Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Netbooks Vs. Tablets

March 2012

By Mike Gould

Back in 2009 I wrote about the coming influx of smaller laptop computers, the netbooks (URL below). Three human years being about a decade and a half in computer years, I thought I would revisit the subject, as there have been just a few leetle-bitty improvements of late.

This was all inspired by a consulting gig I had recently, wherein I helped someone set up a MacBook Air, transferring their data over from an old iMac and a fairly recent MacBook Pro. At the end of the article mentioned above, I bemoaned the fact that Apple didn't yet have a netbook. Well, they sure got one now. But this is not all about Apple stuff, notes follow on Windows devices as well.

Let's Review
In the beginning, a computer was the size of a house. Then technology advanced and shrank it down to a couple of rooms. Then something that only took up one wall, and then a box that fit under your desk. There things sat for a bit, long enough to get used to the idea that everything you did at work now relied on that beige box. But what if you could haul it around with you, maybe get some work done at home?

The first true portables were the size of old-fashioned sewing machines – luggable but only if you had taken your vitamins recently. My first computer was a Mac Plus, and I had a case for it that now houses the tent heater we use when camping in the Spring and Fall. My first real computer job involved setting up Compaq Portables at the Ann Arbor Inacomp store. Compaq was the first IBM-compatible portable available (1983) and our store had a contract to support a bunch of them. I spent a lot of time replacing their floppy drives. (And these were the big, manly, 5" floppies, none of that new-fangled diskette stuff...)

Then came the laptop era (mid-eighties): the IBM ThinkPad, Dell Latitude, HP 110, Apple PowerBook etc.. Ever since then we have seen portable computing getting smaller, lighter, more powerful and cheaper. Note that Apple was late to this market; their Mac Portable came out in 1989. It was bigger, slower, and completely less successful then the PCs above. But they kept at it, and eventually triumphed with the MacBook and iPad.

And now desktop systems seem to be an endangered species, as more and more people prefer to carry around their working tools with them. Well, a better term would be lifestyle tools, as we are now totally dependent on email, web surfing, and such to make our modern lives possible.

Let's Carry On So laptops evolved into notebook computers, which evolved into… well, actually, the family tree split into tablets and netbooks. (Well, more like parallel evolution.) The first netbook was perhaps the Toshiba Libretto, which came out in 1996. The first iPad predecessors came out in the late eighties, and in 1987 Apple introduced the Newton handheld, which was followed by various Personal Digital Assistants from Palm et al.

But enough of the history, that was then, this is now, and what should I, Ms./Mr. road-weary business person, buy that is light in weight, and will enable me to stay in touch and productive while away from my desk?

Let's Dance
First question: tablet (iPad, Galaxy Tab, TouchPad, etc.) or netbook (MacBook Air, Sony VAIO, HP Mini, etc.)? Depends on what you need to do. Pads are all about viewing and reading content – netbooks do all that plus they have keyboards that make creating stuff easier. Tablets are usually a bit lighter than netbooks, and sometimes have bigger screens.

You can be creative on a tablet computer, it just takes more effort. My experience has been with the iPad, so I will talk about that (I imagine most of the same experiences apply with Win devices). I did write one of these articles on it, back in May 2010 (see URL below), but it was sort of a pain. The touchpad keyboard was doable, but not all that comfortable. You can now get external keyboards for this, but that adds one more piece to the pile of technological doodads you have to haul around with you. A recent article in some Mac magazine I read was about a writer who decided to see if he could do everything his job required on an iPad. Conclusion: well, yeah, sorta. Lots of work-arounds and such but he got it done. His main problems were with the content management system of the website he maintains.

A netbook, on the other hand, is just a miniature laptop, maybe without so many ins, outs, and add-ons like optical drives. As I discovered this morning, an external USB CD drive is a must-have with a MacBook Air: as long as software installation is accomplished via DVD (MS Office 2011, in this case), you are going to need an optical disk drive to get the job done.

My take is that if all you need to do on the road is email and web-surfing, a tablet is the way to go. Small, thin, decent screen for reading ebooks or watching streamed movies, all good. I recently took the iPad for a week-long trip to Florida. It worked perfectly with the hotel WiFi and was generally a lightweight delight. (I also stumbled upon a great app to edit photos of roseate spoonbills, but that is another story...)

If you need to be writing a lot of emails, working on spreadsheets, or doing other, more intensive work, get a netbook. Either way, do your research, talk to others in your situation, and visit a local computer store for a hands-on demo and a chat with a knowledgeable salesperson.

What do I recommend? Well, I'm biased, but I love my iPad and, after my recent experience, I think there is a MacBook Air in my future. YMMV.

Previous Netbook article:

Writing on the iPad:

Mike Gould spends waaaay too much time on his iPad, was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, builds laser display devices, performs with the Illuminatus 2.2 Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to

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