Face Off: iPad vs. Netbooks

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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:

Round 4: Typing

One of the most common complaints we've heard about netbooks is that their keyboards are cramped, making them an ergonomic nightmare, despite their sub-three pound form factors. Even Apple's COO Tim Cook has defended Apple's decision not to get into netbooks, citing the crowded keys.

We at LAPTOP beg to differ. While netbooks keyboards used to be best suited for juvenile hands, we've seen plenty lately that are roomy and sturdy enough to type on for extended periods. The Toshiba NB305 is a prime example.

We'd rather type on a netbook with a good keyboard than on the iPad's on-screen one (even with auto correction software). Suffice it to say, thumb typing on a small iPhone screen is not the same as trying to hold a 1.5-pound iPad with two hands while simultaneously trying to use two fingers to tap letters spanning the large 10-inch display. You're more likely to peck with your index fingers with the iPad in your lap, or when attached to the iPad case ($39), which elevates the tablet for easier typing. Apple will also sell a keyboard dock ($69), but you can't use it in your lap, and you have to type with the iPad in portrait mode.

Winner: Netbooks. We're sure that once we spend more time with the iPad that typing will be less awkward, but it's hard to beat a physical keyboard that's always with you.

Round 5: Web Browsing

The iPad provides a more in-your-face web browsing experience because you'll likely use the tablet closer to your eyes than you would a netbook. As you would expect,  Safari is designed for finger input and support pinch-to-zoom, but there are a few additions you won't find on the iPhone. There's a new thumbnail view so you can see all open pages in a grid, and Apple includes a pop-over bookmarks menu you can access without leaving the page you're on. You also get a 1024 x 768 resolution screen to surf on; that's a little more real estate than the typical 1024 x 600 netbook.

As far as we can tell, however, the iPad doesn't support tabs, which would make it easier to switch back and forth between open pages. Worse, there's no Flash support, so you can't enjoy sites like Hulu. Apple touts the abilities of HTML5, and some sites are making themselves over to support the technology, but at least at launch you'll find a lot of sites or elements on web pages you simply can't access.

Netbooks provide a more traditional browsing experience, but that's not a bad thing. You have your choice of browsers (IE, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and others), and you can easily toggle between multiple tabs. Plus, you don't have to connect your netbook with your primary PC to sync bookmarks, as you do with the iPad. All it takes is a plug-in like XMarks. Netbook browsers support both Flash and HTML5, so you don't have to wonder if a site will work.

Winner: Netbooks. Although the browsing experience itself on the iPad feels more evolved in some ways, the lack of Flash support will be a major drawback--at least for the short term--and you don't have a choice of browsers.

Round 6: Entertainment
For this category we include music, video, books, and games. And the iPad excels in all of them, with a few exceptions. With easy, one-touch access to the iTunes Store, fresh tunes, movies, and TV shows are just a tap away. And the new iBook Store turns the iPad into an eReader, with most of the major publishers on board. Page turns were brisk during our early hands-on tests, and we anticipate that many magazines will also come to the platform. The iPad also includes a touch-friendly YouTube app that was re-built for this device. Lastly, the iPad blows away netbooks when it comes to 3D games, both in terms of the variety of titles and more immersive experience.

Where the iPad falls flat is its lack of Flash support for enjoying free content. Assuming that a site like Hulu doesn't launch an HTML5 version of its site by the time the iPad launches, we expect there will some dissapointed customers.

Netbooks have some things going for them, including Flash support and a wider variety of content providers. However, full-screen Flash playback on sites like Hulu often stutters. Netbooks with Nvidia's Ion graphics can handle mainstream 3D games as well as 1080p HD video playback (something the iPad lacks). But those systems tend to be more expensive. Amazon's Kindle for PC isn't as polished as the iPad's iBook app, and we haven't been impressed with its touch friendliness on the few netbooks we've tried with that capability.

Winner: iPad. Despite the lack of Flash support Apple's tablet offers a more compelling and well-rounded entertainment experience, and it pulls away from netbooks when you factor in books and games.

All Rounds of the iPad / Netbook Face-Off:

Round 7: Productivity

We have to admit we were a bit surprised when Apple announced that it would be offering Pages, Keynote, and Numbers (the Windows equivalent of Word, PowerPoint and Excel) to the iPad. After all, the device is designed more for content consumption than creation. But these $9.99 iWork apps do provide some impressive functionality for the price, and have been designed to leverage the iPad's touch interface. For example, when you move an image in Pages with a finger the text automatically wraps around it. And in Keynote you can reposition multiple slides at once.

