Netbook vs. iPhone: A better comparison

Maybe I've been looking at Netbooks the wrong way.

Brooke Crothers
Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
3 min read

I'm going to break from the well-established tradition of comparing Netbooks to notebooks. This time my yardstick is going to be the smartphone. And no better yardstick than the Apple iPhone.

Verizon is selling Netbooks as kind of an upscale smartphone
Verizon is selling Netbooks as kind of an upscale smartphone Verizon

This post updates a year-old piece (which, by the way, at least one writer took exception to).

As the holiday-shopping season approaches, many consumers face an ostensible choice between an inexpensive Netbook or more expensive notebook. I personally face that choice (or, at least, I thought I did).

Let me state up front that though I have used Netbooks on a temporary basis, I have never owned one.

I (now) believe that Netbook comparisons to mainstream laptops (which will always disappoint because Netbooks are slower, screens smaller, keyboards more cramped--and this list of comparative shortcomings is long) is really the wrong way to look at it. Let me illustrate.

I recently interviewed the chief technology officer for a large school district in Louisiana that had purchased a lot of Netbooks. And I asked what I thought was the most pertinent question: weren't performance and screen size a concern? She quickly pointed out that my perspective was all wrong.

In short, students in K through 12 are accustomed to iPhone-size screens and performance. So moving to a Netbook is a big step up. From this perspective, the screens are large, the keyboards expansive, and the performance more than adequate.

This suddenly made a lot of sense to me because of my personal experience. Take the iPhone 3GS (or Motorola Droid or BlackBerry Storm, take your pick ). To state the obvious, in many respects, this is a personal computer platform for e-mail, texting, Web surfing, music, navigation, YouTube, and the list goes on.

In other words, the iPhone is for consuming data and media as well as light production. Like the Netbook. But the Netbook, obviously, takes this to the next level. It adds a keyboard and a larger screen, which also makes it potentially a better production platform. So, it's an iPhone Plus, if you will.

And here's the real proof in the pudding. Where do you see Netbooks being sold these days (think Nokia Booklet)? At phone carriers, like Verizon. The last time I visited a Verizon store, it had 3G Netbooks prominently displayed right next to the Motorola Droid.

The point seems obvious to me now. Want to be more productive? Step up to a Netbook. And this follows the same logic of the CTO at the Louisiana school district. And upcoming tablets and media pads from Apple and others will also be marketed as a high-end iPhone-like device, in my opinion.

So, in the next month or so when I try to sort out which Netbook to buy (This CNET review says the HP Mini 5101 is one of the best Netbooks on the market now), I'll be shopping for an upscale smartphone not a stripped-down notebook.

NOTE: I'm not suggesting that anyone replace their iPhone with a Netbook. My point is that a Netbook can be used as an inexpensive adjunct to an iPhone or Droid for people who need to be more productive than an iPhone (or Droid) would allow.