Friday, 1 July 2011

Tablet vs. Netbook: which is the better exclusive computing device?


What computer hardware do you take along when you go travelling?
There used to be a time when there were no dilemmas there. You would take your mobile phone, obviously, but if you wanted big time computing power you would take a notebook (aka laptop). Thing is, I never subscribed to the latter: notebook PCs, even the lighter ones, are just too heavy.
Some four years ago I found my winner in the shape of the netbook. It offered similar capabilities to the notebook PC at a smaller (typically a 10" screen) and lighter (typically 1.5kg) package. Its Windows performance is appalling, but a Linux running netbook is quite a capable platform. Recently, the tablet has emerged as a new viable option threatening the netbook's status, so the dilemma facing me ahead of embarkation is simple: did the tablet kill the netbook already, or am I still better off with my Eee PC?

Before comparing the two contenders, it’s important to determine exactly who these contenders are.
On the netbook side things are pretty simple: there are stronger netbooks and weaker ones, but in general we are talking about an Intel Atom powered PC running Windows XP or Windows 7, and in my case Ubuntu Linux as well. It is equipped with a decent hard drive (160gb to 320gb), an SD card reader and multiple USB ports.
The tablet side is not too complicated either. The way I see it, the only tablet worth spending your money on at the moment is the iPad 2. Sure, Android Honeycomb tablets look sexy and offer features the iPad doesn’t (USB connectors, SD card readers and Flash playback); but they all suffer from various childhood diseases. The way things are, the Android operating system is simply not ready yet for anything but beta testing on tablets (some may argue the same applies to Android running on mobile phones, and frankly I find much in support of such claims). As long as Android tablets are priced on the same ballpark as the iPad you’d be better off getting the real thing.
Between these two, the iPad 2 and the ubiquitous netbook, there can be no doubt as to which one you would prefer to carry. The tablet is half as light and is significantly less bulky. There is also a good chance it uses the same charger as your mobile phone. The question then becomes, can you really expect to use a tablet as your exclusive computing device for the duration of your time away from home?
Let’s check a few potential problem areas out.
  • Photography aid tool: If you like to take plenty of photos and videos, especially high definition ones, you would like your portable computing tool to be able to store and manage them. A netbook will easily do that, but for the iPad 2 you would need an extra connector and you may find the device’s storage capacity limiting.
  • Keyboard: Tablets are great for casual use, but if you see yourself typing a lot then you should seek yourself a proper keyboard. This blogger, for example, is happy with the compromise of a smaller keyboard on his Eee PC.
  • Applications: I would say that the netbook and the tablet are pretty equal when it comes to apps. The netbook allows running the much more sophisticated stuff you get with a proper operating system (and if you use Linux, the performance is not bad at all). You can do almost anything you do on a big computer, including video editing. The tablet offers simpler versions of the more sophisticated stuff, and enjoys a bigger variety of better quality games.
  • Ergonomics: As bad as a netbook is, forcing you to fit yourself in between its keyboard and screen, netbooks are worse. As bad as netbooks are, tablets are worse. Prolonged use of either is a disaster in the making, but the netbook is superior. Until, that is, you need to carry it on your back.

Given the above, I would say the choice between tablet or netbook depends on personal preferences. My photography and blogging needs, as well as my affection towards unencumbered Internet surfing, mean that in my case the netbook is the clear winner.
However, it is clearly a matter of time before the netbook is effectively dead. You can see its demise already in the shops, where only the budget end is on display if at all. I suspect the netbook would officially die when the Android camp finally gets its act together and produces worthy tablets at around half the price of an iPad.
Then again, perhaps the rumors of the netbook’s immanent death are premature. In my view, the best netbook on the market at the moment is the MacBook Air; its only problem is its cost. That and the relative lack of USB outputs, card readers and storage capacity. A new model is rumoured to come out during July, but I doubt it would be that much cheaper; I suspect we will get the same price tag but with larger solid state drives.

Image by charliestyr, Creative Commons license


amit parmar said...

nice. for work i was thinking of getting a tablet but i need an all around. like video editing, photos, good apps, a word software and good internet surfing. which do i get?

Moshe Reuveni said...

A lot has changed in the world since I posted this and the answer is complicated.
First, you need to determine your budget. If you have enough cash, get an ultrabook will do it all.
Second, by now you can do it all on an iPad as well. However, the iPad has its obvious limitations (for example, it's not that easy to transfer videos to and from the device). Then it has it's not so obvious limitations: the operating system is clearly not designed for word processing (no arrow keys etc).
Netbooks are excellent value for money in my opinion. They're dying, though, especially as Microsoft will not support them with Windows 8. Still, that shouldn't matter if you're planning on installing Linux anyway, and if you do you can get everything you're after for $300. Just don't ask for them to be cool.