TECHNOLOGY DEATHMATCH: Notebook vs Netbook

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It was just over a year ago now that netbooks first hit the scene. Of course, we didn’t know them as netbooks at the time. They were Eee PCs, until the world and his wife brought their own versions out and suddenly we needed to invent a new category.

We toyed with sub-notebook for a while and you’ll still see me drop it in the odd post when I’m searching for another word for netbook but this isn’t the point. The point is that they’re here now. The game has changed. The paradigm has shifted and now that the dust is settling is the novelty wearing off?

So, today here on Technology Deathmatch, I’m affording you an entirely subjective view on the matter with the odd bit of balance thrown in. It’s George vs the Dragon, David vs Goliath, Jonah vs the Whale – yes, NOTEBOOK VS NETBOOK!

As the netbooks slip more into the public consciousness, I’m getting a lot more friends and relatives asking me if they should get one, and which one they should opt for if they do, but the trouble is that the more I use sub-notebooks (see, I did it just there), the more I grow to hate them.

I think it was liveblogging the Samsung press conference on an Asus Eee PC S101 at CES a few weeks back that was the final nail in the coffin for me – the lack of available Wi-Fi probably helped as well – but let’s break it down and have a good old discussion about it until we all decide that I’m right.

Size

Netbooks are small. There you go. There’s my profound statement for the day. Netbooks are small. But I’m going to take it further. What I’m going to say is that netbooks are too small. They’re too small to sit on your lap and, as a laptop, that would seem quite important. Anyone taller than 3’6″ has to squish themselves into the kind of position that gets chiropractors rubbing their sweaty palms together with glee.

First you have to bring your legs genital-crushingly close together to make sure the thing’s supported on your thighs without slipping through floor and, once balanced, you have to compress your own spine down as much as possible squeezing the discs between your vertebrae one by one until you’re close enough to be able to crane your neck over like a tortoise and into a position where your eyes can resolve the tiny screen.

They’re just too small and, after an hour or so of working in that kind of posture, it hurts. It hurts like it shouldn’t in all the wrong places, the kind of places that you can never fix again.

Notebooks, on the other hand are bigger, sit more easily on the lap and won’t cause a generation of severe cripples in 30 years’ time. Unfortunately, this also means that they’re harder to carry around and won’t fit into your satchel/handbag quite so easily and there I must doff my cap to the netbook. It is the ultimate in portable computing and I’ll follow that one up with…

Weight

Yep, netbooks are light too – really light. In fact, in my book, a netbook ain’t a netbook if it isn’t 1kg or less. I’ve been walking around with two in my backpack for the last week and the thing still feels light as a feather. Flash back to last August when I was traipsing round IFA with a two tonne Dell Inspiron 1525 and that’s a feeling of shoulder strapped agony I’ll never forget.

But where notebooks cannot compete in size, they can in mass. There’s a breed of ‘tops out there like the Macbook Air, the Vaio Z and of course the hotly anticipated MSI X320 which all boast the same sub-kilo prowess and, so long as you can jam them under the zip, they’ll be an absolute delight to shoulder.

Screen

Small and low quality are the keywords associated with netbook screens. The smallest usable versions are the 8.9″ models – the same size as the original Eee PC. Naturally, there’s all manner of 10″ screens now too as well as the likes of Dell and their slightly bizarre Mini 12. But actually, I applaud Dell here because I think even 10″ screens are too small now. Well, perhaps that’s a little unfair. The 8.9ers are definitely too small. Work on one of them for more than an hour and you’ll get a headache.

Quality-wise, you’re also going to get a much better experience with a notebook and all the different companies with their Tru-Bright technology or whatever patented name they give to let you know that their panels work at high resolutions with excellent contrast. You just don’t get that with 90% of the netbooks out there. That’s not what they’re made for.

Keyboard

This is probably my biggest gripe with the littlest of laptops. Those damn keyboards are just too small. Mercifully, netbook manufacturers have become aware of this very quickly and we’re seeing a host of launches like the HP Mini 2140 boasting 92% full keyboard sizes or the Sony Vaio P “not-netbook” with the whole thing present and correct. But a serious warning to those who buy mini-computers with cramped up keys -what may seem like a slight irritation in the first few hours will turn into a full blown hatred before a week is up.

