Tech Throwdown: Netbooks vs. Laptops

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- If befuddled consumers can't decide between a netbook and a low-priced laptop this holiday season, manufacturers certainly aren't helping matters.

When the season's top netbook, the 12-inch Acer Aspire Timeline, has dimensions, memory (3 gigabytes) and pricing (around $600) that's similar to a 14-inch Toshiba Satellite dual-core laptop, it's little wonder that buyers are having an increasingly difficult time telling the two apart. In fact, according to a NPD Group report issued earlier this year, almost 60% of consumers who bought a netbook instead of a notebook thought they would have the same capabilities. Roughly the same percentage was satisfied with its netbooks, compared to 70% of those who planned on buying a netbook all along.

"The notion of the netbook was that it was small, cheap and light, but because of profit margins, they started to creep into the 12-inch category without beefing up the internal components," says Jeff Fox, technology editor at Consumer Reports.


>>Photo Gallery: 10 Best Cheap Netbooks

Netbooks were once featherweight, Linux-equipped toys with puny Atom processors and sub-$300 price tags. Even as bigger manufacturers like Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ) and Samsung Electronics entered the market and Microsoft's ( MSFT) Windows operating systems became prevalent, netbooks still remained small, affordable and long on battery life.

Samsung's N120, for example, has Windows XP, but it's only 10 inches wide, costs as little as $320 and maintains a charge for six hours. Toshiba's Satellite U505 is small and only has 1 gigabyte of memory, but its $400 price tag nets consumers Windows 7 and 9.5 hours of battery time. Though the battery on Acer's Timeline holds a charge for 10 hours, and its Pentium processor offers 3 gigabytes of memory, its size and $550 price tag delete its benefits.

"You want a small netbook that's a little underpowered, which is the tradeoff for price and size and weight," Fox says. "If you're getting up around $500, there's little value in getting an oversized netbook if you're losing the advantages of a netbook. It's the worst of both worlds."

Toshiba and others are increasingly blurring the lines. The manufacturer rolled out its Pentium Core Duo-powered, nine-hour-battery-driven Satellite T115 laptop in October. At 11.6 inches and $449, the full-powered laptop makes its memory-deprived Mini netbook counterpart seem less like a bargain and more like a redundancy.

H-P put a little more breathing room between its Mini 110 netbook (10 inches, $350) and its newly released Pavilion DM3 laptop (13 inches, $549), but that $200 gap shrinks quickly when the latter's battery life (an estimated 10 hours) and memory (4 gigabytes) dwarfs the former's (7 hours, 1 gigabyte).

In the same vein, the $250 gap between the Acer Timeline and the 14-inch Sony ( SNE) VAIO shrinks like a bad sweater when comparing the Acer's offerings to the VAIO's 4 gigabytes of memory, Blu-ray drive and 250 megabytes of extra memory for games.

The netbook should supplement your laptop by making less important information easier to transport. And your laptop should be a bit more functional than a smartphone.

"If you're shopping for a portable computer right now, the first question you need to answer is 'is it your primary portable computer?'" Fox says. "I can't believe we're to the point where there's a 'primary portable computer.'"

TheStreet.com matched up three top netbooks against three laptops of similar size or price. Read on to see what we found.

Netbooks

Acer Aspire Timeline

Price: $549.99

Screen size: 11.6 inches

Operating system: Windows 7

Specifications: Intel Pentium U4100 processor, 3 gigabytes of memory, 320-gigabyte hard drive, HDMI and VGA outputs

Pros: Large display and keyboard; 9.75 hours of battery life almost unheard of for a netbook; laptop-esque hard drive and memory capacity.

Cons: Expensive for a netbook, dim display and, at 3.2 pounds, relatively heavy.

Samsung N120

Price: $319-$438.99

Screen size: 10.1 inches

Operating system: Windows XP

Specifications: AtomN270 processor, 1-gigabyte memory, 160-gigabyte hard drive, VGA output.

Pros: 6 hours of battery life, a larger keyboard than most netbooks, a svelte 2.8 pounds, 2GB memory upgrade available, outperforms many newer Windows 7 models.

Cons: Dim display and, while faster than its smaller cohorts, still relatively slow. Samsung hasn't updated to Windows 7 on any of its netbook platforms.

Toshiba Mini NB205

Price: $399.99

Screen size: 10.1 inches

Operating system: Windows 7

Specifications: AtomN270 processor, 1-gigabyte memory, 160-gigabyte hard drive, VGA output.

Pros: 9.5 hours of battery life and a larger keyboard, wrist area and touch pad than most netbooks.

Cons: Dull colors, tiny punctuation keys for no apparent reason and, sadly, not much of an upgrade from its cheaper Windows XP model.

Laptops

Toshiba Satellite U505

Price: $799.99

Screen size: 13.3 inches

Operating system: Windows 7

Specifications: Core 2 Duo P7450 processor, 4-gigabyte memory, 500-gigabyte hard drive, DVD drive, microphone, Web cam, memory card reader, DVI/HDMI video outs.

Pros: High performance and lots of memory, 4.5 hours of battery life, large display for a small book, has eSATA port and facial-recognition security. At 13.3 inches and 4.9 pounds, it's roughly the size of a big netbook.

Cons: A moderately priced laptop but a costly netbook alternative. Cheaper models get clunkier and strip away memory and functionality, though the recently released Satellite T115 weighs 3.5 pounds, has an 11.6-inch screen and 9 hours of battery life, and starts at $450 for a hard drive with half the capacity. The A505 is larger at 16 inches, but costs nearly $150 less and gets 6.75 hours of battery life.

Asus U50A

Price: $629.99

Screen size: 15.6 inches

Operating system: Windows 7

Specifications: Core 2 Duo T6600 processor, 4-gigabyte memory, 500-gigabyte hard drive, DVD drive, microphone, Web cam, memory card reader, DVI/HDMI video outputs.

Pros: Good battery life for a laptop at 5.25 hours, relatively lightweight at 5.5 pounds and a value at less than $650.

Cons: At 15.6 inches, there's a portability issue. Also, at 5.5 pounds, it's a lighter laptop, but still roughly twice the weight of the average netbook.

Sony VAIO VPC

Price: $800

Screen size: 14 inches

Operating system: Windows 7

Specifications: Core 2 Duo T6600 processor, 4-gigabyte memory, 500-gigabyte hard drive, Blu-ray reader, microphone, Web cam, firewire ports, memory card reader, DVI/HDMI video outputs.

Pros: Good battery life at 5 hours, highly portable at 14 inches and 5.1 pounds and has 265MB of video memory for the "World of Warcraft" set.

Cons: Less expensive than similarly stacked laptops, but on the high-end even for a 14-inch model. (Ask early PS3 buyers about this).

Now check out Gary Krakow's 10 best cheap netbooks >>>
Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.

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