Netbook vs. Notebook: Not a Simple Choice

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netbook vs notebookIn his nanotech post yesterday, Brooke Crothers set up a pretty simplistic dichotomy: "Will consumers buy a thin, light, relatively fast $1,800 MacBook Air or a thin, light, ultrasmall, not-as-fast $450 Hewlett-Packard Mini 1000 Netbook?"

His piece, which discusses which ultraportables will come out on top in 2009, seems intent on setting up a battle between two different laptop categories as if there are only two options, as if the two categories are comparable, and as if the choice is an either/or.

Up until a few months ago, I was firmly in the camp of people who said that netbooks aren't really full-fledged computers. As Brad of Liliputing mentions here, Intel, Best Buy, and other sellers and manufacturers are doing their best to convince consumers that netbooks aren't "real" laptops and are no good for primary use.

I've modified my position a bit in light of the great netbooks that have come through our offices since I started working here. I still wouldn't use a netbook as my primary laptop for several reasons -- screen size and power being the main ones -- but I wouldn't dismiss them as being only good for an hour of use.

I've been known to use my netbook for up to six hours, doing the things I bought it for: writing, researching stuff on the net, and occasionally watching video. Other power users are more into video, or music, or internet, or email, or whatever, but they are definitely using netbooks for long periods of time and in a variety of ways.

Still, a netbook is not the same as an ultraportable notebook. Not even close.

It's not just the size factor -- after all, there are now some 12-inch netbooks just as there are 12-inch ultraportables -- but a difference in specs. Hard drive speed and performance, processor speed and performance, even graphics performance are different in the two categories. That's because ultraportables are meant to be full-fledged laptops, just small and light for users who need the petite form factor.

Which is why Crothers' piece doesn't work for me. He's setting up a false dichotomy between expensive ultraportables and netbooks without considering several key factors. Price range amongst ultraportables, performance, and consumer need being among the most important to the question. Even the systems he chooses -- MacBook Air and HP Mini 1000 -- aren't representative of the choice consumers might be faced with.

Putting aside the fact that most people considering the MacBook Air are looking for a Mac specifically (and therefore have a choice between that and the MacBook, which also counts as an ultraportable), consumers who want an ultraportable don't only have $1800+ options available to them. He mentions the Toshiba Portege series but leaves out the growing number of ultraportables that are closer to $1000 and, in some cases, even less. Both ASUS and MSI have come out with "Budget Ultraportables", which are more likely to get into an either/or battle with the MacBook Air and other expensive competitors. Consumers no longer have to "pay a big premium for smallness and thinness".

In these cases, ultraportables are more likely to draw consumers away from netbooks. The ASUS N20A is only $300 more than the ASUS Eee PC S101 and offers much more enticing specs. And the ASUS N10Jc, a netbook specifically aimed at business users, is only $350 less.

I can't believe that the informed consumer Crothers postulates has only one key consideration when choosing a small and light laptop: the size of it. He asks if the internals are different enough to justify the purchase of an ultraportable over a netbook, and the answer is definitely yes for anyone who knows what they want.

If you're looking for a simple computer that does basic tasks well and fits into a small bag, you want a netbook. You're not even thinking about a MacBook Air or a Lenovo X300. If you want a small, powerful computer that will run all the same applications as your desktop at the same or greater speed that you can travel with easily yet still do serious computing on, you're looking for an ultraportable. One look at the processor and screen size of a netbook would be enough to convince the informed consumer that it's not the right choice in that instance.

Netbook vs. Notebook is a question many consumers will be faced with in the coming year. There are instances where people would choose to get a netbook instead of something with more power and better specs due to price, the way they intend to use the laptop, and whether they have an existing laptop or desktop at home. But to say that netbooks will triumph over ultraportables or any other laptop when a consumer wants high-end or even mid-range power and capability is overstating the issue in a big way.

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17 comments
  • rhonda Says:

    Specifications

    * Mini netbook
    * Screen: 17.8cm (7) LCD digital panel
    * CPU: VIA8505 600MHz
    * Operating System: Win CE 6.0
    * Memory: 128MB
    * Storage: 2GB
    * Resolution Ratio: 800 x 480
    * LAN: Ethernet 10/100M
    * WIFI: WiFi 802.11b/g
    * Keyboard: 84-key standard keyboard with external keyboard support
    * Built-in touch pad with two shortcut keys and USB mouse support
    * 3 x USB Port
    * Card Port: SD card
    * Built-in stereo speaker
    * External microphone
    * Headphone jack
    * Stand-by time: 2hrs
    * Screen Resolution: 800x480
    * Power Supply: DC 9V 1.5A
    * Colour: Black
    * Software Included
    o Microsoft Windows CE 6.0
    o Web Browser
    o Word Processor
    o Spreadsheet
    o PDF Viewer
    o Media Player
    o MSN Messenger
    o Skype: Due to the update of Skype software, this unit is no longer supporting Skype function.
    * Brand: EasyNotebook
    * Model: P701
    * Dimensions: (L) 21cm x (D) 15cm x (H) 3cm

  • les Says:

    I am looking at buying a very very inexpensive extra laptotp for travelling. this is very small and called a easynotebook EPC P701 notebook. I know it will have limitations, but I just want to be able to receive and send emails and skype whenev er I am overseas. Will this be able to power these functions efficently?

