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Om’s Notebooks vs. Netbooks: Can You Tell the Difference? post sparked a healthy amount of debate when it went up Monday. Given how closely I’ve followed the burgeoning netbook sector since its birth, the discussion quickly caught my eye. Despite his observations as to how netbook […]

toshiba-nb205-netbookOm’s Notebooks vs. Netbooks: Can You Tell the Difference? post sparked a healthy amount of debate when it went up Monday. Given how closely I’ve followed the burgeoning netbook sector since its birth, the discussion quickly caught my eye. Despite his observations as to how netbook makers are trying make their offerings more robust, however, crucial differences between notebooks and netbooks remain — differences that, as some astute commenters pointed out, allow netbooks to fill the gap between what’s offered by smartphones and what’s offered by full-featured notebooks. Here’s how.

The 3P Triangle — Imagine, of you will, an equilateral triangle, with each point representing one of three attributes: price, performance and portability. Currently, a notebook can excel in one or two of these areas, but not all three. If you want a highly portable notebook with excellent performance, for example, you can’t have a low price. Likewise, if you want a full-featured notebook with reasonable performance, you can expect to pay at least $600-$1,000. Just don’t expect to tote it around, because you’re going to give up portability — the device will likely weigh around 5 pounds and run out of battery life in three hours or so. Enter netbooks: They provide enough horsepower to do the majority of everyday computing tasks, tend to average around $350, and are light and small enough to carry all day long.

All-day computing — How many full-sized notebooks offer 8-10 hours of runtime on a single battery? None that I can think of, but I can name at least three netbooks off the top of my head that do — and at prices of $400 or less. The Samsung NC10, ASUS Eee PC 1005 and my Toshiba NB205 all get at least eight hours of real-world, web-surfing-over-Wi-Fi computing. We complain when our smartphones can’t make it through the day on a single charge, so why do we accept notebooks that face the same challenge? The fact is, we don’t have to.

Enough is all you need — Notebooks and netbooks are both laptops like a finish hammer and a sledgehammer are both hammers. Aside from the obvious size difference, they’re similar tools that are meant for different scenarios. I’d sooner have a root canal than encode a 1GB high-def video on a netbook. When I do those videos for our site, I turn to the best tool for the task: a full-featured notebook like my MacBook. But when I want to live in my browser for blogging, consuming RSS and other web content or watch the occasional YouTube video on a screen bigger than my iPhone 3GS, I turn to my netbook. The rise of cloud apps, web services and various connectivity methods turn my “little laptop” into a big workhorse all the live-long day.

Going back to my hammer example, I wouldn’t want to carry a sledgehammer for an hour, let alone all day. This, too, is an oft-overlooked point with notebooks. Notebooks are outselling desktops, but I’d argue that most owners aren’t taking advantage of the portability gained. I often talk to people about their latest notebook purchase and hear that they bought 6-pound device. When I ask them how they’re going to carry it around, they look at me strangely. A common response is, “Carry it where? It’s going to sit on my desk.” In a case like that, I’d argue that the individual just bought another desktop, only one with a battery and an attached monitor. Carrying around a netbook, on the other hand, isn’t much different from carrying the latest New York Times Bestseller in hardback. I’ve used mine — with room to spare — in bleachers at sporting events, on planes, in a car and everywhere in between. In fact, I have yet to find a place where a 10-inch netbook couldn’t comfortably be used for hours.

Om raises a valid point about the 12-inch netbooks about to hit from ASUS and others. Are they netbooks or notebooks? In the end, it doesn’t matter what we call them. And even if they’re not a hit, they’re not going to displace the tens of millions of 10-inch, traditional netbooks that are selling in a down market. Simply put, the overall value proposition of netbooks is what sets them apart from the notebooks of today. At these prices, you get more oomph than a smartphone in a bigger package that offers a more satisfying experience. Yet you won’t pay much more for portability and it can keep you productive all day long.

I think Dave Winer said it best in his comment: “[G]et an Asus and take it with you on your next trip. Leave the Mac home. It’ll open your eyes as to what’s possible. But you can’t get it by thinking your way there, you have to actually do it.” While the experience won’t be the same for everyone, I think Dave’s approach is spot-on — you can’t tell the difference between a notebook and a netbook until you try them both.

  1. Well that was a whole lot of nothing.

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    1. What specifically was lacking? There’s “nothing” in your comment that tells me. ;)

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    2. that was a whole lot of something – I gained a lot ):

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  2. “How many full-sized notebooks offer 8-10 hours of runtime on a single battery?”

    Isn’t this the line that’s being blurred by the CULV notebooks? Certainly the Acer Timeline series offers ~8 hours on a battery, as do the MSI X-Slim models. I wouldn’t call a CULV notebook with a 14/15″ display a netbook!

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    1. Good point, Brian. I’m not overlooking the new CULV powered notebooks, as they further blur the lines. But using the 3P Triangle, these move away from the same low price point as a netbook since they range in price from around $600 to $800 last I checked. You’re gaining performance (both in processing speed and graphics capability) but at the cost of price. Battery life is far better than “traditional” notebooks with these, but you’ll still pay 50% more than you would for a netbook.

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      1. Looks like someone beat me to the punch about CULV, but I still don’t quite agree.

        Take a look at this for example:
        http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16834101185

        It’s a Core 2 Solo(with a laptop graphics chipset) at a netbook price, as well as being portable (11.6″)

        So no, the line between netbooks and laptops is being blurred.

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    2. The new Macbook Pros are 7-8 hours for the 15 and 17 inch models. Now real world use, do you get these times. No. But still I would take the horsepower, and beauty of the Macbook Pro over a netbook.

