Netbook vs. Notebook: Not a Simple Choice

In 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.