Tablets threaten to make netbooks obsolete

Analysts predict that Apple could sell 28 million iPads in 2011--leading a tablet revolution that threatens netbooks

Analysts predict that Apple alone could sell 28 million iPad tablets in 2011. That doesn't even take the Samsung Galaxy Tab, or the rest of the upcoming tablets expected in the next few months into consideration, and doesn't bode well for other mobile computing platforms. The netbook in particular will be the primary victim of the rise of the tablet, and will quickly be rendered obsolete.

The primary advantages of a netbook--when compared with larger notebook computers--are size, weight, and battery life. Netbooks are more diminutive and manage to squeeze the guts of the computer into a case generally smaller than a sheet of paper and not much thicker than a standard paperback novel when closed.

With the smaller physical dimensions comes a significantly lower weight as well. The average weight of netbooks ranges from two to four pounds, or about half the weight of many notebook computers. A handicap of the netbook is that it lacks an internal DVD drive in order to make the smaller case and lighter weight possible.

One of the biggest advantages of a netbook, though, is the extended battery life. While notebooks may last only a couple hours on a fully-charged battery, a netbook can typically make it through a full business day on a single charge.

However, the biggest draw of netbooks is arguably price. With prices starting in the $US200 range, and netbooks available from wireless carriers with subsidized pricing as low as $50 in exchange for a commitment to a data plan, netbooks provide a much cheaper point of entry than the traditional notebook or desktop PCs.

That explains the lure or a netbook when compared to a notebook, but how does the netbook stack up against the tablet? Well, the answer to that question is largely subjective and introduces a new question: what are you looking for in a mobile computing platform?

Some will argue that the netbook still holds an advantage in that it has USB ports, larger hard drive storage capacity, and a full operating system. All of those are advantages, or possibly even deal-breakers depending on what your mobile computing needs are. The ability to simply install and run the various software applications used on a standard Windows PC rather than having to adapt to a mobile OS app culture has its benefits.

The Apple iPad has a larger footprint than many netbooks, but because it is a flat-panel form factor the thickness is less. At only half an inch thick, and weighing it at a pound and a half, the iPad bests netbooks in the size and weight categories.

The iPad boasts up to 10 hours of battery life--superior to all but the most elite netbooks. The flat touchscreen interface is much more suited for computing on the go than the netbook form factor that requires folding the computer open and involves two hands for most tasks.

With prices that start at $US499 for the base model, though, the iPad is significantly more expensive than most netbooks. However, an armada of tablets is on the horizon built on Android, WebOS, and even Windows 7--and those may have lower prices, or use the carrier-subsidy model familiar to smartphones and netbooks now.

Some aspects of the tablet require users to adapt to new ways of embracing mobile computing, and a culture shift from looking at it as just another portable computer form factor. That said, tablets offer most, if not all, of the advantages of netbooks, and add in some new benefits as well, making it a more compelling mobile computing platform than netbooks in many cases, and making the concept of the netbook somewhat obsolete.

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Tony Bradley

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