Forget about $100 laptops. It's a price point nobody's going to hit anytime soon - not even the One Laptop Per Child Foundation in Cambridge, the nonprofit organization that two years ago unveiled its plan to give ultra-cheap computers to poor kids.
But we're getting fairly close. Apart from the foundation, which last week began selling its laptops for $200, chip maker Intel Corp has its Classmate PC, a child's computer priced between $200 and $400. And AsusComputer International, of Taiwan, has the Eee PC, at $399, tailored for grownups as well as kids.
Not bad pricing for laptops. But are they any good? We figured the best way to find out was with a three-way hands-on showdown. The foundation refused to participate, saying it didn't have any spare units to lend. It also refused to let us visit the headquarters and run tests.
Too bad. It could have been a contender. The foundation's laptop carries a slightly bigger display screen than the Asus and Intel laptops, and the display is reportedly optimized to work in bright sunlight as well as indoors. The foundation says that in low-power mode, its machine burns just 2 watts of electricity, which would probably make it the most energy-efficient laptop ever. And while the designers long ago gave up the delightful idea of a built-in hand crank to recharge the battery, a subcontractor has designed a charging crank that bolts onto the edge of a desk or table.
Besides, with its rounded corners, colorful case, and bunny-ear antennas for wireless networking, the laptop is cute. We'd been looking forward to some face time with it; maybe next year.
Asus and Intel weren't nearly as shy about shipping us test units, and it's easy to see why. There's a lot to like about the Eee PC and the Classmate PC, beginning with looks. The Classmate sports a sky-blue integrated vinyl case and carrying handle; all the cool kids will want one. The Eee goes for more of a grown-up look, with its coating of translucent pearl-white plastic.
Both computers are lightweight - 2 pounds for the Eee, with the Classmate closer to 3 pounds. They save weight and extend battery life by leaving out mechanical storage devices like CD burners or hard drives. Both computers rely entirely on the same kind of flash memory found in digital cameras and music players. But not much flash memory. The Asus Eee comes with a mere 4 gigabytes of storage; the Intel Classmate has just 2 gigs. With operating systems and software installed, there's not much left over for your own files. But you can insert USB memory keys in both machines if you need extra space; the Asus computer also has a spare slot for a flash memory card.
Both machines have their physical nuisances. There's no getting past the clumsy feel of the cramped keyboards, though regular users will surely get used to them. To reduce cost, the Asus and Intel machines both use skimpy 7-inch flat-panel screens not well suited to middle-age eyes.
What's up with Intel's decision to omit the Shift key from the right side of the Classmate keyboard? An Intel representative said the company will put it back in future models, as a sop to touch-typists everywhere.
Asus made the equally odd decision to include a touchpad mouse with just one button. You can still right-click, by pressing the right side of the button, but it's mighty confusing.
Asus stole a page from the XO playbook and built a video camera into the more expensive Eee models. Touch a button, and you can transmit live Internet video of yourself or something else.
But the Eee's best feature is its painless version of the free Linux operating system. Popular with engineers and hobbyists, Linux has never caught on with the masses, because most people find it confusing and hard to use.
But Linux can be a delight when stripped to its essentials. Asus engineers have done exactly that, and topped it off with perhaps the best user interface ever created for a Linux computer. The Eee PC screen features large tabs with self-explanatory labels - Internet, Work, Learn, and Play, for instance. Under each tab are the icons you'd expect. Find the word processor and spreadsheet programs under Work, the Web browser and e-mail software under Internet. Even Linux novices will feel instantly at home.
The Intel Classmate PC is just as welcoming, but only because it fired up our old friend Windows XP. Our test unit included Microsoft Office for documents, as well as specialized software to let teachers wirelessly administer tests or assign homework.
Like the One Laptop Per Child foundation, Intel designed the Classmate for bulk purchases by government agencies or charities, which will then distribute the machines to poor children. So you can't pick up a Classmate at the Best Buy.
Asus hopes to tap the same market with a $199 educational version of the Eee. But the rest of us can buy the $399 version at Amazon.com and other online retailers, though not necessarily in time for Christmas. Amazon and Bestbuy.com warn of shipping delays ranging from one to four weeks. It turns out lots of people are in the market for small, simple, portable computers - even if they cost more than $100.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.