Low-cost laptops face off with iPad

Will consumers be choosing between an iPad and a laptop? Tempting holiday laptop deals at stores like Best Buy at least raise the possibility.

Consumers will snap up plenty of laptops and iPads over the holidays. That's a given. The question is, are they buying one over another?

If you had $600 burning a hole in your pocket, would you opt to save money and buy a laptop over an iPad?
If you had $600 burning a hole in your pocket, would you opt to save money and buy a laptop over an iPad? Best Buy

One of Paul Otellini's mantras when speaking to investors is that tablets--which, for now, means the iPad--are "additive," i.e., not eating into laptop sales. The Intel CEO repeated this recently when speaking at a Barclays Capital technology conference.

So, here's a test case. Best Buy is now selling a 15-inch Toshiba Satellite laptop (L655-S5096) for $399, which includes a dual-core Pentium processor, 3GB of memory, a 320GB hard disk drive, an optical drive, and a webcam. That's $100 less than Apple's cheapest iPad. And another Toshiba model (C655-S5082) is on sale for $299, also a 15-incher but packing a single-core Intel Celeron chip.

Would either of those sway a prospective iPad buyer? I'm guessing not in many--if not most--cases. When presented with this kind of choice, it's two mutually exclusive decisions. A large, traditional laptop for practical everyday productivity versus a small, newfangled design for leisure.

Though not everyone will fall neatly into one of these two buying patterns (and this choice gets a bit more muddled when the new 11.6-inch MacBook Air is thrown into the mix), I'm guessing that it's not an either-or choice.

That said, a number of analysts have claimed the iPad is eating into low-end laptop sales and Best Buy's CEO was reported to have made a similar claim.

In 2011, when tablets of all shapes and sizes blanket the market from top-tier suppliers like Motorola, RIM, Lenovo, Toshiba, and others, we'll know whether they're additive to the market or increasingly cannibalistic. Would a product like the rumored Samsung tablet with a slider keyboard eat a laptop's lunch? Now, that's a delicious possibility.