Laptop vs. Netbook vs. Smartphone

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The world of personal computing is changing. Judging from sales figures, laptops have long surpassed desktops as the dominant form of computer. The surge in netbook sales has shown that users are willing to sacrifice performance in the name of portability and price. More important, smartphones are now fully functional computers with a wide variety of applications and services that are rapidly gobbling up users' time and money. With laptops falling in price, premium netbooks rising in cost, and no-contract smartphones commanding $400 or more, the differences in price are not necessarily that great.

Before you make a purchasing decision, consider what you want to do with your new mobile device. In this guide, I describe several common portable-computing tasks and discuss the pros and cons of the various devices for each.

Getting Work Done

When professionals need to get down to business, they often have specific requirements. The projects such users work on are often big Word documents, large and complicated Excel spreadsheets, multimedia presentations, or even custom software and databases. The IT department may need to manage the device, too. Here's a rundown of how each type of mobile device rates for the work world.

Laptop: A full-fledged laptop is probably the best choice for doing corporate work. The higher-resolution screen fits big spreadsheets more easily, and higher-power CPUs coupled with more RAM allow for smoother multitasking. You can find plenty of "business rugged" laptops capable of surviving lots of plane trips, and IT manageability features are standard in business-class laptops. The downside? A good business laptop costs twice as much as either of the other two devices, and it's likely to weigh twice as much as a netbook. Even a business ultraportable will easily outweigh most netbooks, and will clearly be far more of a burden than a smartphone.

Netbook: Precious few netbooks offer IT manageability features or a "business rugged" design, but they do exist--see the HP Mini 5102 for starters. Still, netbooks' cramped keyboards and screens, not to mention their limited CPU power and RAM, make it hard to work on major business projects without frustrating slowdown. Netbooks are fine for business users who just need to fire off some e-mail, find directions, or read news on the go, but they're less than ideal for serious work.

Smartphone: A good smartphone is practically indispensible for heavy corporate workers. Having access to your contacts and calendar in a device that's always with you is a huge benefit. Forget about getting any actual work done, though. Phone apps don't handle major business projects well at all, and the tiny keyboards (whether physical or on screen) don't accommodate anything longer than a quick sentence or two in an e-mail or text message.

What to buy: If you're a corporate user who really needs to work on the go, you want a real laptop. A smartphone that lets you access your business contacts, calendar, and e-mail is a no-brainer, but it's of no use when you have to update your presentation or fix a few cells in a massive, multipage spreadsheet. The best combination is a solid business-class laptop and an IT-friendly smartphone.

Home and Student Life

Not a corporate road warrior? That doesn't mean that you don't need to get some work done on a portable device. Productivity isn't just for Fortune 500 middle managers: Students need laptops to take notes or write papers, while home users have to write letters, do taxes, or balance the family budget. The requirements of home users and students differ from those of business professionals, however.

Laptop: A good laptop will do everything you need, but the size and weight may put off anyone who wants to take their computer with them wherever they go. A small, light system is particularly nice for the college student who walks all over campus with their laptop every day. Basic home laptops can be had for as little as $400 to $500, and even the nicer, more full-featured models start at $600 to $700, so you don't have to break the bank.

Netbook: A good netbook (or an inexpensive, small ultraportable laptop) may be the best choice for home and school work. If you find one with a good keyboard, such as the Lenovo ThinkPad x100e, you can easily crank out a history paper or a letter to Grandma. The limited screen size and resolution don't get in the way of doing taxes or using personal finance applications like Quicken. Perhaps most important, a netbook is easy to carry around all day, and the battery will last long enough for you to leave the charger behind.

Smartphone: Smartphones are great for general consumer use, and they can be great tools for keeping your grocery list or staying in touch with what your college friends are doing. When it comes to productivity, though, they suffer from the same problems for home users as they do for corporate users: Their small and difficult-to-use keyboards make it a chore to take quick and accurate notes or to write anything longer than a few sentences.

What to buy: If you're a home user or a student, a good netbook might be just the thing for productivity on the go. It's hard to beat such machines' compact size, light weight, long battery life, and low price. The small screen and keyboard size aren't ideal, but they're certainly good enough for everyday tasks.

Browsing the Web

It happens a dozen times a day: You're away from your desk and you have to look up something online, or you have a few minutes to kill reading online news. Do you really need a full-size laptop to have a good Web browsing experience?

Laptop: Larger screens make it easier to see more of a Website, and they all but eliminate formatting problems. You'll need to find a Wi-Fi connection or have a 3G modem and data plan to get online, though. You may also have to wait a while for your laptop to boot up, and who wants to carry around a 5-pound computer just to check a few Websites? At least you get to use any browser you wish, with whatever add-ons you want. Of course, you have access to Flash, Silverlight, and any other Web technologies you choose, too.

Netbook: For the Web, netbooks have some advantages over full laptops. Primarily, they're smaller, lighter, and less expensive; also important for the heavy Web user on the go is netbooks' superior battery life. The limited screen resolution can sometimes make it hard to see most of the Web pages you visit, so get used to a lot of scrolling. As with laptops, you can use any browser and any add-ons you desire.

