iPad vs. Netbook: It's a Close Call

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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.

iPad: 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.

Netbook: 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.

Advantage: Netbook. 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?

iPad: 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.

Netbook: 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).

Advantage: Netbook. 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.

At a Glance
  • Apple looks set to shake up casual computing with a tablet that offers clever design and ease of use. But that streamlined approach may also be the iPad's weakness.


    • Best-in-class touch interface
    • Large display shows pics and videos beautifully
    • All-day battery life


    • No way to manage files, no camera, no multitasking
    • Lack of Flash support cripples many Web sites
    • Poor scaling of iPhone apps
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