Laptop, netbook or tablet: 7 questions to ask before you buy

Your old PC is ready for the recyclers and it's time to buy a new one. You have three categories of products to consider this year: Full-fledged laptops, netbooks and tablets.

Your old PC is ready for the recyclers and it's time to buy a new one. Or is it? These days, we're fortunate to have a plethora of computing devices that can handle everything from sending an e-mail to watching a movie or writing a thesis. A PC (or Mac, for that matter) is no longer the only choice.

Smartphones aside, you have three categories of products to consider this year: Full-fledged laptops, netbooks and tablets.

Because Apple's iPad has been out long enough to have a track record, I see it as a proxy for the entire tablet category. That will change next year as manufacturers bring out competing devices.

[ Netbooks maye be a losing niche. See CIO.com's Will the IPad Kill the Netbook Star?. ]

Netbooks are generally defined as Windows- or Linux-based computers with screens of about 10 inches and smaller, equipped with a low-power processor. The category has been battered by the introduction of the tablet, but the netbook's low price and low weight make it a good choice for some of us. (You'll notice I haven't included desktop PCs in my list. That's deliberate. There are specific circumstances that call for a desktop, but by and large, there's no longer a reason to be anchored to a box. )

As always, your buying decision should be based on the optimal combination of price and the features you really want and need. Here are seven key questions to ask yourself before you start shopping.

1. How much do I want to spend?

There's no short answer to what you'll pay for each class of device; the brand you choose, and more importantly, the features you want, will determine the price. Consider the iPad: Prices range from $499 for the 16-GB, Wi-Fi only model to $829 for the 64-GB, Wi-Fi plus 3G version. And remember, to connect via 3G you'll have to buy a wireless plan from AT&T.

You can certainly find a more-than-serviceable Netbook for much less than the price of the cheapest iPad; in fact $300 is a reasonable price point. Even if you load it up with features, you'd be hard pressed to spend more than $600 on a netbook.

Laptop prices are all over the map. You can find a decent Windows laptop for less than $500, but it will probably be rather heavy and may not have as much memory, storage or processor power as you'd like. Get up to about $700 and you can take home a very good machine, although the thinnest and lightest cost significantly more.

2. Do I want to watch movies when I fly?

If so, the hands-down choice is an iPad. The screen is big and bright, the battery life will let you watch hours of movies that you've downloaded in advance and the iPad doesn't weigh much. Of course, you can't just pop in a DVD from your collection since there's no optical drive. But you can rip a movie DVD and transfer it via iTunes. (There are a number of utility programs that will help you do this.)

A good netbook has better battery life than most laptops, so it's your second choice. You'll also have to download the movie in advance or tote along a plug-in optical drive.

3. Do I need to run Windows applications?

No contest here. The standard laptop will let you run any Windows application you need without a lot of fuss. Netbooks will too, but since they have less powerful processors and less memory, they won't do a good job on resource-intensive applications like Photoshop or CAD programs. The iPad isn't even playing in this game.

4. Do I need to run Office Applications?

You need a laptop or a netbook to run Microsoft Office. But that's not the end of the story. Although the iPad does not run either the Windows or Mac version of Office, Apple does offer a number of nifty applications that will give you many of the same features. For $10 each, you can buy Pages for word processing, Numbers for spreadsheets and Keynote for presentations. Those apps are compatible with Office documents, but not surprisingly they don't offer all of the features and formatting options. Still, they do a decent job.

5. My back hurts, what's the lightest load?

If all else is equal, the iPad is a total no-brainer. It weighs in at a mere 1.5 to 1.6 pounds, while a typical Netbook tips the scale at around three pounds. Unless you spring for something really expensive (say the Macbook Air), a laptop can feel like the proverbial ton of bricks.

6. What's best for writing work?

Well, there's writing and there's writing. If you're talking about sending short emails or short posts, any one of these will do. There's no doubt, though, that for heavy duty writing, you want a full-sized physical keyboard--and that means a laptop.

One of the nasty little secrets of the Netbook is that most (there are exceptions) have scaled down keyboards. That means some function and navigation keys are in odd places or even missing, and the key tops are smaller and closer together than on a standard laptop. If writing is something you'll do a lot of, be sure to tryout the keyboard.

What about the iPad's keyboard? I think it's a matter of taste. I find onscreen keyboards hard to use; others don't. You will notice that both the onscreen keyboard and the physical one you can buy as an accessory are short on shortcuts, an annoying feature of the operating system. Again, try it out before you buy it.

7. Do I want to play a lot of games?

Games have gotten so complex and resource hungry that sometimes even a laptop is hard-pressed to deliver a good experience. A Netbook? Forget about it. There are games for the iPad, but if you want lots of action, look elsewhere.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

Follow Bill Snyder on Twitter @BSnyderSF. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline.

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Bill Snyder

CIO (US)
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