Many netbook designers look to push and squeeze the proportions of the keys to get them to fit properly. Most opt to give as much room as possible to the letters while compromising the size of the peripherals. Unfortunately, there always seems to be one or two keys that just aren’t in the logical place for your finger tips and you’ll end up making the same typo over and over again.

There are ways around it. You can remap your keys in some cases for a small improvement or you can hammer away for months until you’ve bullied your touch typing skills into shape with the downside of post traumatic stress disorder for your fingers on every other keyboard they use.

But, of course, with a good notebook, there’s no issue at all. Notebooks don’t just have full size keyboards, they mock their smaller counterparts with the spacious luxury of isolated keys. They’re a joy to tap away on and they don’t give you hand cramp after hours of doing so. Again, it’s no contest.

Battery life

Now, I do have to hand it to netbooks here. They’re good. The four-cell batteries on the older models never really delivered but, now that there’s plenty of six-cellers out there, they’re lasting four hours and beyond, which is ample time before reaching a socket.

The only exception is on long plane journeys and, still, you’ve no guarantee a larger notebook would last the distance. The only answer, in both cases, if you’re that worried is to carry spare batteries.

CPUs & GPUs

Of course, the main reason why netbook batteries last so long is that they’re not called upon by greedy over-clocked CPUs and their energy hog fans. The famous Intel Atom chips have got this one well and truly sussed and, as far as I’m concerned, there should be a lot more notebooks that run on them instead of chipsets offering the kind of processing power you only really need for hardcore multitasking.

The same goes for GPUs in notebooks too. Unless you specifically use your machine for graphic design or gaming then who needs a dedicated processor for the task, and that’s the case for the vast majority of notebook users. The other exception here is if your laptop is actually your desktop – the mildly mobile machine (MMM) for your office or your home.

Essentially, these points are where the truest differences between the two computer categories lies. This is where their design is at their purists. No matter what the chassis is like, if you’re only going to use your laptop for browsing the web and office applications you’ll only need an Atom, anything more serious and it’s worth investing in an Intel Core 2 Duo system or something like. The point is to be honest about what you’re after and not power-spec hungry.

Storage

Although it wasn’t the first blessed with solid state storage, it was the netbook that widespread the new memory tech which is fast becoming more popular than Holly Willoughby’s boobs. It’s clearly good stuff and thankfully it’s pretty much as common in notebooks as with netbooks in this day and age, so full marks to both there.

Optical drives and HDMI ports

Let’s be quick about this one – netbooks have neither and, as much as HDMI ports are an enjoyable luxury, having no CD/DVD drive or any sort is a serious pain in the bum. We may all enjoy the snobbery of not bothering with this mildly dated form of storage but sadly we’re in the minority. If I had a penny for every time I was given a disc to read while carrying netbook I’d be a very rich man indeed – well, I’d certainly be a few sushi lunches better off anyway.

Oh, and did I mention you get both of these things with a notebook?

Cost

If there ever was a reason to purchase a netbook over a notebook, it has to be the cost. Netbooks are cheap. They’re dirt cheap. They’re even cheaper. There’s people trading them for money yesterday’s Zimbabwe.

You can pick up an Acer Aspire One from Asda at the moment for £150 and that’s a perfectly good piece of kit. Looking at the Dell site – home of stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap computers – the least expensive, most reasonable notebook you can pick up is the Studio 15 for £399 and that’s assuming you don’t spec it up in the slightest.

It’s really a question of what you can afford but there’s no doubt that the little fellas are better value for money.

Conclusions

At the end of the day, it’s not a one computer solution for people any more. I want one at home and I want one for the road, but just because I want a lighter, more streamlined option for my travel ‘top, it doesn’t mean I should have to buy something uncomfortable and cripplingly small with just one too many pleasures removed.

Unless you’ve got a tiny bag and a smaller budget, I don’t see how a netbook can come close to a lightweight notebook and once people realise this, I think we’ll see the fad slowly disappear and become what it should have been all along – a trend for more moderately sized, but easy to carry, 13-14″, 1kg notebooks.

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Daniel Sung