Carphone Warehouse is selling free notebooks again. This time, it's got Elonex on board and has come up with the Web book – a Windows XP Home Service Pack 2 machine with a 10.2in viewable screen and that runs on a VIA C7 processor at 1.6GHz. It comes loaded with 512MB of RAM and an 80GB hard disk.

The timing is sweet: last week saw a rash of new mini notebooks, so it makes sense for Carphone Warehouse to ride the wave.

Naturally, Carphone Warehouse isn't simply handing out free laptops and expecting nothing in return. To get one at nominal cost, you have to sign up for a TalkTalk broadband package and sign over your BT landline to them for an 18-month duration. Still, it beats interest-free credit or paying on tick now we're all feeling the economic pinch.

It's also a smart move on Elonex's part. Having ridden the storm of misfortune itself, the company was bought out a year ago and needs to get back into the public eye. Its first move was into the education market with the Elonex ONE – a £99 mini laptop unveiled at the Education Show in March with orders set to be fulfilled from this month.

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The near-final version of the Web book we looked at was a chunky model, though we're told that may not be the exact model that goes onsale next week. The final version is expected to come in at 1.3kg though (the model we tried came in at 1.42kg), which is still hefty for a so-called mini laptop.

Size-wise, it qualifies for the Windows XP extension program Microsoft has sanctioned – only models with screens smaller than 10.5in need apply – but the Web book is far from dainty.

What's more, it doesn't have an optical drive with which to install applications, so you'll need to copy items across using USB or download them. Of course, the Web book is not the only laptop that has this compromise – Apple's Macbook Air is another example – but that machine is both lighter and has a far larger, 13.3in screen.

Another laptop we looked at in the past few days, the Asus U2E-1P014E, is an 11.1in widescreen model (so, granted, not as deep), comes with a DVD writer and yet weighs only as much as the Web book.

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Carphone Warehouse and Elonex have launched the Web book – a Windows XP Home Service Pack 2 machine with a 10.2in viewable screen and that runs on a VIA C7 processor at 1.6GHz. It comes loaded with 512MB of RAM and an 80GB hard disk.

Connectivity-wise it has a VGA port to attach to an external monitor along with two USB ports on the righthand side, plus another and an ethernet port on the left. There's a webcam and some rather tinny speakers, plus headphone and microphone jack ports and a card reader on the front edge.

Given the weight of this machine, you won't be surprised to learn that the Elonex Web book is solid rather than svelte. We rather liked its granular matte black fascia and the screen looks good too. The resolution settings top out at 1,024x600 and a lower setting of 800x600 also offered. The image quality of the built-in webcam was somewhat pedestrian and the colours very washed out.

Sound is managed by a Realtek HD audio chip which we were amused to discover has a dedicated karaoke setting. Other environment options are bathroom, sewer pipe, arena and auditorium – yet more, including padded cell and car park are accessible from the drop-down menu here.

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Since the Elonex aims to be part of the mini laptops in-crowd, it comes with a fairly cramped keyboard. We attempted to write this review on it, but had to give up as its keys just don't lend themselves to touch-typing or even sustained bursts of hunting and pecking. You have to carefully and deliberately place your fingers over each and every character key – a failing of every UMPC (ultramobile PC) we've tried, but not a universal problem with mini laptops.

Other aspects of this laptop are more successful. Three small silver buttons just above the 84-key Qwerty keyboard offer one-step internet access, power on or off and Outlook email, respectively. Press the Outlook button and the Web book starts hunting for available Wi-Fi networks.

The Web book located Wi-Fi networks in our vicinity without prompting – it found the six security-enabled networks on our floor within a few seconds – and the notebook comes with the Windows firewall enabled by default.

While this is a good thing, we were aghast to find no other security software was installed. We were assured by the PR that this is highly unlikely to be the case once the laptops start shipping to consumers. Let's hope this is the case.

Given the market for this no-cost laptop is as likely to be inexperienced PC users as it is budget-conscious buyers, some rudimentary antivirus software needs to be included. A 30-day trial of Norton or even a quality freeware application such as AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition would make a big difference.

