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Tiny miracles: Where did the laptop go?

Let's hear it for the incredible shrinking notebook computer — and its incredible shrinking price tag. Gadget guy Paul Hochman looks at how solid-state drives are making laptops smaller, cheaper and lighter than ever.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Let’s hear it for the incredible shrinking laptop. Now, let’s hear it (even louder) for the incredible shrinking price tag. Yes, while there used to be an inverse (and ironclad) relationship between size and price in the world of consumer electronics — the smaller something got, the more it usually cost — a strange wrinkle has developed in the laptop world: Now there are powerful laptop computers out there that are tiny, lightweight, loaded with great basic features, and (deep breath, please) ... cheap. Or what passes for cheap these days in high-tech: Many are less than $400.

Why does this matter? It’s a simple as this: In an uncertain economy, it’s nice to know you can get a great deal on powerful, basic home computing technology. And we’re not kidding — a truly full-functioning, even “loaded,” laptop.

Before we get to the products themselves, let’s focus on the big reason for this crazy, unprecedented, and welcome trend. Here it is: no more moving parts.

That’s right. The traditional hard drive, which stores all of your software on your laptop or desktop computer, and which spins almost constantly (like an old vinyl record player), is soon going to be a dead technology. A goner. Again, I repeat: The spinning hard drive, with its greedy need for power, and with its inevitable death after many hours of spinning, rotating use, is no more. In its place is the SSD, or solid-state drive — a simple, unmoving chip that requires no power to store and allows access to all of your information. To repeat: This hard drive has no moving parts.

One result of the new, no-moving-parts reality in laptop computers is a lower power requirement — with no platter to push or spin, a computer with an SSD hard drive literally uses less energy. So the battery that powers your laptop doesn’t have to be as big or powerful to keep the computer powered up.

Another result: There is no heat buildup around the spinning drive (which is typical of most laptops), so there is no fan required to cool it off. There goes the other big moving part in your laptop. And another need for power. And with no fan, even fewer moving parts.

If that weren’t enough, SSD drives are less fragile than conventional spinning hard drives — if you drop your laptop computer (which we do NOT recommend, of course), there is a dramatically lower likelihood that the computer will be rendered unusable, because the SSD drive can’t be thrown off its track. There is no track. And if the power suddenly goes out, there is almost no chance for any data loss (unlike with regular spinning hard drives), because all the data is stored in a non-volatile, non-moving place.

Now, just before we show you a couple of great examples of these lower-priced, fully-featured laptop computers, let’s pause for a moment to applaud the two nice scientists who won the Nobel Prize for discovering the principles that make this SSD drive possible: The Frenchman Albert Fert and the German Peter Grünberg, who discovered the idea of so-called “giant magneto resistance,” which allows the reading of data on extremely tiny hard disks, and which allowed the miniaturization of those hard disks.

OK, on to the recommended subnotebook computers:

There are now many competitors out there, but the whole category (and its manufacturers) should give credit to the first entry: Asus. One of the manufacturers (for Apple) of the Apple iPod, Asus is now a growing giant in its own right, and the lightweight, Bluetooth-ready, video-camera-laden bantamweight known as the Eee PC is the reason. It changed the way virtually everybody looked at laptops. For example, and among other things, people really started calling the category “subnotebook” when they got their first look at a 2-lb. Asus Eee PC. The first Eee PC 900 was a hit, and the new Eee PC 901 is improved, faster and even more fully-featured.

Other great subnotebooks: The HP 2133 Mini-Note PC with a keyboard that is 92 percent the size of a standard laptop and (drum roll, please) ... spillproof. So no coffee concerns here.

Also, the Acer Aspire One, which not only has tons of great features, it even comes in four colors, and the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 (pictured above) with a wireless connection, a video card and onboard video camera, all weighing about 2 lbs.

Paul Hochman is the gear and technology editor for the TODAY Show and a Fast Company magazine contributor. He covered the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Athens and Torino, Italy, for TODAY. He was also a three-year letter winner on the Dartmouth ski team and has a black belt in karate. Paul’s blog can be found at: