Just before unveiling the iPad, Steve Jobs gleefully declared that netbooks “aren’t good at anything.” “They’re slow, have clunky displays, and run clunky old PC software,” he continued. “They’re just cheap laptops.”
The iPad, says Jobs, isn’t a netbook, but bests netbooks at everything they promise to do. That includes a better ergonomic, multimedia, and even productivity experience.
But is it that simple? Should someone with $499 to spend on a computing device necessarily spring for an entry-level iPad and not a netbook? For people looking to buy a small, secondary computer to take on the road or use on the couch, we did a round-by-round face-off between netbooks and the iPad, taking on all the things for which Apple has criticized netbooks in the past.
Have a look at our round-by-round competition before you join the estimated hundreds of thousands of people who have already pre-ordered an iPad, and stay tuned for our full review.
Round 1: Design
At 1.5 pounds, the iPad is at least a pound lighter than most netbooks, if not a pound and a half. This tablet is also just half an inch thick, making it thinner than mini notebooks. So, ostensibly, the iPad is easier to carry (although you’ll likely need a case to protect the screen). The 9.7-inch multitouch display is tailor-made for surfing the Web and reading eBooks. However, holding the device for an extended period of time for playing games or watching movies could prove tiring, which is why Apple sells a case that doubles as a kickstand.
Netbooks have clamshell designs, although you’ll find some convertibles with touchscreens (such as the IdeaPad S10-3t) that can be used as tablets. Having a lid makes it easier to protect the screen. These machines tend to be about an inch thick and weigh 2.5 to 3 pounds. Because your face is further away from the 10-inch screen when using a netbook, the experience can feel more claustrophobic.
Winner: Draw. The iPad was designed for reading eBooks and easily moving through Web pages and photo galleries, while netbooks are really just smaller laptops. Both are well suited for their intended uses.
Round 2: User Interface
It doesn’t get much easier to use than the iPad, which sports an interface that’s very similar to the iPhone and iPod touch. You just touch the app you want to launch, and off you go. You can also take advantage of multitouch gestures, such as pinch-to-zoom, in everything from Photos and Maps to the Safari browser. In some applications, you get a unique split-screen view to make the most out of the iPad’s larger display. These programs include E-mail, Calendar, Contacts, and Notes. To return to the main menu, you just press the Home button. Unfortunately, you can’t have more than one application open at one time, and this lack of multitasking is a weakness versus netbooks.
As you would expect, the vast majority of netbooks use Windows 7 Starter Edition, which you navigate with a touchpad and mouse buttons. This familiarity is one of the main reasons netbook sales have been so strong, and why Linux never took off in this category. Still, it’s not as easy to launch programs on netbooks, and for the most part you won’t find touch capability. And even those netbooks that do have touchscreens are bundled with lackluster touch-enabled software. Still, at least you can run multiple applications at one time, such as streaming Pandora while creating a document.
Winner: iPad. Despite some limitations, Apple’s tablet is simply more intuitive and points the way towards the future of mobile computing. Windows netbooks have the multitasking edge, but their touchpads seem old-fashioned by comparison and most touch-enabled netbooks we’ve used are underwhelming.
Round 3: Ports and Features
Because the iPad is more like a supersized iPod touch than a Mac, it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that it’s not designed to accommodate many peripherals. Still, we’re assuming many potential buyers would prefer that an SD Card slot were built in. Instead, you have to spring for the iPad Camera Connection Kit (expected to be $29), which includes separate dongles for an SD Card and USB port. To connect to an external monitor, you’ll need to spring for the iPad Dock Connector to VGA adapter (another $29). You also won’t find a built-in webcam for video chats, and there’s no attachment available.
Netbooks tend to feature 2 or 3 USB ports for connecting all sorts of peripherals, from cameras and iPhones to USB 3G modems. Plus, you’ll get a VGA port for connecting to external displays built in, an integrated memory card reader, and built-in webcam.
Winner: Netbooks. You’ll need to pay $60 on top of the $499 you’re already paying for the iPad to get the same expansion options that come standard on mini notebooks.
All Rounds of the iPad / Netbook Face-Off: