It's an obvious way to sell a netbook computer: using the mobile phone "monthly payment over two years" approach, complete with a wireless broadband contract so you can use it anywhere. Which of the three bundles currently on the market offers the best value?
The notion of a netbook bundle has been popular overseas for some time, but first really hit Australia with Dell's packaging of its Inspiron Mini with a Vodafone 3G announced last December. The price on that deal dropped less than two months later, but until recent weeks Dell and Vodafone had the netbook/3G market largely to themselves.
Not any more. Samsung is offering its NC10 netbook with an Optus 3G bundle, while Telstra has paired up with Acer to offer a Next G-ready version of the Aspire One netbook. That means there's options from every major mobile network provider (given that 3 is now part of Vodafone), with the same basic characteristics: a fixed fee per month over 24 months, and a built-in 3G receiver within the netbook. (The three machines also all use the Intel Atom processor and weigh around 1.1kg.)
One obvious disadvantage of this approach is that your selection of netbook may be effectively dictated by the networks available to you: if you can't (for instance) get Optus where you live, then the NC10 won't be much good for you. As our 3G broadband directory points out, this isn't uncommon, but if you acquire a standalone USB dongle, you can at least connect it to whatever machine you like.
As well, having the 3G facility built-in makes for more compact travel, but can restrict your hardware choices and doesn't give you the option of using your 3G modem as emergency access for your main machine.
Those worries aside, however, the big question to be considered is cost. What do you get for your money in terms of connectivity and download limits? And is it better value than buying a machine outright and getting your own postpaid deal?
In my earlier analysis of the Dell/Vodafone deal, I concluded that while you could buy the component elements slightly more cheaply, the difference wasn't huge, and that spreading the cost might have its own fiscal advantages.
The entry-level 2GB Samsung/Optus plan is a bit cheaper than Vodafone's $60 a month option, costing a total of $1209.71 over the life of the machine. However, to get the equivalent amount of data to the Vodafone plan on the more expensive 5GB Optus plan, you'll spend $1689.71 -- making it a slightly pricier option.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Telstra's package is the most expensive, costing at least $1665.12 over the 24 month period. That presumes the entry-level $39 plan and a laptop repayment fee of $30.38 a month. That $39 deal gets you just 400MB of downloads -- not enough for anything approaching serious use. The 5GB Next G plan costs $90 a month, meaning that the equivalent deal with notebook repayments is more than twice the price of the Dell/Vodafone combo. (Telstra quotes most Next G prices over 36 months, so that analysis could in fact still be generous.)
Given the relatively short shelf life of all netbooks, and the growth in prepaid options, buying this way may not make sense unless you're going to regularly use the machine on the go. If you are, then despite the competitors, the Dell deal still looks the best overall in pure "value for your comms dollar" terms. If you're confident the 2GB download limit isn't a problem, Optus is the cheapest outright deal. As for Telstra, here's hoping you don't need that breadth of coverage.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman can't imagine committing to any machine for two whole years, no matter how portable it is. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.