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Hands-on: Is the Apple iPad a Netbook killer?

Apple's iPad looks very much like a Netbook screen unhinged from the rest of its body. The question is naturally raised, is the iPad a Netbook-killer? Find out in our hands-on video.

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They were virtually unheard of a couple of years ago, but now low-cost, low-power Netbook laptops are among the most popular PCs. After all, they approximate the experience of a larger, more expensive laptop at a fraction of the size and price.

But just as we've started to see Netbooks from Asus, Acer, HP, or Dell on every coffee shop table or airplane seatback tray, Apple's iPad comes along, looking very much like a Netbook screen unhinged from the rest of its body. The question is naturally raised, is the iPad a Netbook-killer?

To pull the question back a little, when the iPad was first announced, one of the questions we wrestled with was whether it should be considered a computer at all. By some standards, the iPad is essentially a keyboardless laptop, but by others, it's more akin to a portable media player, such as the iPod Touch.

In the end, we tilted in the direction of "not a computer," and the factor that tipped the scale was Apple's use of the walled garden iPhone operating system. The iPad's lack of freedom to install basic apps and plug-ins, such as FireFox or even Flash, makes this far too limited a system to be considered a full-fledged computer.

Typing on the iPad

That said, when going to press events or trade exhibitions, we sometimes leave the laptop at home if it looks like we'll only need access to e-mail, some light Web surfing, and maybe Twitter or Facebook to get through the day. After all, the iPhone, Palm Pre, and other smartphones can handle those chores under most circumstances.

So, with a bigger screen, more productivity apps, such as the iWork suite, and even an optional wireless keyboard, can we ditch our laptops and Netbooks for an iPad?

The short answer is probably not. Based on a comparison of features of the $499 iPad and a typical $299-$499 Netbook-style laptop, there are many important ways in which the iPad is not an adequate substitute.

The 10- and 11-inch screens on most Netbooks are even bigger than the iPad screen. And, of course, most Netbooks have at a minimum two or three USB ports, a VGA output, an SD card slot, an Ethernet jack, and a Webcam. You may not need all these features every time you use your Netbook, but chances are you'll need at least one of them.

On the other hand, with its collection of apps and tools specifically built for its internal architecture, the iPad certainly feels faster and more powerful than a Netbook much of the time. Netbooks, with typically a single-core Intel Atom processor, 1GB of RAM, and Windows 7 Starter, tend to spend a lot of time chugging, even when opening browser windows.

If I'm going to the coffee shop to read the New York Times online, or I'm watching a movie in the backseat of a car, then the iPad may well be a better choice. If I'm writing an article, playing FarmVille on FaceBook, or talking to someone over Skype, then we'll be keeping out Netbooks handy.

Check out hands-on photos of some of the iPad's best features, including e-books, Netflix streaming, and gaming, in the gallery below.