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Netbook, Tablet, or a Tablet PC: A Guide to Choosing Your New Mobile Companion

If your business frequently takes you for a ride, you’re probably looking for the ultimate mobile companion. In the 21st century, that’s not a way of saying ‘travel-buddy’ or even a nickname for your favorite pooch—man’s new best friend is his computer!

It was not too long ago when a good laptop was the latest and the greatest, but today we have Netbooks, iPads, and Tablet PCs competing for that place in your lap.

So which one should you choose?

First, let’s look at some pros and cons:



  • Fully functional computer
  • Can run most any software that runs on your desktop
  • Lots of storage space
  • Affordable (starting below $300)
  • Full Keyboard (great for data creation)


  • Low battery life, typically 1-3 hours (6-9 hours batteries also available but sold separately)
  • Some may find the keyboard too small for extended data creation
  • Slower boot time (1-2 min)

A netbook is essentially a fully functional computer. Originally developed as a low cost entry-point for third-world users, the new mini-PCs quickly caught up in the west to fill a niche between the laptop and the smartphone.

Netbooks are available for a variety of platforms, from Win XP and 7 to Linux, and come equipped with all the bells and whistles we’ve grown to expect from a first-class laptop (webcam, built-in wireless LAN, USB connectivity, etc). They additionally feature a full (if scaled down) keyboard and sufficiently large hard-drive capacities (up to 256gig on the MSI Wind, for instance). All that at a very attractive price point, which can start below $300. This definitely gives them the best bang-for-the-buck factor.

On the downside, the life of the included battery usually leaves something to be desired (generally 1-3 hours), and though larger batteries are available for purchase, they can be a bit bulky and increase the overall cost.

iPad (and other tablets)


  • Great user interface, designed for mobility.
  • Light weight
  • Quick boot-time (seconds)
  • Good battery life (~10hrs on the iPad)
  • Lots of apps to choose from
  • Great for data consumption (reading documents, watching videos, playing games)


  • Can’t run regular desktop software
  • Limited HD space (up to 64gig on iPad)
  • Limited connectivity (no USB/SD/HDMI on iPad)
  • No Flash videos (on iPad)
  • Not ideal for data creation

Tablets are all the new rave (to say ‘tablets’ is to say ‘iPad’—not because competing products are any less functional, but because, as with anything Apple, shoppers seem to have been taken by an epidemic).

Virtually all tablets have adopted a touch-screen interface, which allows them to do away with keys, touch-pads, etc. This significantly reduces the form factor and permits for some very sleek designs. They boot in a matter of seconds and have very good battery life. All this makes for one great mobile experience as far as data-consumption is concerned.

It’s worthy to keep in mind though that the iPad does not support Flash videos (Android tablets do), which would limit your data consumption at least to some degree, and also desire in standard connectivity features, such as USB/SD/HDMI (though here again, competitors have bridged the gap).

But if your main use is for data creation, things can get a bit finicky. The on-screen keyboard is probably fine for a few sentences here and there, but less than ideal for any intensive finger-work. There are optional accessories available, such as a Bluetooth keyboard, but this somewhat defeats the streamlined ‘grab-and-go’ idea, as well as affects the total cost and battery life, which are the main pros we had just mentioned.

Further, since tablets use solid state hard-drives, their capacity tends to be significantly smaller (only up to 64 gigs on the iPad). What’s more, you cannot install traditional (i.e. desktop native) software programs, and are limited to the apps offered in the app store. While there are literary hundreds of thousands of apps there, one would still have to consider this a disadvantage if the goal is to enjoy a seamless workflow across devices.

Tablet PC/Hybrid


  • Versatility: use as a tablet or as a netbook
  • Available with large hard-drive capacities (320 GB on Dell’s Inspiron Duo)
  • Can run at least some standard windows software to edit documents, etc.
  • Full Keyboard
  • Great for data consumption AND data creation


  • Heavier than a tablet
  • Less battery life than a tablet
  • Boots longer than a tablet (though faster than a netbook)

More recently, as the popularity of tablets peaked, manufacturers began looking for ways to attract the data-creating crowd as well. One of these efforts resulted in the double-duty Tablet PC that, at least in theory, offers the best of both worlds. There are different variations on this theme—from Dell’s flipping screen to Acer's snap-in/out screen—but the concept remains the same: use it as a tablet when you want a tablet or as a netbook when you want a netbook.

In reality, as with anything, this should be taken with a grain of salt, because while it’s great to have the versatility of both—it often comes at the price of additional weight and reduced battery life, which are two of the most attractive aspects of the tablet to begin with. Then, it’s also worth noting that all-in-one convertible gadgets may break more easily—after all, adding hinges etc is adding potential points of failure. This doesn’t mean that these devices are not well constructed, but I’d definitely look at the warranty to see what’s covered.


A notable new design, the Esus Eee Pad Transformer TF101, introduces a double-duty keyboard that also functions as a docking station, thereby actually increasing battery life (up to 16 hours according to the manufacturer) as opposed to reducing it. This is a very exciting concept that might very well address some of the previously perceived drawbacks with Tablet PCs, making them an increasingly attractive choice.


So to sum it up, if on the road your work mostly amounts to emailing, data consumption, and perhaps some light data-creation—tablet might very well be your poodle, giving you those few extra inches of screen real-estate you need over your smartphone. However, if your primary use will involve intensive writing or some specific software product without a comparable app, perhaps the netbook is a better pet.

Then again, if you’re really having a hard time picking one over the other, don’t mind carrying around a couple of extra pounds, and rarely spend more than 2-3 hours away from an electrical outlet, you might opt for the new cross-breed. [Note: see update under Tablet PC]

On a final note, some users (especially those endowed with 10 thumbs) may find the mini-keyboards less than ideal for data creation altogether and prefer to stick with a less-portable-but-more-roomy old laptop.

It all comes down to finding the right a balance between function, convenience, and (dropping all pretense) that darn 'cool' factor!

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posted by Maty Grosman @ 9:25 AM