Tablet vs. Netbook

From the horde which consumes all things shiny and Apple grows a sect of iPad owners: those who try to use it in place of a laptop. Compared to a seventeen inch desktop replacing monster, the iPad looks like a pretty good option. It’s always on, takes up the space of a magazine, and lasts all day on battery. There just seems to always be something that an iPad user can’t sacrifice for ultra-mobility: physical keyboards, multitasking, and legacy software. Then there’s the price, there’s no price advantage to the iPad over a full laptop.

The only strength of the iPad is that it frees people from the tiny screen of their iPhone. That’s quite literally ALL the iPad offers. That’s not to say it should offer more. Modern smart-phones offer nearly all the functionality a person requires of day-to-day computer use. Given a full size monitor, keyboard and mouse (yes, a mouse), a smart-phone could easily become one’s primary computer. By fulfilling one of those three requirements, the iPad coaxed people into thinking of desktop computing in an ultra-mobile context.

Prior to the iPad’s release, in 2007 the netbook was introduced for foster the concept of ultra-mobility. Netbooks, which are small, cheap, and less powerful laptops, saw remarkable growth in popularity throughout 2008 and 2009. However success of the devices had already begun to wane by the time of the iPad release. Frustration was growing, with complaints along the lines of: “It doesn’t do everything I need it to.” The statement usually containing references to lack of a dvd player, small screen, or slower processor. People’s misplaced expectations for the netbook seem to be inspired by an unfortunate resemblance to its full-featured cousin. Subconsciously, consumers thought: It looks like a laptop, so it should do everything a laptop does.

The iPad perspective is that of its advantages over a smartphone. Look at the netbook from this perspective and suddenly it is a much more powerful tool. While the netbook drawbacks are shared with the iPad, it has many more advantages which are not. A netbook can run most operating systems and software you typically use. A netbook has a full keyboard, and can run all your usb peripherals. A netbook can be expanded with an SD card. A netbook can run as many applications at once as memory will allow. And a netbook is dirt-cheap; disposable. You can lose two netbooks before you’ve spent more than the cheapest iPad.

Regardless of price, there is still one aspect of the tablet that completely negates its ever replacing a laptop: the hardware keyboard. There is just no easy way to type anything longer than a tweet on a tablet. The natural solution is to buy a hardware keyboard, many are available. However, the moment you start carrying abound a separate hunk of plastic, you immediately lose the convenience factor of the tablet. An ideal design would have a slide out keyboard, similar to smart phones like the Motorola Droid. After sliding out, the screen would fold upward to take a laptop-like shape. Apple has already demonstrated they can provide a keyboard without sacrificing thin-ness with their MacBook Air. It seems like an obvious solution, but one that Apple will likely ignore.

With the new crop of Android-based tablets coming, it will be interesting to see how netbooks fare against this tsunami of tablets. In addition to Android tablets, Google announced at their recent I/O conference, they will be marching full ahead with Chrome OS based netbooks. It seems that Google is hedging their bets by offering both products at similar price points through Android and Chrome OS. Soon comparably priced tablets will face off against netbooks powered by the same company’s software. That’s about as level a comparison you’re likely to see in this space. The tablet is clearly here to stay, the real question is will it ever provide the functionality to supplant the laptop as the dominant mobile computing platform.

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