  • Jim Says:

    I'm going to europe in the fall and would like to take a computer for e-mail and photo storage. Can I download photos from my camera to a netbook?

  • Cody Says:

    Yes DB you can. I am a student and bought the netbook because it is portable, office capable, and does everything i need for a travel pc. I have a desktop at home that handles the bigger stuff.

  • DB Says:

    i am a student, so would i be able to use microsoft word, power point, excel, etc, on a netbook? also, would i be able to use any of those while im doing research on the internet?

  • joko Says:

    Vicki: yes, netbook can fulfill your needs.

    Sharon: yes you can build websites and manages business with netbooks.

  • Sharon Bridges Says:

    Trying to decide between laptop & netbook. With the netbook, can you build websites and manage a business with it?

  • Vicki Ido Says:

    To simplify the discussion, I want an affordable easy to carry computer. I don't play games or download music. Mostly use my pc for email and ebay, etc. I do need the ability to access bank account and credit card accounts. I'm leaning towards netbook. Please give me an easy answer. I'm tryi8ng to stay on top of changes in technology, but not a computer whiz.

  • beauxpatrick Says:

    BIG ISSUE not even mentioned.... what about the DVD drive... netbooks do not have them... you have to purchase a drive separately to load software, play video, etc.

  • Noel Lynne Figart Says:

    Andrei, when you say you want to play the occasional game one a laptop, that can mean a range of things. I can and have played solitaire on my netbook, but I wouldn't even attempt a graphics-intensive game like the Sims or World of Warcraft.

    Professionally? I tend to use my netbook. I'm a writer and computer applications instructor. So mostly what I do is writing, research and studying for my next class. This means I don't really need the power required to do video editing or other processing-intensive work. At that point, it's a netbook.

    I also travel a great deal. Netbook performance in the travel arena is superior to most laptops, as well. Mine fits into a neoprene sleeve which then fits into my not-too-large purse with no problem. So, that's what I tend to use.

    On the other hand, when I have to do graphics editing, I turn to my larger, more powerful machine.

    You talk about a netbook as a media player. Remember, these little babies do not have optical drives (CD, DVD... that sort of thing). If you're wanting to play movies on it, you're either looking at movie files resident on a hard drive, an external optical drive, or maybe streaming it on Netflix (which I often do to great success). It does hold my music library just fine, though.

  • Andrei Says:

    could you give me some advise, i only need a laptop for writting purposes, media player, hotmail, messenger, some pics and if i have the time a game. but mostly for writing. i've been reviewing some laptops but i still don't know what to buy.
    thanks

  • K. T. Bradford Says:

    <em>In other words, yes, he did mention performance factors.</em>

    No, actually. Just mentioning processors is not the same as considering and discussing performance differences. And while his audience may not need a lengthy book on the difference between processors, some few sentences about performance (which is not only determined by processor type and speed but also hard drive type and speed and graphics) would have been useful in expanding his argument. Yet he did not include them.

    If he or anyone wants to set up an either/or between a $450 netbook and an $1800 notebook, then all of those performance factors come into it.

    <em>Who are you talking about that said portability was the “only consideration?”</em>

    Brooke's post waves aside most other considerations, including the internals, and makes it out as a competition based on size and price. "I would expect that most consumers (even ones that must have an ultraportable laptop) won't be able to justify paying an extra $1000-$2,000 for a MacBook Air- or Toshiba Portege-style design in the face of a compelling array of Netbook offerings." This statement assumes that the consumer can do on a netbook everything they can do on a MacBook Air, so all that really matters is if they can justify spending the money. That's the way I read it; perhaps he didn't mean it that way.

    If he'd included other non-ultraportable notebooks in the discussion, then maybe I wouldn't have seen it as a size and weight-only issue.

    If I needed to go out and buy a laptop right now and only had $1000 to spend but wanted something portable that wasn't a "brick", <a href="http://www.laptopmag.com/review/advsearch.aspx?pcid=1624&pricehigh=1000&f4=4.1%20-%206.0%20pounds&p=1&s=sd" rel="nofollow">I have a lot of non-netbook choices</a>.

    <em>I did bring up performance as part of my criteria.</em>

    Yes, but not a primary criteria. Or, at least, you did not word it that way. What I'm saying is that performance, which includes "what will I be using this computer for?" is always a primary criteria as well. If you agree then... we agree.

    But I cannot ever recover from the crime of making up the fact that you bought a netbook. Mea Culpa.

  • David Says:

    "In Brooke’s post he mentions hard drive size, repeatedly, but processors only once. And when he mentions processors, there’s no discussion of how the difference between an Intel Atom and a Core 2 Duo affects performance."

