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The evolution of the mobile computer

Posted April 13th, 2010 by Adrian Santangelo

In this column, I’m going to touch on a question I have received from multiple readers over the past few weeks: What is the difference between a laptop and a netbook?

Though very similar, each holds its own place in the mobile computing world. To round out the facts, I’ll touch on desktops briefly as well.

Pretty much everyone is familiar with the desktop computer. This is the (usually) bigger system connected to a monitor, keyboard and mouse. Some cases are smaller than others, called slimline, while some are all-inclusive, dubbed “all-in-ones.” Desktops are usually customizable and upgradable, and are generally the cheapest option for a given level of performance. The average monitor screen size nowadays is 19 to 22 inches, though 17-inch systems are still common.

Next are the laptops, the mobile counterpart of desktops. These mobile machines, sometimes called notebooks, have taken hold of the computing market. They frequently provide the same power as a desktop while offering more portability. With a screen hinged to a keyboard and touchpad, they are a great package to carry around. Unfortunately, they are frequently more expensive and aren’t as upgradable due to the size of the parts used. Screen sizes usually range from 14 to 17 inches.

Before we get to netbooks, I want to give a brief nod to another portable machine. The missing link between laptops and netbooks is the ultraportable or mini laptop. This is more powerful than a netbook and has a bigger screen. It also provides much more performance than its netbook sibling. However, it is also the most expensive of the bunch. This breed is widely used by those who need performance and extreme portability. Screen sizes are 12 to 13 inches.
Now we arrive at the netbook. It’s a new buzzword, and every major vendor now manufactures at least one. So what’s the deal?

Netbooks are smaller and lighter than the ultraportables. Screen sizes range from 7 to 12 inches, with most falling in the 9-to-10-inch range. The other big difference between a laptop and a netbook is the performance. Netbooks are designed for surfing the Internet and checking e-mail, but not much more. They are frequently cheaper than most anything else we’ve discussed, but they also include slower processors. Netbooks frequently lack an optical drive, though an external one is available with many models. Lastly, netbooks frequently include solid-state disks to save on battery life and provide more portability. No moving parts means less chance of damage.

If you need something simple to check your e-mail but don’t feel like squinting at your phone or borrowing someone else’s system, netbooks are great. Many wireless carriers also offer compatible air cards, which give a netbook Internet access anywhere there is cellular service. This provides a combination of true portability and connectivity.
Make sure you understand a netbook’s limitations.

Due to the lack of power and the optical drive, even something as simple as watching a DVD might not be possible on a netbook. Basic office work on a word processor or a spreadsheet application can be accomplished, so netbooks can make a great basic system for students — assuming they can overcome the limited screen size and resolution. Don’t expect them to do well with image or video editing, and they can’t go much beyond basic online flash games.
Laptops are still the mobile device of choice for many needing a portable system, though netbooks are slowly making a name for themselves.

There’s another whole dimension to the portable computing market we haven’t yet discussed. A myriad of smart phones are widely available, and tablet computers such as the Apple iPad and the HP Slate are starting to make waves. These will be the topic of my next column.

As always, I encourage you to e-mail questions or go to your favorite search engine for more information. Happy (mobile) computing!

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