If you were going on a vacation and you could only take one gadget, what would it be? How about if it's a business trip? Which is a better mobile computing device--a notebook? A netbook? A tablet? The thing is, not only is the choice for "best" a matter of subjective opinion, but the reality is that each mobile gadget fills a role and you have to select the tool that best fills the role you need it to in that scenario.
Think of the tools in an average toolbox. There aren't any zealots online having quasi-religious debates and flame wars about how needle nose pliers are obviously a superior tool to a socket wrench. Each serves a purpose, and you have to choose the right tool for the job at hand. You don't use a screwdriver to put a nail in the wall, and you don't use a hammer to cut a board in half.
There has been a fair amount of debate lately--particularly between my PCWorld peers and I--over which mobile computing device is the "best". We have argued the pros and cons of tablets vs. notebooks, and deliberated over whether the tablet is really a mobile computing device, or just a fad.
But, when the flames die out and the dust settles, there really isn't a "right" answer. Here is a brief overview of common mobile gadgets and the tasks they are best suited for.
Feature Phone. The feature phone is the "old-fashioned" mobile phone. You know--the kind that makes phone calls. A plain old feature phone still packs a fair amount of versatility, though. Obviously, you can use it for voice calls. You can also communicate via text messaging, and many are able to connect with a variety of email platforms as well. Most have a camera of some sort, and perhaps a rudimentary game or two. You can't truly surf the Web and you don't have the benefit of apps, but through SMS text messaging and feature phone tools you can still post updates and keep up with social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
Role: The feature phone will do just fine if you mainly just need to be accessible and keep in touch, but you don't actually plan to be productive.
Smartphone. The smartphone started as a hybrid love child of a feature phone and a PDA. It has since evolved into a mobile device that is virtually like carrying a small PC in your pocket. The smartphone makes voice calls--hence the "phone" part. The "smart" part comes from being able to sync and carry vast amounts of data including your contacts and calendar, and the fact that the device can surf the Web. With the addition of apps, smartphones have access to tens or hundreds of thousands of programs ranging from frivolously silly like Angry Birds, to crucial productivity tools like VIPOrbit. The smartphone can also double as a portable MP3 player, and a GPS, so it packs a lot of functionality into a pocket-sized gadget.
Role: The smartphone works when you still don't need to be cranking out reports or spreadsheets--but you want to be able to if it becomes absolutely necessary, or if you want to be able make and receive phone calls, but you also want a mobile gadget that can fill multiple roles (like music player and GPS) so you can carry fewer devices.
eReader. The eReader barely made it onto this list, but it fills a niche role worth noting. If you have a device like a Kindle or a Nook, you can carry with you a veritable library. I can't imagine going on any trip--business or pleasure--where having hundreds of books on a light, thin gadget wouldn't be plenty of reading material. From a business perspective, the ereader can also be used to carry and read PDF files and other formats--depending on the device--so you could carry white papers, case studies, quarterly reports, or other business documents. The ereader can typically store and play music as well, so you may not need the MP3 player, and some ereaders--like the Kindle and Nook--are also capable of at least some Web browsing. The Nook Color, in fact, can run Android apps so it blurs the line some with tablets.
Role: The ereader is definitely more pleasure than business, but whether you want to read the latest Dan Brown novel, or you need to review a lengthy project status report, the ereader is a much better platform for reading than the smartphone. However, the ereader is even less functional than the smartphone when it comes to productive potential.
Tablet. The tablet is part smartphone with thyroid problem minus the phone capability (for most tablets, at least), and part slimmed down notebook without a physical keyboard. It is less portable than the smartphone because it is typically too large to fit in your pocket, yet it is much more portable than netbooks or notebooks because it is slim and light--like carrying a hefty magazine. Most of the tablets today run a version of a mobile OS like a smartphone--iOS, Android, WebOS, etc.--so they may not be productivity workhorses. But, the tablet is capable of performing virtually all of the same tasks as netbooks or notebooks, while also doubling as a portable entertainment center with movies, music, and books.
Role: The tablet is a great mobile option for a variety of purposes. It can be used for Web surfing and email and limited productivity, as well as for entertainment and recreation. Its small size, light weight, and long battery life make it ideal for computing on the go.
Netbook. The netbook is an attempt to take the portable computing experience of a notebook and make it even more portable. Netbooks are lighter than notebooks--typically weighing in at three pounds or less, and they have significantly longer battery life than most notebooks--six hours or more for most netbooks. However, the smaller size also comes with less CPU horsepower, less RAM, and less storage capacity than a notebook. To save space and weight, netbooks also generally lack a DVD or CD drive. The fact that the netbook runs a desktop OS (like Windows 7) means it can run the same software you use on your notebook or desktop PC, and qualifies it for more intense productivity. But, the small display and diminutive keyboard are handicaps that keep it from being a true workhorse.
Role: Netbooks are good when you truly need a physical keyboard and/or the ability to run the same applications as your desktop PC, but you want something lightweight and portable, with the battery life to survive a work day without recharging.
Notebook. The notebook is essentially a desktop PC converted into a portable, self-contained unit. They vary greatly in size--ranging from 11-inch to 20-inch or greater display sizes--and they have the most horsepower of all of the mobile options when it comes to processors, memory, and data storage. Notebooks generally require separate luggage to cart them around in, along with a spare battery for when the juice runs out, and a backup power adapter for when the spare battery dies as well. Lugging a notebook around can be a workout--especially for notebooks on the larger end of the spectrum. The benefit, though, is that you are able to literally carry your desktop with you--sacrificing virtually nothing from the full desktop PC experience.
Role: The notebook is the mobile option of choice for true portable productivity. It is more a "portable" computing experience, than a "mobile" computing experience, but for tasks that require the full desktop OS, and the full physical keyboard, it gets the job done.
There you have it. There isn't a "right" answer. Even defining a "best" answer is a matter of subjective opinion. Don't waste your time trying to decide which mobile gadget is THE mobile gadget--just realize that each serves a purpose, and choose the right mobile device for your needs at that moment.