What are the differences between the Apple iPad and a netbook computer?

The iPad as seen on the day it was introduced to the public. GlennFleishman photo. CC-BY.

The iPad as seen on the day it was introduced to the public. GlennFleishman photo. CC-BY.

When Apple announced the details of the iPad, it was clear that a new type of computer was being produced — something like a netbook and yet something like an oversized iPhone without the telephone capabilities or an iPod Touch on steroids. My word for the device is “netpad,” but only time will tell what label will stick.

In any case, the likely market for the iPad is to those who might otherwise consider buying a netbook, which has similar purposes and comparable computing power, screen size and screen resolution. Undoubtedly, Apple’s marketing will stress these advantages that the iPad has over the typical netbook:

  • The coolness factor. If you’re thinking about buying an iPad, this is the reason, isn’t it? No doubt about it, Apple excels at design, and the iPad likely would become a must-have item even if its technical specs were disappointing. It is both thin (a half-inch, not much more than a centimeter) and sleek.
  • Weighing about 1.5 pounds or 0.7 kilograms, the iPod weighs a pound or more less than the typical netbook.
  • The battery is made to last about 10 hours under ordinary use — two to four times as long as most netbooks’ batteries last. You could use it the whole time you fly across the Atlantic and still have plenty of power left. And with a standby time of a month, the iPad is ready to go whenever you need it without a wait for booting up.
  • Some models come with a built-in 3G modem for connecting to wireless data networks, a feature that is an add-on for most netbooks.
  • It is designed specifically to allow the playing of games, unlike netbooks that, while game-capable, are more general-purpose in nature. The iPad includes features like a sensor that detects motion and can be used to orient the screen depending on what position the device is in.
  • The use of a solid-state drive, available but not standard on netbooks, means that applications load quickly.
  • The iPad is extremely easy to learn to use, having the same operating system as the iPhone.
  • Thousands of applications, most of them designed for mobile use, are available, including nearly all those that are made for the iPhone. Among those that come with the unit are an e-book reader that integrates with Apple’s e-bookstore.
  • Oh, did I mention, the iPad is cool and trendy?

As good as all that sounds, there are advantages to buying a netbook instead:

  • Although the basic iPad costs about the same as an upper-end netbook, you can buy a decent netbook for about half the cost of an iPad. And some basic productivity tools, such as a tactile keyboard, cost extra with the iPad.
  • The iPad currently doesn’t have the capability of running more than one application at a time, something that is routinely done with netbooks. Want to read your e-mail and listen to music at the same time? No problem with a netbook, but the iPad isn’t designed for it.
  • Most netbooks use the Windows operating system, and some use Linux, so you can use the software you’re familiar with. If you can perform a task on your desktop computer, chances are you can do it with a netbook, although perhaps at slower speed.
  • The iPod doesn’t run Flash, which provides interactivity and often video to many web sites.
  • The iPad doesn’t have a USB connector you can use to access digital cameras, DVD drives, flash memory devices and many other tools that are routinely used with netbooks. Nor does it has a slot for plugging in an SD card, used to store photos on many digital cameras.
  • Surprisingly, the iPad doesn’t have a camera or webcam, something included with many netbooks.

Both the iPad and netbooks have their limitations, and neither is designed to be a person’s primary computer. Which device you purchase will depend on your needs, budget and lifestyle — and how long you’re willing to wait for the next version of the iPad, which likely will have features it currently lacks.

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  • eiffel says:

    It’s an interesting product, that’s for sure. I think it will be wildly successful simply because it’s an “appliance” rather than an all-purpose computer. For a lot of people, a computer that doesn’t need a geek friend on-call for support will be most welcome. And if it runs all the apps they already installed on their iPhone or iPod Touch, why not?

    But it wouldn’t suit me at all. The exposed screen would be easy to damage when I throw it into my backpack (unlike the clamshell design of a netbook), and I just can’t see the iPad being comfortable enough for heavy use with all the typing I need to do.

  • mvguy says:

    I think you’re right. For those of us who use computers as more than an appliance, the iPad is going to seem inadequate. I think the inability to run more than one app at a time will be a shortcoming for even average users, however, so I expect that’ll change by the time iPad 2.0 comes around.

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