Smaller laptops growing in popularity

LAS VEGAS — Last year so-called "netbooks" crept into stores — computers that often cost less than $400, with small screens and keyboards that made them look Lilliputian next to laptops that seemed perfectly portable just months earlier.

These little computers introduced consumers to the idea that extreme portability could be combined with a low price, as long as people were willing to use the computer for getting on the Internet and not much more. Netbooks won't include a DVD drive, the fastest microprocessor or enough storage space to house endless amounts of photos and videos.

This year, because of the dismal economy and laptop buyers' increasing comfort with these miniature computers, more netbooks are headed to store shelves. Some netbooks will keep their lower-than-a-cheap-PC price, but others will cost what bigger laptops do, and include features like touch screens and metal casings as companies look to keep the category's momentum going.

At the International Consumer Electronics Show last week, Taiwan-based AsusTek Computer Inc. — which launched its $269-to-$699 Eee PC netbooks in 2007 — introduced a new one called the Eee PC Touch. It sports a nearly 9-inch touch screen that swivels or folds over so it can be used as a tablet-style PC. Asus expects the Touch to be available in March for $499 and plans to release a version with a 10-inch screen.

That size and price aren't far from a regular laptop. A Dell Inspiron 1525 with a 15-inch screen and more powerful processor starts at $479 through the Round Rock, Texas-based company's Web site.

Jackie Hsu, Asus' president of the Americas, said his company sold 5 million Eee PCs worldwide in 2008. He expects the market to grow this year.

Larger computer makers like Dell Inc., Acer Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. are betting on netbooks, and retailers have high hopes for them in 2009, too, if Inc. is any indication. Between Black Friday and Christmas, eight of the top 10 best-selling laptops on the site were netbooks, said Amazon's vice president of consumer electronics, Paul Ryder.