Image: Acer Aspire One notebook
Acer's Aspire One netbook has been offered for $100 by AT&T via RadioShack if a customer signs up for a two-year agreement that costs $60 a month for Internet access.
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msnbc.com
updated 4/1/2009 9:01:37 AM ET 2009-04-01T13:01:37

Netbooks, the “Mini-Me’s” of laptops, have gained popularity quickly, and with sagging cell phone sales, wireless carriers see dollar signs in the diminutive PCs. Verizon Wireless plans to offer netbooks by summer, following on the heels of AT&T, which started doing so late last year.

AT&T’s promotion of an Acer Aspire One notebook with an 8.9-inch screen for $100, offered through RadioShack with a two-year data plan from AT&T, has had appeal at a time where “paring down” and “scaling back” are becoming key word searches on Google.

“There’s definitely growing interest in them,” said Mark Siegel of AT&T. “We want to try to enable as many electronic devices as possible.”

Along those lines, AT&T said Wednesday it will test selling laptops in its stores in Atlanta and Philadelphia.  

Just as it does with cell phones, the phone company will subsidize the laptop when the customer signs a two-year contract. In Atlanta, customers will be able to buy a small netbook-type laptop for $50 if they sign up for home and wireless broadband service for $60 per month.

Both AT&T and Verizon Wireless, the nation's two largest carriers, have extensive 3G, or third-generation, wireless networks. Using those networks makes Web surfing by phone — or laptop — faster, although not as fast as a wired connection, say from your home cable or DSL modem.

With mobile phone sales expected to decrease “by at least 8 percent” this year, according to ABI Research, it makes sense for wireless carriers to offer netbooks and the accompanying data plans to make up some of that lost revenue.

But whether it makes sense for you depends on your situation. The Aspire One, which weighs a little more than 2 pounds and comes with a wireless card in it, retails for around $300 if you buy it online or in a store.

By buying it through AT&T, you save $200. However, you are committed to pay $60 a month for two years for the data plan. That totals $1,440. Throw in the 100 bucks you paid for the netbook, and now you’re talking an investment of more than $1,500.

In comparison, AT&T's iPhone data plan, for example, is about $30 a month, plus a minimum of $40 a month for a voice plan. There are two versions of the iPhone; one costs $199, the other $299, and both prices are subsidized by AT&T.

“If the (netbook) user needs mobile, broadband connectivity, if they are going to be traveling and know that Wi-Fi hot spots aren’t going to cut it, then a subsidized netbook from a carrier is the way to go," said Kevin Burden, ABI Research’s practice director, mobile devices.

"If the netbook is going to be primarily used within range of a Wi-Fi signal," such as at coffee shops, airports or even from home, "then purchasing it outright makes more sense,” he said.

Indeed, for those who are light-duty users — a little e-mail and Web surfing on the go — buying through a wireless carrier may be a good solution.

"Rather than me having to buy a netbook from Lenovo or HP or Dell or Acer or Asus, and then trying to find a carrier to get a broadband connection, it eliminates that level of confusion for the consumer," said Ian Lao, In-Stat senior analyst for mobile technologies and computing.

“I bought this unit right before Christmas and was traveling to Virgin Islands for a few weeks, and with AT&T 3G wireless broadband service, I was able to surf and work like I was back in my office,” wrote one user on RadioShack’s Web site. “Very happy with purchase, just wished AT&T contract wasn't so expensive!”

It can be more expensive for those who like to download big files such as movies, music and video. While Internet surfing is unlimited, file size is not.

AT&T, for example, has a 5-gigabyte cap on downloads, and anything over that costs about a tenth of a penny per kilobyte. And if you need to start tracking kilobytes, the math — and the money — could drive you insane.

An Oklahoma woman, socked with a $5,000 monthly bill after getting her AT&T/RadioShack netbook, filed suit against the companies in February, saying details about the 5-gigabyte limit was not clearly stated.

It is part of AT&T’s terms of service agreement, which is a very wordy, detailed document that is not always read by consumers.

“Netbooks aren’t that expensive, relatively speaking, so consumers buying a netbook who don’t need constant connectivity — or aren’t sure whether they will — may be better off just buying a netbook outright,” and using Wi-Fi where it’s available, said Avi Greengart, consumer devices research director for Current Analysis.

“This is different from cell phones, which many consumers consider a necessity.” Buying a netbook means signing up for a data plan only, which means yet another bill.

Aside from cost, network coverage is another issue to consider. Just as your cell phone hits “dead zones,” areas where coverage is poor or not available, you run the same risk with a netbook because you are using the carrier’s phone network to connect to the Internet.

It’s not necessarily a deal-killer, especially if you won’t be relying on the netbook as your primary connection, But it could be off-putting to “Netheads,” those users who are used to having a reliable, always-on, high-speed connection from home or work, said Lao of In-Stat.

“Netheads say, ‘I don’t care where I get my Internet from, I’m used to the fact that I can use any PC with any kind of broadband connection, whether it’s Comcast or Cox, I just plug it in and it works,’  ” he said.

Netbooks themselves are such a relatively new product — “Eight months ago, nobody even used the term ‘netbook,’ or really knew what a netbook was,” said Shawn DuBravac of the Consumer Electronics Association recently.

“By the time we got to October, it was a term that was in common use, and it is a market that has been growing very significantly.”

It may be that combining wireless and wired service, using a “bundling” approach, could benefit consumers as well as wireless carriers and Internet service providers, Lao said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point, competitors become partners,” he said. “If you could get your cable TV, wired broadband, wired telephone and wireless data plan and voice plan all in one bundled package — and maybe get a 10 to 15 percent price break, that would make sense. Now you’re only paying one bill, and not two to three bills a month for those services.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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