      That may be just me.

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  3. TexasYellowDog Tuesday, October 13, 2009

    “[G]et an Asus [, install OS X on it,] and take it with you on your next trip. Leave the Mac home.”

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    1. Good suggestion. I installed and was running OS X on my MSI Wind netbook for a few weeks last year. While it ran very well on the Atom platform, it’s not optimized for the 1024 x 600 display. It ended up giving me more frustration than I wanted, so I went back to Windows. Now on one of the newer netbooks with a 1366 x 768 resolution, I might feel differently!

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  4. [...] you take a user who is used to a 14-inch or 15-inch notebook, and then give them a 10-inch netbook, a few hours later they want their big screen back.” He characterized them as “not a [...]

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  5. Up until now we could define netbooks as small, with severely under-powered single-core CPUs, and allowing no more than 2GB RAM. We’ve already seen 12-inch form factors in the Dell Mini 12 and Lenovo S12.

    The new, relatively inexpensive dual-core CULV procs are about to make things very interesting. Last year a Lenovo U110 would set you back about $2,000. Today a Dell Inspiron 11z with SU4100 CPU starts at $474 and you can get it with 4GB RAM too. Is that a netbook or did ultra-portables suddenly become very cheap? Does it matter that the same CPU is also showing up in more traditional 14- and 15-inch laptops?

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  6. You hit most points spot on. I here people talk down on netbooks all the tine for being slow, while at the same time they sit there with their $1000 8 pound laptops trying to balance it on their lap while using it for nothing but facebook in the browser. I also hear people who define netbooks solely by screen size, which is also dumb. My 11.6″ EEE 1101HA (which is also one of those 8hour+ netbooks btw) isn’t really that much bigger than my old 8.9″ Acer Aspire One; it’s about 1.5cm wider, but not really any thicker or taller, simply because the aspire one has a huge battery sticking out its butt and a much larger bezel around the screen. Considering the jump in screen size and especially resolution, I dont think anyone whos actually seen a 1101HA in real life would think it sacrifices portability (though some of the other 11.6″ models is another matter; the acer11.6″ has that battery sticking out again… and less battery life).
    Anyways, great write-up

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    1. I would agree with that comment, as well as most work nowadays is communication oriented rather than high-level application oriented. My balance was the Air with a small power supply to balance battery life. You have to carry either the battery or the PS! I chose the PS. I can’t believe the bricks that are supplied with some of these devices.

      My work requires Adobe products, Coda and Xcode plus the usual contingent of office products. These function fine on my laptop, while it fits within the spaces you discuss. An optional monitor could balance out the situation. My feeling is that the device that will become my netbook is a tablet phone. I think of this as a pro device.

      Having to take notes on a call requires a device that can manage such information. Juggling a calendar, a call and a web search is not out of bounds, and current devices — the iPhone in my case — does not accomplish this task. I would rather not manage a second device with the file issues that consistently occur — forgotten files. I do agree most people need less power. I do not agree that another laptop, even if smaller, solves the problem.

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  7. How many laptops do you have, Kevin?

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    1. Werner, I currently own two netbooks and five laptops. On average, I buy 2 a year and review 8 to 10 annually. I’m constantly rotating my “stock” of notebooks and netbooks. ;)

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  8. I always think it’s kind of lame when people buy Laptops and never take them anywhere. It’s like hey, guess what, you could have bought an upgradable in the future, more powerful DESKTOP for like a third to half of the cost of that Laptop.

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    1. There are valid reasons people buy laptops for home use: being able to take them anywhere inside the house, far less clutter, replaces their TV and Stereo, and lower power consumption than a desktop.

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    2. Just getting rid of the fan noise is worth a few hundred dollars.

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    3. The only thing worth upgrading in a desktop is the graphics card. If you’re not a gamer, upgrading piecemeal is a non-issue. Any decent notebook will let you upgrade the RAM, hard drive, and WiFi card. If you need to upgrade the CPU or GPU, you do it by getting a new computer. Which is how most people upgrade their desktop as well, especially if the GPU is on the motherboard.

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  9. I am a working writer who writes on a company-provided laptop for my day job and a 13.1″ macbook for my own writing. At the corporate job, IT orders the largest-screened laptops available, because that’s what marketing and the executives want. For them the screen provides an easy interface to display graphics and make presentations to customers without a projector. It is an essential. For us writers, a large screen does make editing easier, but it’s not essential for the task of writing or even looking up information.

    The reason I prefer a netbook for writing is primarily the weight. If I don’t mind the weight, then the computer is easy to carry with me. When I stop for lunch, it is easy to pull out and review my notes and jot down ideas, so I do it instead of picking up a paper for reading. As you mention, it fits anywhere, which my 17″ Dell doesn’t.

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  10. Kevin I highly agree with you. Om does make a good point though. From a marketing standpoint confusion in a category is good sometimes to help to push the consumer to the purely Netbook category or the Laptop category. The bad part is that it saturates the category and can also devalue its main intent. Kind of like hybrid cars, when Honda put out its original InSight Hybrid it was the category maker. Then it released the Accord Hybrid which instantly devalued the category and Honda’s reputation as a leading hybrid maker. Toyota instead not only joined the category but kept its offerings as true as possible, thus their large market share. In that time period you had other car makers that confused those lines just to be within the category. But now there is a definite divide, as there are full BEC, Hybrid, and now (what I call) secondary Hybrid (electric propulsion secondary). I feel that the netbook category is following the same identity crisis Hybrid and BEC vehicles are going through.

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