Notebooks vs. Netbooks: Here's the Difference

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.

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