In launching the new Apple iPad this week, CEO Steve Jobs took a stand against the popular netbook category, which he dismissed as a poor fit into the space between laptops and smartphones.
“Netbooks aren’t better at anything. They are slow, they have low-quality displays and run… PC software,” Jobs said. “[The iPad] is so much more intimate than a laptop, and so much more capable than a smartphone with this gorgeous large display.”
Netbooks, he said, are just cheap laptops.
Apple has revolutionized product categories otherwise filled with mundane devices. The iPod bought excitement to media players, and the iPhone redefined smartphones. Now Apple is trying to convince users to drop netbooks, and go for the iPad. But do the two devices really compare?
I got a chance to play with the iPad for a few minutes at the launch event, and each device has its own merits. The iPad is a more expensive, albeit powerful device than netbooks for video, e-books and gaming. The netbook is not an entertainment device, but it provides ample hard drive storage and a full keyboard on which long documents can be typed.
The iPad has a 9.7-inch touch-screen display and uses an on-screen keyboard for when typing is necessary. It can be used for tasks like Web browsing, doing e-mail, reading e-books, playing movies and games.
The biggest draws to the iPad are superior battery life and multimedia capabilities with the ability to play 720p high-definition videos. An Apple representative said the device offers 10 hours of battery life on active usage, which compares to between four to eight hours on netbooks.
The iPad was able to play the recent Star Trek and animated Up movies in original and full screen mode, though images were grainier in full-screen mode. With the exception of a few, netbooks barely manage 720p video, and even if they do, it would drain battery life quickly. Apple hasn’t yet revealed details of battery life when running video, which could be less than 10 hours.
The iPad’s flaws slowly started becoming apparent. One big drawback is the iPad’s on-screen keyboard. While typing into the iWork applications using the iPad’s virtual keyboard, I needed to switch between the character and number keyboards. Call me a Luddite, but I’d prefer a proper keyboard to type. So if you are looking to write long documents, a netbook is a more practical option.
An external keyboard can be attached to the iPad, but the device remains mostly desk-bound after that. The iPads are otherwise more portable, measuring 0.5 inches at their thinnest point and weighing around 1.5 pounds (0.68 kilograms). Netbooks are slightly heavier and can be straight-down ugly at times.
The devices meet common ground on the Web surfing experience. The iPad’s Safari browser fit pages beautifully into the screen and surfing seemed like a breeze. The keyboard and mouse input on netbooks seem ancient compared to the iPad’s touch input.
However, it seemed like a stretch to keep multiple browser windows open in the iPad, something netbooks would be better at managing. The browsing experience on netbooks is more practical as it is easier to open and switch between browsers and tabs.
Then there are the subtle differences unique to each device. As a PC user, the netbook also gives me the option to run multiple Windows or Linux programs. But the iPad can function as an e-book reader, something netbooks can’t do. The iPad’s familiar iPhone interface seemed easier to adapt to than the traditional Windows interface on netbooks. Netbooks also have webcams for videoconferencing, a feature the iPad could gain in upcoming versions.
But iPad’s advanced features come at a premium — prices start at US$499 for 16GB of storage, reaching about $829 for 64GB of storage and a 3G connection. Netbooks can be acquired for close to half the price.
In the end, Jobs was making a false comparison. The iPad is a product for those relaxing on a chair to watch a video or read an e-book and also happens to have iWorks. The netbook is supposed to be a cheap laptop for those looking to do some real work, and for that it does it pretty well.
But Apple has a history of redefining product categories, and with the iPad, it may be doing the same.