Sprint and the 99-cent Netbook

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I want to take a break from budget-related posting for a moment and go over this sweet, sweet HP netbook I just picked up for $0.99.  Yeah, that’s right — 99 cents.  Less expensive than (but not as tasty as) a double cheeseburger.  Don’t worry, fellow state employees — I will resume my kettle-banging and rabble-rousing on Monday.

In case you somehow missed the news, Sprint has rocked the wireless world by being the first carrier to subsidize a netbook all the way down to (almost) free.  Sign up for a two-year agreement on Sprint’s 3G EVDO Rev. A network at $59 / month, and you’ll get the netbook for 99 cents.  It’s not a bad deal; consider it a two-year interest-free finance offer for the netbook, roll in a corporate discount, and you’re effectively getting wireless broadband for around $34 a month.  You can also choose Verizon Wireless or AT&T, at which point the netbook costs $199.

The specs are nothing to brag about.  Anyone familiar with netbooks knows the standard single-core Atom drill by now, so I’ll spare you the specifics.  I will point out that the keyboard is the best netbook keyboard I’ve found so far.  While slightly smaller than a desktop, I don’t have to cramp my fingers inward to type.  My only complaint is that it’s not backlit.  One quirk is that the trackpad has its buttons on the side — an ergonomic choice that can become annoying.

The broadband component is totally integrated with the unit.  There’s no USB dongle or PC card to plug in.  Surprisingly, this does not cause the unit to get any warmer than any other netbook I’ve used, nor does it appear to kill the battery.

I’ve spent the better part of today driving around the region testing network connectivity.  Part of my test was streaming 128k net radio stations in my car — like getting Sirius for free, only with more channels.  I’m particularly fond of soma.fm and M2 Radio.  I also did some speed tests while being chauffeured around Central PA.  Driving from Bethlehem to Mechanicsburg my audio stream was broken twice, for only a few seconds each time.  I had no problems between Mechanicsburg and York.  At no point did I completely lose signal.

I’ve also done some surfing and Tweeting (while stopped, of course) and the experience was, surprisingly, better than my DSL connection at home.  In fact, right this second I’m sitting in front of the Dauphin County Courthouse typing this with my car in Refresh Mode and M2 Chillout playing over my car stereo while waiting for friends.  One of the nice tricks about EVDO Rev.A — the 3G wireless broadband technology used by Sprint and Verizon Wireless — is that it has astoundingly low latency.  I use a regular, older EVDO card frequently at work, and the difference is staggering.

I’ll post some more specifics next weekend, but for having this thing two days thus far, I’m in love.  If the Internet was the “killer app” that brought PCs to everyone’s home, and WiFi was the “killer app” that made everyone move to a laptop, then wireless broadband will hands-down be the killer app that brings netbooks into the mainstream limelight.  The only drawback is the monthly expense — I can think of a lot of other ways to spend $60 / month.

So the question I’m trying to answer now is, “is this thing worth it?”  If I could disconnect my home Internet service, and if every wireless carrier didn’t interpret “unlimited” to mean “up to 5GB per month”, I’d say “hell yes”.  But being that I can’t (I need a home connection for my security system) and they do, I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

I’ll post a one-week followup next Sunday.  For the impatient among you, this deal is only available at Best Buy.  Nobody at my store knew how to activate it, and it took me an hour to check out.  But if you ever wondered what having statewide WiFi feels like, go pick one up.  There’s always the 14-day return period.

Just watch out for that 15% restocking fee.