Office tech: Your next computer?

Netbooks are cheap and portable, but lack power.

Buying a computer is fraught with trade-offs between price, performance, mobility and features. Now a new class of computers known as netbooks is emerging that tries to strike a new balance. These miniature laptops, weighing only about one kilogram, are more portable than full-sized notebook computers, but — of course — offer fewer features and lower performance.

On the plus side, netbooks are considerably less expensive, starting at about $300 for one with a Linux operating system; the more familiar Windows XP ups the price.

On the other hand, they’re often built with solid-state hard drives to keep them cool, quiet and a lean one-inch thick, but that limits memory to 80 or 120 GB for higher-end models, and modest operating memory means only a few applications should be open at a time.

Netbooks are not generally meant to be workhorses, but offer a fast way to get online and perform basic tasks, with integrated microphones and webcams, digital card readers and Wi-Fi. Their screens, at about nine or 10 inches, suffice, but the keyboards are scrunched up, and on some models, keys such as Shift are small and harder to touch-type.

PC makers, desperate for new sources of growth, position netbooks as pint-sized companions to desktops or full-power laptops. According to market researcher IDC, netbook shipments will double in 2009 to make up about 12% of all portable PCs — indeed, they’re likely already cannibalizing sales of traditional laptops. Are they an alternative to smart phones, as some claim? With their limited battery life, don’t bet your BlackBerry.