manipulate data in the Internet "cloud," will "fuel these low-cost computers and cause us to rethink computing in general," he said.

Earlier this month, the technology research firm Gartner Inc. said in a report that the PC industry would suffer "unprecedented" market slowdowns. It forecasted that PC shipments would fall 11.9 percent from 2008 levels, with desktops hit particularly hard, estimating a 31.9 percent dropoff.

Despite the parade of dismal news, Gartner predicted that shipments of mini notebooks, or netbooks, would rise about 79 percent, from 11.7 million units in 2008 to 21 million in 2009.

But though the popularity of the netbooks is surging, George Shiffler, the research director at Gartner, cautions that the netbook is not about to crush its more powerful cousins.

"They really aren't a substitute for a higher-end notebook," Shiffler told ABC News.com. "What we have been seeing [consumers] do is buy these as second notebooks to accompany computers they already have."

Though they may help the overall industry, they still comprise only 8 percent of the overall market. And, he said, they've taken off, in part, because they're a novelty."The netbook isn't the answer," he predicted.

However, Shiffler also said netbooks could put downward pressure on the prices of more powerful computers.

Although smaller, lower-power laptops had been around, netbooks didn't really catch on until the fall of 2008. At that point, experts said an attractive price point, a weakening economy and effective marketing combined to push netbooks to the tipping point.

The cheapest netbooks, such as the Acer Aspire One Netbook and the Asus Eee PC Netbook, can start just below $250. But the more expensive ones, such as the Sony VAIO Lifestyle Netbook, can reach nearly $900, exceeding the cost of some regular laptops.

More money will get you a faster processor, increased memory, enhanced portability (lighter and thinner) and other features.

With more cramped keyboards and smaller (usually 8- to 10-inch wide) screens, netbooks provide a different experience than full-size laptops. But if you can get over the size issues, netbooks offer a wide range of services, from Web browsing and word processing to video chatting (many come with webcams) and photo editing.

Gamers and video editors would definitely need another computer to meet their needs. And though you can watch videos online (from YouTube and Hulu, for example) you would need to use an external DVD or USB drive to watch movies offline.

But the manufacturers would also like to see consumers buying their more expensive, fully functional computers, and they caution consumers against relying on netbooks alone.

"In general, this is a companion product to notebooks or desktops," Ted Clark, senior vice president and general manager of Hewlett Packard's Notebook Global Business Unit, told ABCNews.com. "What we're seeing is that this is more of a market expansion opportunity. It's difficult to judge cannibalization."

Clark emphasized that if you need to work with spreadsheets or you want to use your netbook to watch movies, you might be out of luck.

People who think the netbook can be their primary computer now, might feel disappointed several months down the road, he said.As for the growth in netbook sales, Clark said, in this economic climate, "I would contend that those folks wouldn't be out shopping if not for the notebook."

However, even if netbooks aren't positioned to replace laptops and desktops, experts said that their impact may still be felt in the long-term.

They may not be as powerful as larger computers, but netbooks have awakened consumers to the realization that they can get a real, not toy, computer, for as little as $300.

"What netbooks have done is change the threshold," said Lance Ulanoff, editor in chief of PC magazine.

If you're a gamer or a graphic designer, he said, the netbook would not be able to keep up with your computing demands.

But for many others, "netbooks will be your entry-level laptop," said Ulanoff. "Clearly there's a concern and maybe there's a bit of reality that we're looking at the new normal and that there's no going back from this."