Where netbooks still beat the Apple iPad

One analyst said the iPad is no sure thing

Despite the introduction of the iPad and the harsh words of Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs, netbooks will continue to thrive , say analysts and commentators, who cite the tablet's missing features and relatively high price.

During the launch today, Jobs called netbooks "cheap laptops" that tried but failed to create a third category between smartphones and notebook PCs.

"The problem is that netbooks aren't better than anything," Jobs said.

Au contraire, said commentators, who called the iPad nothing more than an overgrown iPod Touch. Others suggested Apple should have launched an iNetbook instead.

ABI Research Inc. analyst Jeff Orr said the iPad is no sure thing.

"Several functions — front-facing and still/video cameras, external storage interfaces, support for Flash in the browser — are absent," he wrote in a research note. "The iPad prices and gaps in functionality are likely to leave the door open for other media tablet vendors."

ABI predicts 4 million tablets such as the iPad and the lesser-known Archos 5 to ship this year. That's a fraction of the 35 million netbooks ABI said had shipped last year — a number ABI expects to grow this year.

"Most netbook purchases are based on a 'value' decision for portable and mobile usage, while media tablets will initially be a premium, luxury device focused on the home," Orr said. "ABI Research expects little impact on netbook shipments in 2010 from the introduction of media tablets."

Here's a rundown comparing netbooks versus the iPad in several key areas, with the winner highlighted in each:

Design: iPad. One-half inch thin, 1.5 pounds. That is less than half the size and weight of most netbooks, which are weighed down by their keyboard. The iPad also boasts Apple 's trademark style.

Camera: Netbooks. The lack of a video Webcam or a still photo camera — cameras being standard on even low-end smartphones today — has been criticized. "The lack of a camera on the iPad is a serious problem, we think," wrote ReadWriteWeb. "Images and video are a big part of the interactivity on the Web that people have become used to, and we're not sure how they'll react to a device that, on the surface, seems like it should have these capabilities but is instead sorely lacking."

Input: Toss-up. iPhone and iTouch owners will no doubt love the touch experience on the iPad. But independent analyst Jack Gold questions whether users will be able to "do any serious work" without a keyboard. The iPad does come with a dock to attach an optional keyboard, but that negates some of the form factor advantage over netbooks.

Screen: Netbooks. Size-wise, the iPad's 9.7 -inch LCD display is on par with most netbooks today, but there are also many models with 11- or 12-inch screens. Also, score one point for netbooks, which are this year moving to brighter, lower-powered OLED screens. And dock the iPad for its wide bezel (outside frame), which caused some to criticize Apple for not swapping in a larger screen instead.

Software: Toss-up. Those in entertainment consumption mode may prefer the smooth, tight integration of the iPhone operating system, the iTunes media player and store with the iPad hardware. But for running your company's applications or e-mail, Windows-based netbooks are better, Gold said.

Web surfing: Toss-up. Designed by an Apple acquisition, P.A. Semiconductor , the iPad's 1 GHz CPU is reportedly fast. And the iPad will come with Wi-Fi or optional 3G from AT&T for connectivity almost anywhere. The 3G option costs an additional $130 but offers all-you-can-surf for $30 a month, or 250 MB of data per month for $15 — and without a long-term contract. That is cheaper than netbook or laptop plans for 3G, which average $60 a month. On the other hand, the iPad lacks support for Adobe Systems Inc.'s Flash player, which is near-ubiquitous on the Web and available for the Linux and Windows OS on most netbooks.

Storage: Netbooks. The iPad comes with 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of flash memory. That's the same as SSD-based netbooks, but less than the hard drive-based netbooks. Netbooks also have USB and/or SD slots for more storage — both of which the iPad lacks.

Price: Netbooks. The iPad starts at $499 and increases to $829 for a fully-loaded, 3G-enabled version. Netbooks start at about $250 and top out to at $600 or $700 for premium models.

Eric Lai covers Windows and Linux, desktop applications, databases and business intelligence for Computerworld. Follow Eric on Twitter at @ericylai or send e-mail to elai@computerworld.com.

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