    In other words, yes, he did mention performance factors. I don't feel he needs to spell out the difference between an Atom and Core 2 Duo to his target audience. There are plenty of articles on this site, too, that don't stop the conversation to explain the basics of computer hardware when making a broader point.

    "And I still feel that consumers who go out looking for a small and light laptop are not only considering size and weight."

    Who are you talking about that said portability was the "only consideration?" It wasn't me. It wasn't Crothers. Don't you think it is wrong to do this? Just as:

    "You say that size is the primary criteria, but you’re leaving something out: what do you intend to use that netbook for?"

    But I did bring up performance as part of my criteria. It's right there in my post. Again, why would you pretend that what I said isn't on the page for everyone to see? You were on enough of a roll to create, for purposes yet unknown, the fiction that I bought a netbook. Never have, never said I did, but you have actions and statements to attribute to others, and little things like facts aren't going to slow you down.

    It is unethical to misrepresent what others have objectively said. Disagree with me all you want, disagree with Crothers-but don't omit things that we said or invent things that we didn't. What would motivate this is beyond me, so I'll leave it for readers to see and judge for themselves.

  • K. T. Bradford Says:

    David,

    In Brooke's post he mentions hard drive size, repeatedly, but processors only once. And when he mentions processors, there's no discussion of how the difference between an Intel Atom and a Core 2 Duo affects performance. He even says, near the conclusion: "the design and internals are different, but are they different enough?" His answer is no, but that seems to be based on hard drive size and inclusion of 3G without any discussion of the other performance factors. That's a big chunk to leave out.

    Additionally, he mentions price, but doesn't take into consideration price ranges amongst ultraportables (or, at first, netbooks, it seems) -- sorry I wasn't clearer on that point.

    <em>Further, the article is more about netbook vs. ultraportable, not “netbook vs. notebook” as you cast it. </em>

    Please see the title of Brooke's post: "2009: Netbook or notebook?"

    I agree that the article is more about ultraportables, but I took my title cue from the original post. In fact, my post above <em>is</em> about netbooks vs. ultraportables plus ultraportables vs budget ultraportables.

    <em>And yes, until quite recently there was an extreme divide in prices where ultraportables were typically way over $1000. That makers are belatedly moving to fill that massive gap is something we can than netbooks’ success for, but it is a very apt description of the choices typically faced by buyers.</em>

    And I still feel that consumers who go out looking for a small and light laptop are not only considering size and weight. They are considering that plus performance, and when you put those two together for most consumers the choice of netbook or ultraportable will fall away. You say that size is the primary criteria, but you're leaving something out: what do you intend to use that netbook for? What are your needs? You took that into consideration when you bought the netbook. You determined that it would fulfill your needs and that a more expensive system had specs you did not need, therefore it was not worth spending the money on. Which is exactly what I said.

  • David Says:

    This is a bizarre writeup.

    "He’s setting up a false dichotomy between expensive ultraportables and netbooks without considering several key factors. Price, performance, and consumer need being among the most important to the question."

    In the first paragraph price is mentioned by Brooke. In the fourth, performance items are clearly mentioned as factors to decide between. How could you say these things are not addressed, when they clearly, objectively, were. It is one thing to disagree with an author in your field. It is quite another to misrepresent them, then attack a position they never took.

    Further, the article is more about netbook vs. ultraportable, not "netbook vs. notebook" as you cast it. And yes, until quite recently there was an extreme divide in prices where ultraportables were typically way over $1000. That makers are belatedly moving to fill that massive gap is something we can than netbooks' success for, but it is a very apt description of the choices typically faced by buyers. The divide wasn't an absolute, but the choices are representative of what consumers have typically faced in the segment.

    I'm in agreeance with Crothers that size is the most important criteria in the market for myself and many, others may differ. If size wasn't a concern, I'd buy a heavy, bulky $600 15" laptop and get plenty of space and power and features. Since size is primary, however, I'm willing to pay near as much for a poorer-performing but adequate netbook. Others are willing to pay hundreds or a thousand more for an ultraportable that performs like a cheap laptop, again, because portability is primary.

    Honestly, this article was written like you set out to disagree with Crothers, then started plucking bits out of context with which to do so. If anyone has doubt, be sure to read what Crothers actually wrote. Chances are you'll be reeling too, especially when you come back here and reread claims that Crothers didn't take price and performance into account.

  • K. T. Bradford Says:

    Mikey, not all netbooks have longer battery life than their big brothers. The MSI Wind and the Samsung NC10 both have great battery life, but several of the laptops (particularly ultraportables) we've reviewed lately also have long-lasting batteries. Anything over 4 hours is impressive, especially in a thin and light, and on par with what you get with many netbooks.

  • Mikey Says:

    I am not sure I agree that netbook vs notebook is such a big issue. Most notebooks have more features than the netbooks but very short battery life. The netbooks provide the basic tools, wireless, bluetooth, internet access, word processing, spreadsheets, less weight and longer battery life.

    If all you want to do is play games, then buy a big laptop and lug the rock around to places where you need a plug.

    You work on the go and want to stay mobile, get the netbook.

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