Netbook or ultraportable for the job?

In a tight economy, the question arises: Should you keep costs low by buying an inexpensive netbook, or spend a few hundred dollars more to get a full-featured lightweight laptop?

Netbooks are starting to look like ultraportable laptops, while some ultraportables are beginning to resemble netbooks. In a tight economy, the question arises: Should you keep costs low by buying an inexpensive netbook, or spend a few hundred dollars more to get a full-featured lightweight laptop?

Here's a quick rundown of three recent product introductions, along with some guidance on which direction to take--laptop or netbook?

But First, the Back Story

A netbook is a small portable computer, usually with a screen between 7 and 10 inches in size, compared to the 12-inch to 17-inch screens on most laptops.

Netbooks are often just a bit bigger than a standard hardcover books, but noticeably smaller than most laptops. A netbook keyboard is often 92 percent the size of a standard laptop keyboard.

These mini notebooks aren't meant to be a primary computer, the way a laptop can be. They run on less powerful processors than laptops; lack an internal optical drive; and are primarily designed with Web browsing, e-mail, and basic office productivity tasks in mind.

Most netbooks currently run on Windows XP, though some netbooks use versions of Linux and a few insist on booting from Windows Vista. (Vista isn't recommended for netbooks, given that netbooks usually have anemic processors).

In general, netbooks typically cost US$250 to $500 and up, while most laptops begin around $400 to 500.

HP Pavilion dv2: Ultraportable or Netbook?

Hewlett-Packard's new HP Pavilion DV2 blurs the lines between netbook and ultraportable more than most portable computers.

For $749, you get a 3.8-pound ultraportable with a 12.1-inch display, a 320GB hard drive, 4GB of RAM, and a discrete ATI Radeon HD 3410 graphics processor with 512MB of video memory. That's just $120 more than a high-end HP Mini 2140 netbook, which can't compare to the dv2's more robust specs.

Samsung NC20

The Samsung NC20, which wasn't available in the U.S. as of this writing, is big for a netbook. It's got a 12.1-inch screen, and the keyboard is nearly full sized. It will sell for about $550 in the U.S., a little high for the average netbook. The Korean version that we tested had a 120GB hard drive, slightly under 1GB of memory, a 1.3-GHz VIA Nano U2250 processor, and an integrated graphics processor (S3 VIA Chrome9 HC3).

Acer Timeline Acer, which has had a hit with its Aspire One and Aspire One AOD150 netbooks, recently introduced the Aspire Timeline ultraportable.

The Aspire Timeline, expected in the U.S. in June, will be available in several models, the smallest of which has a 13.3-inch display and weighs 3 pounds (most netbooks weigh between 2 and 3 pounds). Though this Timeline model's specs are more along the lines of Apple's MacBook Air ultraportable, the bottom of Timeline's expected price range--beginning around $699--is reasonably close to high-end netbook territory, which can be $600 to $700. Acer's Timeline may be worth considering if you're seriously eyeballing a high-end netbook.

Which Way to Go?

These are just three of the most recent examples in which netbooks and notebooks are encroaching upon each other's territory. There are plenty of others.

So which direction should you go?

If you need something that's truly ultraportable (3 pounds or less); you don't need a high-powered machine; and you simply can't spend more than $400, a netbook is the clear choice. In that price range, your best bet is the Asus Eee PC 1000HE, number one on our Top 10 Netbooks chart. You can find it online for about $380. Second on our chart is the Acer Aspire One AOD150, which can be found online for $230 to $322.

Do you have a little extra room in your budget? Will you frequently need to do more on the go than check e-mail, browse the Web, or use a word processor or spreadsheet program? Could your mobile computing requirements become more demanding in the next year or so? If you can answer Yes to any of these questions, investing a few hundred dollars more in a laptop now might be a better value in the long run.

For example, netbooks aren't as upgradeable as laptops. The Acer Aspire Timeline ultraportable comes with 4GB of memory and is expandable up to 8GB. By comparison, an Acer Aspire One AOD150 netbook's memory ceiling is 2GB. So if the netbook you buy today is underpowered compared to most laptops, imagine how anemic your portable may feel a year from now.

Also, it's not that difficult to find a decent laptop for $500. Laptops in this price range aren't likely to be as lightweight and compact as a netbook, but they'll definitely offer more power and upgradeability.

Suggestion Box

Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog.

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James A. Martin

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