Computer makers are betting the farm that small and mid-sized businesses will spring for “netbooks” -- you know, those relatively inexpensive, petite, and Internet-enabled devices designed simply to access the Internet and check e-mail.

Thanks to breakthrough products like the $249 ASUS Eee, they’re one of the hottest computer categories these days among consumers, and so it’s no surprise virtually every major computer manufacturer wants a piece of the action (er, except Apple).

While less straining on your bank account, especially during this economic downturn, the question is whether or not these “dumbed-down” notebooks are ideal to manage your growing business.

The good

Netbooks distinguish themselves from fully-functional notebooks in a few areas.

“The pricing is, in a word, irresistible,” says Andy Walker, author of Microsoft Windows Vista Help Desk and Windows Lockdown!: Your XP and Vista Guide Against Hacks, Attacks, and Other Internet Mayhem (QUE books).

“We’ve been trained that small and sleek laptops mean ‘expensive’ -- not anymore -- as the price is tag is as tiny as these computers,” Walker adds, citing sub-$300 models including the Acer Aspire One, Sylvania G, and aforementioned ASUS Eee. A decent laptop computer, on the other hand, costs about $600.

Usually weighing between two and four pounds, these Wi-Fi-ready netbooks are highly portable, continues Walker. “If you spend any time on the road, these small Internet appliances can be a good choice for a businessperson since they can shove it in a bag, purse or luggage and have access to the Net, e-mail and company documents.”

“Plus, there’s always a concern of losing or dropping a $2,000 laptop while traveling, but now we’re talking about 10 percent of that cost, so even though I hesitate to say it, it’s almost, well, disposable,” he adds.

The bad

Netbooks have a lot going for them -- an attractive price, small form factor, and wireless connectivity -- but while they may be ideal for mobile students, a few limitations might prevent them from catching for the business crowd.

For one, netbooks were designed for basic functionality and not high-end applications. “These PCs are great for basic word processing and checking e-mail but not for video editing, gaming or any other demanding apps,” cautions Walker.

What’s more, in order to keep costs down, many netbooks ship with a version of the free open-source Linux operating system, opposed to having Windows XP or Windows Vista installed. “Because of this fact, you have to make sure your business applications will work with Linux or else you’ll have to install Windows -- if there’s enough memory to do so,” says Walker, alluding to the fact netbooks usually ship with modest storage space such as 2GB of Flash memory, and no optical drive.

That said, a few free productivity suites work with Linux, such as OpenOffice.org 2, which includes a word processor, spreadsheet program, presentation creation software, and more.

“Don’t expect a full computer experience on a netbook, so base your expectations accordingly. You’re not going to design the next space shuttle on these things,” says Walker.

The compromise

HP, one of the world’s largest computer manufacturers, has also created an aggressively-priced subnotebook -- the HP 2133 ($499) -- but it’s not quite a netbook either.

“HP is definitely in this category -- a small form factor, optional Linux operating system, and Flash drive, but it gives you more of what a typical notebook will give you,” explains Robert Baker, product marketing manager for commercial notebooks, North America, at HP.

“We see the demand for smaller, entry-level netbooks, but we did some market research and found those who use computers for business didn’t want to give up too much in the power department, so our 2133 is our first offering that splits the difference,” explains Baker. Specifically, users can select from a number of laptop-like options, such as up to 250GB (7200 RPM) hard drive, Windows Vista Business edition, and so on.

When pressed on the likelihood of launching a true netbook to compete in this hot category, Baker says, "We're actively looking into this market….. Yes, we’re watching it extremely closely, but I can’t tell you if we’re going to come out with one.”

It all boils down to what you’re using it for. “I know people who are perfectly fine with having a netbook for Web surfing, especially if a lot of your computing is in the ‘cloud’ these days,” Baker says. “From our experience, however, while netbooks are emerging, the business parameters just aren’t there yet.”