Acer’s $99 netbook can actually cost you $1,540. Should you get it?

AceraspireoneFor those of us already accustomed to the lifetime cost of a subsidized device, this isn’t news. But netbooks are a relatively new market so there’s bound to be many folks new to mobile tech and subsidization plans. It’s true that you can purchase a brand new Acer Aspire One netbook at the low upfront cost of $99 at your local Radio Shack. Normally, this device sells for around $350 or so. Bear in mind to get the $99 price, you’ll be signing up with AT&T for a new two-year data plan. That can be good and that can be bad.

Here’s the good: you’ll be able access the Internet on your hundreddollar netbook anywhere that AT&T offers coverage. That means inmost metropolitan areas and fringes, you’ll be surfing the web on whatwill feel like a standard home DSL connection. It’s a greatexperience… so good that it’s one I’ve paid for monthly since 2004.

Here’s the bad: that data plan will cost you $60 a month beforetaxes and other fees. And you’ll need to commit to that monthly billfor two-years. Simple math says that the mobile Internet connectionthat supplements your $99 netbook will cost you $1,440. That’s $1,540total for a $350 netbook. There’s also an early termination fee fromAT&T, which is usually $175, so if you end the contract early, thesubsidy that brought your netbook cost down to $99 is essentiallygetting repaid.

Here’s the advice: consider this deal if you plan to use the deviceto remotely connect to the web on a near-daily basis. Connecting to theInternet wherever you are is a truly enabling prospect. But at $2 aday, it adds up quick so if you’re not going to use it often enough onthe road, it’s not a value proposition. Evaluate if a cheapernationwide WiFi plan might better serve your purpose. For as little as $9.95 a month you can use WiFi at thousands of locations, so if your area is well covered, this is worth a look. Sure, the Acer will cost your around $350 now, but 24 months of WiFi is only $240, making your total outlay only $590 instead of $1,540.

Something else to consider: that data plan is essentially tied toyour netbook. While you should be able to swap out the SIM card fromthe netbook into another device to use wireless broadband, you’ll stillneed another piece of hardware in that other device. If you plan to useAT&T’s data plan on multiple devices, it might be worth consideringa USB adapter that will work with all of your devices, getting you alittle more bang for your buck. I tend to go with USB because it’s supported on every computer. The drawback is that you’ll have a piece of hardware sticking out from your laptop, but you’ll gain flexibility to get more value for your $2 a day.

Don’t misunderstand the liberation that wireless broadband can bring. It’s a fantastic productivity booster that’s well worth it for some. Just be certain you’ll be making good use of it before you commit to it and don’t be swayed by the low $99 price of a device.

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