For a laptop designed specifically for internet access, the Web book hasn't been at all well provisioned to keep its users safe from web-borne attacks. We look forward to being corrected by Carphone Warehouse with reassurances that security software will be preinstalled.

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Carphone Warehouse and Elonex have launched the Web book – a Windows XP Home Service Pack 2 machine with a 10.2in viewable screen and that runs on a VIA C7 processor at 1.6GHz. It comes loaded with 512MB of RAM and an 80GB hard disk.

The truth about free laptops

When is a free laptop not a free laptop? When you have to sign up for a 24-month contract to get it. Often, it's much cheaper to choose a laptop you want and a fewer strings broadband deal that doesn't tie you into its setup for 18 months or more.

Given that you can buy an entrylevel laptop these days for £200 or so – be it one of the lightweight, light spec models such as the Asus Eee PC or a cheap Dell, Samsung or Tosh from PC World or Asda – the savvy user would probably choose one of these.

That's not to dismiss the idea of the Elonex Web book or any of the other ‘free' laptops you can get your hands on this way. If you're in the market for a broadband service and are happy to sign up to a fairly lengthy contract in return for a good deal and a laptop by way of a sweetener, it could be just the ticket.

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If you're after a way of getting hold of a laptop for minimal outlay and aren't going to make use of the broadband service or mobile phone contract, it's a very expensive way of getting into portable computing – it'll set you back some £540 or £720.

The Elonex Web book isn't going to be sold with phone contracts, just with broadband subscriptions, we're told. If you're merely after one of their free laptops, a very helpful salesman at Carphone Warehouse told us that the cheapest way is to choose a £29-a-month T-Mobile contract and take it out for 24 months.

The salesman told us laptops offered under the scheme "are going like hot cakes".

Carphone Warehouse offers five different laptops right now, with the Elonex Web book set to join the throng from 16 June. It will be pitched at mobile business users keen to access email on the move.

But what if you sign up for one, only to find it's not all you though it would be? As with mobile phone contracts, once you're in, you're in for the duration – so you have to keep paying until you've fulfilled your end of the bargain and paid for a full 18 months of broadband, even if you no longer want or use it.

And if the laptop's not quite what you had in mind? Simple: as with mobile phone handsets, when it turns out the grass is greener and the scheme has a better model on offer, come the time to upgrade, you simply sign up to the same broadband provider for another 18 months or more and take the sweeties once again. What could be simpler?

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Elonex Web book: Specs

  • Code 8 900MHz processor
  • 2GB Nand Flash drive
  • 512MB RAM
  • 10.2in widescreen, 16:9, 1024x600
  • Linux or Windows XP
  • 802.11b/g 54Mbps
  • 3 USB ports
  • 1x 3.5mm audio jack
  • VGA monitor out
  • Kensington Lock point
  • 3-in-1 memory card reader, SD, MSpro, MMC
  • touchpad
  • qwerty keyboard
  • 3 Cell Lithium Polymer Battery
  • 1.3kg
  • 252x183x31.8mm
  • Code 8 900MHz processor
  • 2GB Nand Flash drive
  • 512MB RAM
  • 10.2in widescreen, 16:9, 1024x600
  • Linux or Windows XP
  • 802.11b/g 54Mbps
  • 3 USB ports
  • 1x 3.5mm audio jack
  • VGA monitor out
  • Kensington Lock point
  • 3-in-1 memory card reader, SD, MSpro, MMC
  • touchpad
  • qwerty keyboard
  • 3 Cell Lithium Polymer Battery
  • 1.3kg
  • 252x183x31.8mm

OUR VERDICT

We liked the idea of the Carphone Warehouse's Elonex Web book and if you know what you're doing in terms of covering your back with security software, it's an attractive option as a secondary PC. Just be aware that it's no substitute for a fully specified laptop and is a lot bulkier than some of the other mini laptops out there. For true portability and usability, we'd steer you towards an HP Mini Note, an MSI Wind or one of the many other Intel Atom PCs about to go onsale. They're cheaper, lighter, have batteries that last longer than the two-and-a-half hours of this model and they come with no contractual strings attached.

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