Jan 07 2011

Tablets vs. Netbooks: What’s a Better Fit?

Tablets are a hot commodity, but don’t shortchange netbooks.

The tech world, ever fickle, has declared the netbook dead and the tablet divine. Too bad it's not that simple.

First of all, some analysts believe the netbook saved the computer business. Everything else was down, but netbooks were up, up, up: 36 million or so units were sold in 2009, and 40 million netbook sales are projected for 2010. That's a big bunch of little computers.

Compare those numbers with tablets (really, the iPad) in 2010: Apple sold about 1 million devices a month the first few months on the market and should continue to grow those numbers. Samsung, which recently released the Galaxy Tab, a 7-inch tablet, expects to sell a million in 2011.

Netbooks won the sales contest in 2009, but there really wasn't much of a tablet market to compete against. However, netbooks will win again this year, even if the projected 25 million in tablet sales comes true. If future hype-inflated projections come to pass (such as 55 million in tablet sales in 2011), then tablets will take over as the sales leader — but that’s highly unlikely.

Find the Best Fit for You

Still, total sales numbers mean nothing to a user who is looking for the right tool to solve a problem. As always, start with the problem, then find the tool. When you pick up a wrench, it has to be fit the bolt, so look at the bolt first.

Ask yourself, “How will I use my new mobile computing device?” If you're a media consumer who likes to stream entertainment and use basic applications, it's darn hard to beat Apple’s iPad. It has a great screen, great apps, lots of style points, and you can be relatively smug when showing it off.

The iPad is aimed at consumers, but there’s an uptick in use at small businesses because the devices are often purchased as individual tools. Enterprises are testing iPads because of their popularity, but expect there to be another year of testing before decisions are announced.

Flash is still missing from the iPad, but the Android tablets don't have that problem. Unfortunately, there aren't as many Android-based tablets on the shelves as were promised by this time; and Google wants tablets to use Chrome OS instead of Android, but Chrome OS is still MIA.

Windows-based tablets provide Flash and a familiar work environment. But options are limited, as they are with the Chrome tablets, and they also lack cool style points.

Tale of the Tape

While typing might not be cool, it is sometimes necessary. Tablet typing is doable, but it’s tough for more than a few minutes at a time. Do you prop the tablet on your lap, put it flat on the table and hunch over, or go the one-hand route?

For those who type often, a keyboard and the ability to use a work surface comfortably are needed. This is where netbooks come in. Even the downsized airplane tray tables have room for a netbook.

Netbooks regain some cool points by running Flash and streaming media just about as well (depending on carriers, among other factors) as an iPad. Generous onboard storage makes it possible to download movies and watch them on airplanes, which is something I see more and more as I travel.

Despite assurances, size does matter. Netbooks and the iPad have roughly the same screen area, but the 7-inch tablets fall into the gap — too big for pockets yet too small for real work. If the Galaxy Tab changes that, good for it. Apple has been so adamant that 9.7 inches is the perfect screen size, I would be amazed if they ever offered a 7-inch tablet.

Meanwhile, netbooks, when closed, fit into smaller spaces than iPads. Women love to throw netbooks into their purses, which they really can't do with an iPad. Tossing an iPad or a netbook into a messenger bag, backpack or briefcase is a wash.

But don't think of "netbooks versus tablets" as a grudge match. They both have strengths and weaknesses, and they both solve problems common to many users. Pick the tool that works for you — or grab one of each.

[For more on finding the right device for you, check out: Ultrabooks vs. Notebooks: Is It Time to Make the Switch?]

James E. Gaskin writes books, articles and jokes about technology from his Dallas-area home office. He also consults for those who don't read his books and articles.