Are netbooks dead?

by Les

Consumer Reports recently reported that netbooks are dead.

This is not an uncommon concept. Dell, for example, has exited the netbook market. But is giving up on netbooks a rational reaction for a user, or are we being led by manufacturers into buying tablets or ultrabooks just because there is more profit in them?

New tablet computers–the Apple iPad is the leading contender–supposedly have made the netbook obsolete. But suppose someone wants an inexpensive device to browse the web, send and receive emails, write class assignments, sort and edit photographs, and perhaps put together a presentation for school or work, and perhaps also watch movies and read books. All of these tasks can be done on either a netbook or a tablet, at least in theory.

For a tablet, we will need the tablet ($399 for a 16GB iPad), and if we want to do a significant amount of writing, a keyboard ($69) and iWork for iPad ($29.97). That will also allow presentations. The total is very close to $500 (well over with tax).

On the other hand, I can get a netbook (Asus Aspire One AOD270-1410) for $228 at Walmart, add LibreOffice (free) and you have similar capabilities for around $250 including tax. Well under half the price.

So what more do I get for doubling the price?

  • The iPad has slightly better battery life: ten hours, rather than eight hours for the netbook. Both figures are manufacturer’s claims.
  • The iPad is definitely lighter: 1.3 pounds against the netbook’s 2.9 pounds, but if you use a keyboard, that brings the weight up to 2.0 pounds, and if you want the tablet to stay in one place while you’re typing with two hands you need something to hold it (which will weigh something, and might not cost nothing, either).
  • The iPad had slightly higher screen resolution: 1024×768. The netboook has 1024×600.
  • The greatest thing you get for doubling the price is a decent operating system. The iPad has a really well-thought-out operating system, which seems to work reliably and logically. The netbook comes with Windows 7 Starter, which must be the sorriest offering from Microsoft since Windows ME (yes, even worse than Vista).

What do you lose with the tablet?

  • CPU power (perhaps): the dual-core Intel Atom in the netbook appears to be 20-50% faster on some benchmarks than the dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 used in the iPad, though this is hard to verify because the same benchmark software does not run on both devices.
  • Memory: the iPad 2 has a fixed 512MB of RAM, while the netbook comes with 1024MB and can be expanded to 2048MB.
  • Storage: the iPad comes with 16GB of storage (at the price quoted) while the netbook has 320GB of storage. Yes, twenty times as much, though it is hard disk storage rather than flash memory.
  • Repairability: the iPad is essentially a throw-away device. According to iFixit.com, the iPad 2 Repairability Score is 2 out of 10 (10 is easiest to repair). That site does not cover the Asus netbook, but some repairs on it are certainly very easy. For example, replacing the battery only takes a few seconds, and replacing the hard disk can probably be done in under 30 minutes.

Software availability is hard to compare. On the one hand, there are more “apps” available for the iPad than for any other tablet (250,000 claimed), and specific applications available on the iPad probably are not available on the netbook. On the other hand, most Windows software (probably more than 500,000 packages) will run on the netbook. Perhaps most significantly, Linux runs perfectly on the netbook, and much faster than Windows does. An owner can easily install Linux (I suggest Linux Mint) alongside Windows 7 Starter, allowing access to over 30,000 software packages, almost all of them free.

So in summary, if you are interested in traditional computing applications, a netbook is clearly better than a tablet in almost all ways, as well as costing half as much.

On the other hand, an iPad is cool, and is probably better for entertainment.

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