Choosing Between Netbooks and Notebooks

Netbook aggravation due to faulty buying decisions

What goes up must come down, and lately what's coming down are netbooks, as more and more articles talk about the compact computers disappointing customers. However, we can't blame netbooks for that. We can only blame vendors who overhype and customers who underbuy. Before you buy a smaller, cheaper and less powerful netbook, determine if you need a notebook instead. If so, you can spend about the same money and get more power, albeit in a larger package.

Let's decide what a “netbook” really is. Most definitions focus on the processor, an Intel Atom rather than some flavor of Celeron, Mobile Pentium, Dual Core or one of AMD's models. Screen sizes are small, either 8.9 or 10 diagonal inches, rather than 13 inches like the smallest notebooks and MacBooks. We'll leave Apple out of this discussion since it makes excellent small notebooks but refuses to jump into the netbook market.

Netbooks don't have any type of CD or DVD drives. Even the least expensive notebooks do, however, so be careful if you really need a CD or DVD for work. Or, like many people on airplanes today, to watch a movie.

Operating systems run the gamut from Microsoft to Microsoft, with the company resurrecting XP yet again to steal the netbook market away from the Linux operating system experiments on the very first netbooks. While notebooks almost always have Vista, netbooks often ship with XP. Many believe that's a prime reason for their appeal, but that's an argument for another time.

Price used to be an issue, but no longer. Low end notebooks from all major vendors are available for less than $500, and netbooks from those same vendors can cost $500 and sometimes more. Just be aware a high end netbook at $500 does different jobs than a low end notebook at about the same price.

Many people complain about the small keyboards, but the 2140 Mini-Notebook HP lent me for the lab here has a pretty good keyboard. I'm comparing this against what could have been a netbook eight years ago, an HP OmniBook 500 I bought used. It has a Pentium III processor (remember those?) with 256MB of RAM and a 10GB hard disk running Windows 2000. Built for portability, the OmniBook doesn't have a CD drive built in.

While the 2140 keyboard is 10 inches across, the OmniBook keyboard is 10.25 inches. Not much difference. Keyboard depth is four inches on both. The new system has the flush, aluminum looking modern keys, but the older OmniBook has more traditional keys with some space between the key caps. There's little real difference between the two when typing.

On an airplane, the 2140 netbook fits far better on a coach seat tray. It's only 6.5 inches deep, while the OmniBook is 8.5 inches, as big as most seat trays. Worse, the OmniBook's screen sticks up 8.5 inches, usually banging into the top of the seat in front of me. The 2140's 6.5 inch screen height keeps it out of the way.

While the slightly smaller keyboard doesn't bother me, the smaller screen does. The 2140 uses the new 16:9 screen ratio of 1024x576, like HD TVs. The older OmniBook has a resolution of 800x600 that shows much more of a page at one time . I find myself scrolling up and down inside my browser and word processor constantly on the 2140, but then you can't get both small size and large display.

I take issue with HP calling the 2140 a “mini-notebook” because that perpetuates the idea a netbook does all the things a notebook does. Well, technically, that's true, but the netbook does them much more slowly. My OmniBook runs almost as fast in many areas as the new netbook, which should tell you plenty since the CPU is a Pentium III.

Do not buy a netbook if you do more serious work than e-mail, Web browsing, and light word processing and spreadsheets. The little boxes just don't have the horsepower of even low end notebooks, and if you want to crunch big spreadsheets or process audio or video, you will be frustrated regularly.

Some companies are helping out netbooks with new products built just for the notebook's little brother. If you need an office productivity suite, ThinkFree just released ThinkFree Mobile: Netbook Edition.  ThinkFree does a great job emulating Microsoft Office, but they've modified their software to be sleeker, faster, and easier for new netbook users. Put coupon code thinkfree in during checkout, and the $39.95 price drops to $24.95.

Another netbook-friendly product is the Checkit Notebook Utility Suite from SmithMicro. The tools promise to improve performance, help backup files and compress and optimize file sizes. Retail price is $39.95. A copy is on the way for me to test so I'll let you know if it helps.

People are optimistic, and probably hoped they could spend less than a “real” notebook and get the same performance with a netbook. Nope, you can't. Don't buy a netbook if you need high performance. The small size is handy and a great advantage at times, but it's not a workhorse computer.

Need portability and a low price? Netbooks lead the way, but only a minor step up gets you a low-end notebook with more power and a CD and/or DVD player.

Need power crunching inside your portable computing device? Get a notebook, not netbook. Need a CD or DVD drive? Notebook. Need portability above all else? Netbook.

Whatever you do, make sure you test the performance of the system running the type of applications you plan to run. Netbooks are cool and hip. Notebooks are larger yet get more work done. Whichever you choose, just remember that post-purchase whining won't make the netbook run faster or jump higher.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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