Wednesday, April 7, 2010; 12:19 AM
Ever since Steve Jobs got on stage to announce the iPad, actual and prospective users have been comparing it to a netbook. Will the iPad replace netbooks? Well, a netbook has a full keyboard, runs complete operating systems, and can basically run any application you choose--so it has to be the superior PC companion device, right? We pitted the iPad against the netbook in a number of important categories, and found that the contest is closer than people might expect.Surfing the Web
One major use of these "companion devices" is to hop online quickly and surf the Web from the comfort of your couch, or on the bus, or anyplace where you're away from your primary PC.
The iPad's lack of Adobe Flash support is definitely a problem for browsing. For every site that now offers HTML5-based video as an alternative to Flash, there are still scores of sites containing Flash ads, navigation, and applications that will simply break on the iPad. Aside from that, though, the browsing experience on an iPad is pretty great. You don't have tabs in the browser, but you can open several pages at once and flip between them much as you can on an iPhone. Text and images look superb, and the ability to rapidly zoom and rotate the screen orientation makes reading large pages a breeze. Unfortunately, you're stuck with using Apple's Safari browser.
Since it's a PC, a netbook gives you access to any browser you choose. You get full support for Flash, Silverlight, and the like. On the other hand, the screen is small and you can't easily rotate or zoom it the way you can the iPad's display. Sites that don't work well with a netbook's smallish screen and unimpressive resolution are more difficult to view and read than they are on the iPad. And many netbooks, though they support Flash, don't offer enough performance to permit the user to watch high-def video smoothly or to run demanding flash games without bogging down.
The ability of netbooks to see "the whole Web" and to run any browser you choose give them the advantage, but the iPad's smooth zooming, rotating, and scrolling make the contest on this measure surprisingly close.
Getting Work Done
You're on the road and you have to edit a Word document or an Excel spreadsheet. Or you're sitting in class and want to take notes. Will the iPad get the job done, or do you need the full PC application access of a netbook?
Pages, Numbers, and Keynote are fairly good applications on the iPad--though you have to pay $10 each for them. Unfortunately, the iPad offers no local storage, so moving documents around is a real pain. Basically you have to e-mail them to yourself and open them from the Mail program or from your favorite Web mail client, and then e-mail them back when you're done (you can mail documents from within the iWork apps). Many features within Excel and Word (such as macros and drop-down boxes) won't work properly, either. The on-screen keyboard is good enough for hunting and pecking, but taking lengthy notes or writing long papers or articles is a chore: You can't really touch-type on the new keyboard. A number of iPad-compatible productivity apps are available, and things like Evernote work great; but if you want to get any real work done, this is not the device for it. Though you can sync with Exchange, the Mail, Contacts, and Calendar apps are missing features that business users rely on.
As much as we dislike most netbooks' keyboards, they're infinitely more usable than the iPad's on-screen keyboard. Because netbooks let you run full-blown versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, you can do everything you need to do for business or school on one of these devices. Sure, the limited screen resolution is a drag at times, but that's a problem with the iPad, too (especially with spreadsheets).
It's not even close on this measure: Netbooks have the clear advantage. The iPad needs a better keyboard or text-entry method, better spreadsheet support, and local storage--not to mention built-in, system-wide network printing. Customized apps like Evernote are great productivity tools, but if you want to do real work you'll want a netbook.
People love netbooks and tablets because they're small, lightweight, and portable (they fit almost any bag), and they have long battery life. Which on-the-go device makes the better travel companion?
You'll certainly want some sort of cover and/or stand to protect the iPad; but beyond that, it's a great travel companion. In the first place, it's smaller and lighter than even the smallest netbook. And the IPS display delivers a wider range of viewing angles, so it's easier to get a clear view of what's on screen when you prop it up on your lap, hold it in one hand, or share it with someone sitting next to you. We don't have solid battery life numbers yet, but the range we've been hearing reported elsewhere (7 to 10 hours, depending on how you use it) is comparable to that of a good netbook.
Netbooks are far easier to carry around than full-featured laptops, but even the small ones are twice as heavy and twice as thick as the iPad. Many of them have poor displays with washed-out color and bad viewing angles, which can make them hard to see clearly if you don't position the netbook firmly on a hard surface.
The iPad wins with its slimmer design, lighter weight, equivalent battery life, and superior screen.Video and Audio
Consumers like netbooks because they can use them to watch TV shows, Web video, and movies on the go. Neither netbooks nor the iPad have an optical drive, so everything you watch has to be synced from your primary PC, downloaded to the device, or streamed. The same goes for music. But which machine offers the better overall experience?
Video certainly looks better on the iPad's IPS display. Obviously, the lack of Flash support hurts your ability to view a lot of Web video, but the built-in YouTube app, the free Netflix and ABC apps, and the growing support for HTML5 video on key Websites help alleviate the problem. If you want to watch your own videos, you have to convert them to a compatible format in advance, which can be a drag. Of course, consuming video from the iTunes store directly on the iPad is easy to do. Audio quality through the built-in speakers is a bit weak, but better than we expected.
In theory, by virtue of being complete PCs, netbooks support any format out there. In practice, most of them struggle with high-def video and don't play Flash (even the standard-def stuff) well when expanded to full screen. On the other hand, most netbooks have far more storage space than even the 64GB iPad for storing your music and video library, too. But the screen quality on netbooks is almost universally poor. The color, contrast, and viewing angles of the iPad absolutely kill any netbook screen we've ever seen.
It's a tie. Netbooks are more flexible, but they have performance problems and worse screens. iPads are limited and more difficult to get content on unless you already do everything in iTunes, but the quality of the viewing and listening experience is much better.
If you're going to carry your computer adjunct along with you everywhere, you'd better be able to get your portable game on.
Considering the way that the iPhone and iPod Touch took off as game devices, the strong support for the iPad from game developers is hardly surprising. Sure, you can play your iPhone/Touch games in an enlarged mode, but that's not a great experience. Games optimized for the iPad are, so far, a huge leap over their iPhone/Touch brethren. The bigger screen and superior performance make possible a whole new class of games. Though the games often carry higher prices than do games for the iPhone or Touch, they're still quite inexpensive in comparison to most standard PC games.
When it comes to games, netbooks leave a lot to be desired. Netbooks can run any PC game that is playable without an optical drive, but their performance is so poor that all the best high-end games are out of reach. Premium netbooks equipped with nVidia's Ion graphics or those built on AMD's platform fare better, but they still force users to accept too many compromises. Here, the fact that the iPad is a separate platform requiring specific support works to its advantage. Even Flash-based Web games can be difficult for a netbook to handle: Many won't fit in the limited-size browser window, and others often bog down when the game's action gets hectic.
Despite the huge potential library of PC games that a netbook gives you access to, we think that the iPad has the gaming edge. By developing games specifically for that platform, developers are creating an excellent experience that you just can't get from most PC games on a netbook.
And the Winner Is...
The choice of a winner isn't as clearcut as you might suppose. The better choice for a PC companion really depends on what you want to do with the device. If your primary need is a system for work, the netbook's superiority is indisputable. For entertainment, however, the iPad has the edge, thanks to its superior overall gaming experience and better-quality audio and video--despite its lack of flexibility. Netbooks have the advantage in browsing the Web, but the iPad is a surprisingly capable and enjoyable Web browsing device even though it doesn't support Adobe Flash. At this point, with iPad prices starting at $500, we think most users will get more for their money from a $350 netbook. But if Apple chops a couple hundred bucks off the price of its iPad, the decision would be much harder to make.