Netbooks, of course, can run Microsoft Office, Works, OpenOffice, or any productivity suite that's compatible with Windows. Office in particular has more depth than iWork for the iPad. And then there's Google Apps, which in our experience has worked better on netbooks than on Safari's WebKit browser (at least to date). The two biggest advantages that netbooks have in this round is that they come with a real keyboard for faster, more comfortable, and error-free data entry and the ability to multitask. You should be able to have multiple productivity applications open at once, especially if they're related to the same project.

Winner: Netbooks. Even if you feel like full-blown Office is overkill, there are plenty of affordable options for netbooks, and word processing is simply better with a physical keyboard. The inability to multitask on the iPad also hurts the device in this category, although some may feel its zippy performance makes up for this shortcoming.

Round 8: Apps
The iPad has a heck of a head start versus other tablets, thanks to its ability to run the more than 150,000 apps available in the App Store. All it takes is a tap on the screen to supersize all the programs you can get for your iPhone or iPod touch, from Facebook and TweetDeck to Foursqaure and Madden NFL. Plus, developers are rolling out apps specifically designed to take advantage of the iPad's larger display, including The New York Times and even more compelling touch-based 3D games.

Netbooks can ostensibly run any Windows program larger laptops can, but not always very well because of their slower processors. Then again, there's a ton of useful freeware that adds functionality to netbooks without draining resources. To help netbook owners download apps optimized for their smaller screens and lesser clock speeds, Intel recently rolled out its own app store. However, most netbook owners don't know about it.

Winner: Draw. The iPad does a better job of running apps that are tailor made for the platform's design and capabilities, but netbook owners also have a vast array of programs from which to choose.

Round 9: Battery Life
This round is a little tough to call because we're not sure how close the iPad will come to Apple's 10-hour battery life claim. If it does, this tablet will beat most netbooks in terms of endurance. However,  we've tested some netbooks that get well over 8 hours of runtime. In a way, the iPad sort of has an unfair advantage in that it's not running a full-blown desktop operating system. Then again, netbooks running Windows 7 Starter Edition also benefit from the lack of such special effects as Taskbar previews and other eye candy.

Winner: iPad. Apple's tablet wins this round for now but we reserve the right to make it a draw or give the edge to netbooks should it fall short of the 10-hour mark.

Round 10: Value
Before Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad, many expected the device to cost in the $800 range, so it came as a bit of a surprise when Apple announced that its device would start at $499. Models with built-in 3G connectivity cost start at $629. Compared to eReaders like the 9.7-inch Amazon Kindle DX ($489), the iPad is a steal. But that's not the focus if this showdown.

Then there's the accessories. If you bought the base model iPad with Wi-Fi only and then added the case ($39), keyboard dock ($69), camera connection kit ($29), and VGA adapter ($29) the price would balloon to $665. Netbooks pretty much ship with everything you need right out of the box, including a keyboard, VGA port, memory card reader, and USB ports. Plus, good models start as low as $299.

Winner: Netbooks. If you think of both the iPad and netbooks as complements to and not replacements of primary PCs, the latter provide more bang for your buck.

Overall Verdict
Although Steve Jobs went out of his way to compare the iPad with netbooks during the tablet's launch, they don't necessarily appeal to the exact same buyer. The iPad is a mobile Internet device that focuses on multimedia and dabbles in productivity. It's a supersized iPod touch with enhanced capabilities, which has benefits (intuitive interface, lots of apps, great entertainment experience) and drawbacks (no multitasking, memory card slot, Flash support, or webcam).

Netbooks are basically smaller, less powerful laptops, and that's why they've sold so well: because they can do almost everything their bigger Windows-powered brothers can. And netbooks have improved since the category's inception, now sporting larger screens, more comfortable keyboards, and (thanks to Intel's latest Atom processor) longer battery life. Netbooks are also a great value, with most models costing between $300 and $400--with no extra accessories to buy.

So if the iPad and netbooks are so different, why compare them? Because in this economy, most shoppers won't buy both types of devices for themselves, which means consumers will need to vote with their wallets. And if you look at the rounds, Netbooks won 5 of them outright, the iPad won three rounds, and the the two combatants tied twice. Netbooks win this battle, but the war will rage on.

All Rounds of the iPad / Netbook Face-Off: