Dell and Vodafone have joined forces to sell the Inspiron Mini netbook like a phone, allowing you to purchase a 3G broadband-equipped device for a fixed monthly fee over 24 months. Is the future of computer purchasing, or just a good way of wasting money? Buying on contract is pretty much standard practice in the mobile market, and it makes purchasing that shiny new phone look much more affordable. So it's no real surprise that the same approach is now being used with netbooks/ultra-portable computers/mini notebooks (or whatever else you want to call them). Both categories involve ultra-portable devices and 3G networks, so really it's a bit of a surprise that it's taken this long. Under a deal announced last week, Dell will sell you its Inspiron Mini 9 for $69.95 a month over 24 months, with a built-in 5GB a month of 3G broadband. The package goes on sale this week. Note that despite the Dell branding, you have to purchase it through a Vodafone store or a Vodafone site, given the characteristic level of credit checking that goes with 3G deals. How much do you end up paying for that convenience? The minimum total cost over two years is $1,678.80. You can buy the Mini on its own for $548.90; adding in the equivalent broadband cost ($39.95 a month for 24 months) is $1507.50, so you're paying $171.10 over the odds. Spread over 24 months, that's an extra $7 or so a month (or a 10% interest rate, which beats whacking it on your credit card in all probability). Normally, I'd point out that one problem with this kind of deal is that you're stuck with the same provider for 24 months and won't be able to take advantage of any changes in the market. However, as our recent roundup of 3G plans made clear, the 24-month deal is pretty well entrenched in the 3G broadband sector, so that's going to be your lot in any case. The big downside of this approach is that you don't have a modem which you can switch between machines -- the 3G broadband is built into the PC, so you can't plug it into your main office computer if the ADSL dies. That might not matter to you, but it is one of the benefits of having a standard USB device. If that's not an issue, then the questions become the fundamental ones: is the notebook right for you, and are you happy with the Vodafone coverage? If you're only looking at east coast capital cities, then you'll be fine, but regional users need to exercise more caution. If you're looking for other machines, Nick at Gizmodo points out that Dell has a bunch of other sale items right now. Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman doesn't want to turn into somebody with three separate PCs every time he hits the road. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.