Smartphone: In some ways, a good modern smartphone can be the best way to browse the Web on the road, despite the obvious limitations of the small screen. Smartphones are virtually always connected, and their "instant-on" nature gets you to the site you want to read without making you wait through a long boot-up process. The latest phones have very good Web browsers and screens, but browser selection is limited and add-on support is almost nonexistent--and you can forget about Flash unless you run an Android phone with the 2.2 software update.

What to buy: Netbooks and laptops offer great browsing and full user control, but purchasing a PC just to browse a few Websites is almost overkill. If you're going to spend half an hour or more browsing the Web, an inexpensive netbook may be your best choice. If you just want to pop in on a couple of sites, the instant-on, always-connected nature of a smartphone makes it the winner despite the somewhat limited control it gives you over which browsers and add-ons to use.

Watching Video

Video is a huge part of portable computing these days. Whether it's viewing YouTube clips, streaming movies from Netflix, catching up on a missed show via Hulu, or enjoying a DVD on a long flight, everyone loves to watch. Laptops can obviously do it all, but video capabilities are a common selling point of the modern smartphone, too.

Laptop: A laptop offers the best video viewing, hands down. A full-fledged laptop probably has an optical drive that you can use to watch DVDs (or even Blu-ray movies, if it's the appropriate drive). The large, high-res screens are easy to look at for extended periods, and good speakers are an option that you won't find with the other two types of devices. Nobody wants to huddle around a 9-inch screen, let alone a 3.5-inch display, to share a laugh at a video of some crazy kids almost hurting themselves on YouTube.

Netbook: You get better battery life with a netbook, but you give up too much in the process. The machine doesn't have an optical drive, so DVDs or Blu-ray movies are out. The 9- to 11-inch screens are hard to watch for extended periods, and even harder to share with friends--and good luck finding a netbook with decent speakers. Sure, all of the online video services are still at your disposal with a netbook, but you'd be much happier watching them on a bigger laptop.

Smartphone: Smartphones are really useful only for very short video clips from a limited number of providers. No smartphone has legitimate Hulu access. Netflix streaming may be coming to smartphones, but it's not there quite yet. Many sites that rely on Flash won't stream video on smartphones until Android 2.2 comes. Even when you can find something to watch, staring at a screen smaller than 4 inches gets old in a hurry.

What to buy: Laptops take the crown. You can watch whatever you want, whenever you want, on a screen big enough and with speakers good enough to actually enjoy it. The only real drawback is battery life: Shop carefully for a laptop that will get you through a whole movie or two, especially if watching on a plane or during a long road trip is a priority.

Playing Games

Need to kill a little free time? Get your game on. Portable gaming is huge, but you'll find major differences in the quality and quantity of games available for these three portable devices. Whether you're a casual player or a serious gamer, you have important choices to make regarding your portable game machine.

Laptop: A decent laptop for gaming has a dedicated graphics chip, and thus costs a little more than basic entry-level models, but you can still get one cheaply enough. If you shop carefully, a good game-capable laptop shouldn't cost you more than $1000. With such a machine, you have access to the huge library of Windows games and great gaming services like Steam, plus Web-based games, user mods, and more. You have to shop carefully to find a laptop that plays games really well, and you'll likely end up with a model that's a little bigger and heavier--with less battery life--than a laptop that isn't appropriate for games. Many PC games don't play well with a touchpad, so you'll also need a mouse and an appropriate surface to play on; you lose some portability as a result.

Netbook: Just say no. From underpowered CPUs to anemic graphics capabilities to low amounts of RAM to cramped screens, netbooks make terrible gaming computers. You can get away with simple in-browser games and some years-old classics, but you won't have a good time with modern games at all.

Smartphone: Photographers often say that the best camera is the one you have with you, and the same could be said of game machines. When you have some time to kill, a fancy gaming laptop does you no good if you don't have it with you, but your phone almost never leaves your side. A phone is small enough to use easily on a bus or train, and since most phone games are designed to be played in short sessions, you can get 5 minutes in, quit, and play more later.

Among smartphones, the iPhone has by far the biggest and best games library, easily rivaling the libraries of dedicated handheld game systems. Android phones come in a distant second, but the gaming selection and quality on the Android Market is growing quickly. Blackberry devices aren't exactly game-free, but have the worst selection of all. Microsoft's upcoming Windows Phone 7 may be the smartphone gaming option to beat, considering its integration of Xbox Live and partnerships with major game publishers.

What to buy: If the games you like are big, full-featured, triple-A titles that have high production values and take hours to play, you want a laptop with a discrete graphics chip. Avoid netbooks and laptops with integrated graphics, unless you care only about playing simple browser-based games. For gaming on the go, it's hard to beat the iPhone, though Android phones are coming on strong. After all, what's a better portable game machine than the one you already carry around every day?

Keeping in Touch

Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare...the list of social networks seems endless, and they've never been more popular. What's the best way to access, update, and manage your social networks?

Laptop: A full-scale laptop is probably overkill for most social networking applications. Sure, you can do it all with a laptop, but you don't need something big, heavy, costly, or even easy to type on to update your Facebook status.

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