You've been able to pick up a 'free' netbook with a 3G contract for a while now. O2, Orange, Vodafone, Carphone Warehouse – they're all enticing customers to sign their life away for the sake of an Atom processor.

Cable company Virgin Media has gone one step further. Sign up for a TV, phone and 10Mb or faster internet bundle and you can add in one of its own branded Virgin Media Freedom netbooks as well. Sounds like an offer you can't refuse, doesn't it?


The deal dissected

Initial analysis of the offers is slightly alarming. Far from being free, taking a package that includes a netbook adds anything from £9.50 to £15 a month to the subscription cost after the initial three-month discount has run off. That would place the value of the portable at £315 over the two-year period.

Without Bluetooth and possessed of a battery life that only just scrapes two hours, it wouldn't stand a chance against a similarly priced Asus Seashell or Toshiba NB200. All is not quite lost, though – you do also get a 3G dongle and 1GB mobile broadband allowance thrown in too. Going rates at other operators are around £10 for 3GB without the laptop thrown in.

It's one of the first real 'quad play' packages we've seen, and good value too. But definitely not free.

The hardware

The obvious question – for which there's no immediate answer – is why didn't Virgin build the 3G modem into the Freedom netbook? There is a slot for a SIM card cut into the battery compartment, so a modem module was an option.

Presumably it has something to do with the cost price, which is also probably why the chassis doesn't have the best finish available on a netbook. There are no baked layers of fingerprint-friendly gloss here, just a fairly thin shell.

It would be a huge mistake to judge Virgin's machine by the bill of materials, though. It may be a stock-standard Intel Atom machine at heart, but the overall look is one of the best around.

Excellent build quality

It's not ultra-thin like many of its contemporaries, but it has a sturdy keyboard, huge multitouch mousepad and clean lines that reveal a good understanding of the rules of function over form.


That ethos is best portrayed by the screen, which is one of the richest and most vibrantly coloured we've seen on a netbook to date.

There's a few quirks: putting the SD card reader at the back is odd, and the Wi-Fi connection has to be manually turned on every time you boot, but overall it's a likeable machine that competes with respected laptop brands.

Is it worth cutting off your current phone and ISP tomorrow for? No. But if you are looking to switch and don't mind the loose definition of the word 'free', then it's a complete package at a competitive price.


Stuff says... 

Virgin Freedom review

Not as free as it seems, but an impressive, well-built netbook nonetheless

Where to buy Virgin Freedom: