Netbooks vs. Tablets

I am a very satisfied user and supporter of netbook systems. I've had at least one netbook for about two years now, starting with my trusty HP 2133 Mini-Note.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

I am a very satisfied user and supporter of netbook systems. I've had at least one netbook for about two years now, starting with my trusty HP 2133 Mini-Note. I've never owned a tablet (or pad, or slate, whatever), and although I have actually seen one, it was in the possession of a twelve year old girl, and it would be fair to say that I found the things she used it for to be uninteresting. So, I'm interesting in hearing from someone who actually owns one and can tell me from their own experience what makes it so great. Here are a few observations from my obviously netbook-slanted viewpoint:

- Size and Weight. This is supposed to be one of the ultimate advantages, and I will admit that tablets are in general thinner and lighter than netbooks. But, how much of an advantage is that in practical terms? It still doesn't fit in your pocket, you still have to either put it in your bag, backpack, briefcase or whatever, or have a special cover/case for it, don't you?

- Human Interface. By this I mean, on one hand tablets have touch-screens, and I suppose these days they are all multi-touch or gesture capable. That is undoubtedly very cool, and brings to mind images of Tom Cruise in "Minority Report". For things like web browsing, it must be very nice - if your fingers aren't too wide, or your screen too small. But are there other applications that it is particularly good? On the other hand, netbooks have a keyboard. Often a rather cramped one, but a real keyboard none the less. With typewriter keys, cursor keys, function keys, all the things we have become accustomed to (and often dependent on) when entering text on a computer. Such as writing email, documents, web searches, working on projects, and so on. I will stress again, I have never tried to use a tablet computer, so perhaps someone can give me an idea of what it is like to try to write an email using an touch-screen "virtual keyboard"? Or perhaps to write an entire letter, or other document?

- External interfaces. I know that the iPad is an extreme case of this, but from what I have seen other tablets/pads also have very few or no external/expansion ports, such as USB, SD/MMC Flash card slots, VGA/HDMI connections and so on. From my perspective every one of these is significant - I use USB sticks to move data between systems, Flash cards to get pictures from my cameras onto the computer, and external video connections to connect larger displays, including beamers for presentations and TVs for home viewing of pictures and videos. None of those are "unusual" activities for me, and not being able to do any or all of them would be a significant problem. I'm interested in hearing what tablet users and promoters have to say about each of those - perhaps tablet users just don't expect to do those sorts of things? Or are there alternatives that I am not aware of?

- Software customization: This one is much more specific to me, I'm sure. But one of the things that I obviously do quite a lot of is modifying, customizing and otherwise changing the software on my netbooks - both the applications and the operating system. As far as I can tell, with most tablet computers today you are absolutely locked into whatever operating system it came with. As for applications, beyond what comes installed on the tablet, it seems that you are expected to get things from an "App Store". But what about the kinds of standard applications and utilities that are "taken for granted" on desktop, notebook and netbook systems? Beyond worries about usability and suitability, is there even a way to add the programs of your choice? I would think so, but I just don't know.

- Display/Screen: This is something that netbooks have been faulted for from the beginning, the screens are "too small" or "too low resolution" or otherwise "difficult to read or use". But as far as I can tell, the current generation of tablets have essentially the same size display as the current netbooks, don't they? Perhaps even less selection, even? It seems that after starting with displays of 8" or so, and stretching the definition of netbooks up to as much as 12" or so, we have settled on 10" displays as the "typical" size. At the low end of the price scale they are generally 1024x600, and while that doesn't sound impressive, I have found it to be quite usable for ordinary web surfing, emailing, photo viewing and such. At the high end of the price scale, my new Samsung NF310 has 1366x768 resolution, and I find that to be very pleasant - and it compares quite well to the 1280x800 resolution that is pretty common on 15" laptop displays. So, is there some advantage for tablet displays that I am not aware of?

- Battery life: This has been a problem for netbooks since the beginning. Some of my early ones would struggle even to get two hours on batteries. But current netbooks are using much more power-efficient chips, better design and better batteries to get at least four or five hours on batteries, and my NF310 claims as much as nine hours! (I'll believe that when I see it, but I haven't really tested that yet.) Are tablets getting significantly better battery life than that? If so, that would really be an advantage.

- Price: Of course in the end, this always turns out to be a key consideration. Netbook prices these days seem to run from about $200-$400 (based on my very quick estimate of prices in the Swiss market today, converted to dollars). I regularly see the HP Mini 210 advertised for something like 250 Francs (or dollars, more or less). My new NF310 cost about 450 Francs, and it is as good as you can get right now, as far as I know. From what I have seen and heard, tablet prices seem to start at about the high end of netbook prices, and go up from there. If that is true, then I am really baffled, and I'm right back to where I started, what is it about tablets which make them so great, and make them cost more than a netbook?

So, if there are tablet owners/users out there who can address some of the points I have mentioned above, I would love to hear from you. If there is something I am missing, something that will "open my eyes" to the advantages of tablets, please tell me.

jw 16/3/2011

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