iPad vs. Netbook: It's a Close Call

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Portability

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?

iPad: 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.

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.

Advantage: iPad. 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?

iPad: 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.

Netbook: 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.

Advantage: Tie. 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.

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.

    Pros

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

    Cons

    • 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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