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Netbooks on Contract: A Good Deal?

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: M.S. Smith•updated: 5/22/2011

Verizon, AT&T, and other mobile broadband companies are now offering netbooks at dramatically cut prices as part of mobile broadband contracts. These deals look extremely tempting on paper, but are they really worthwhile?

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    Mobile Netbooks

    The size of netbooks make it possible to bring them along on most outings. They fit well into a medium sized purse (or murse) and are easily swallowed up by a backpack. This, combined with battery life which can last the better part of a working day, makes it very easy to toss a netbook in a bag and run out the door. The only problem with this is that netbooks tend to be limited in their usefulness without access to the internet and there are still many places where free wifi is simply not available.

    The national cell phone networks, like Verizon and AT&T, are well aware of this. They are now offering mobile internet contracts which are packaged with cut-rate netbooks. These offerings often seem like great deals, but what are you getting into?

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    What Netbook?

    The HP Mini 311 is a decent Verizon Netbook deal Open any local newspaper or navigate to a mobile broadband provider's website and you're likely to find at least one ad offering a netbook for between $100 and $200 dollars. At the time of this writing AT&T's website offers an Acer Aspire One at an online price of $149 dollars (with two year contract, of course). Verizon offers an even better deal, allowing new customers to purchase the very well reviewed HP Mini 311 for only $199 with two year contract. That is half the normal retail price of the netbook. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. As netbooks become more mature and less expensive and the market more competitive even better offers are likely to emerge.

    However, those tempted by these offers need to be careful to look at what netbook they're actually getting. The mobile Internet provides are very quick to provide brand names but rather slow to provide details. For example, the Acer Aspire One deal made available by AT&T advertising such features as Windows 7, an Intel Atom Processor, and 3G broadband support. What isn't heavily advertised is the small three cell battery. What is the point of having a netbook with mobile internet if it is only capable of three hours of use before it needs recharged?

    This isn't to say all the netbooks are worthless. The HP Mini 311 from Verizon had the same specification as any other HP Mini 311. Just be sure to read the find print before getting too excited.

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    The Total Cost

    AT&T Netbooks arn't as great a deal as they seem Of course, the real issues with the netbook offers made by mobile Internet provides are the contracts which come along for the ride. Much as with the netbooks themselves, the service plans made available are not always what they at first seem to be.

    AT&T typically advertises that mobile Internet plans available with their netbooks start at around $35 dollars a month. This is technically true. However, the basic AT&T mobile Internet plan only offers 200MB of data per month. That could be easily consumed just by downloading a few podcasts. A much more useful 5GB per month data plan is available, but it costs $60 dollars, almost twice the initially advertised price. Over the course of the two year contract the 5GB per month data plan will cost $1440 dollars. Suddenly that cheap netbook doesn't seem so inexpensive.

    Verizon is no different. Their base plan is charged at $40 a month and comes with 250MB of data per month, while the 5GB data plan costs $60 dollars per month. Oh, and don't forget that all mobile Internet contracts are subject to early termination fees. When you're in, you're stuck.

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    The Verdict

    Clearly, there are a lot of fine-print details which make the netbook offers from mobile Internet provides less appealing than they seem in advertisements. Anyone looking at one of these deals will need to be very careful. Examining the netbook itself is critical as mobile Internet provides will quite frequently advertise products only under their brand names without going into specifics about what model of netbook they're offering. The mobile Internet data plans are also rarely what they seem. While the inexpensive rates advertised do exist, those plans are so limited that all but the lightest users will have to upgrade to the most expensive plans (or be charged for going over their monthly data rate).

    Because of these issues I recommend against these netbook offers. Saving two hundred dollars on a netbook doesn't make sense if it requires committing to a two year contract costing over a thousand dollars. These deals are only useful if one is thinking of purchase the mobile Internet service anyway, although those in such a position probably already own a netbook or laptop.