One Mans Decision: Netbook vs iPad

On this weekend that Apple is launching their latest revolutionary wunder-device, the iPad, I find myself thinking about the past year carrying a little netbook.

It’s about a year ago that I bought my first netbook, the HP Mini 2140. I pondered that purchase for several months wondering which model netbook was best suited to my needs. There were and remain are so many models, so very similar in most ways. In particular I needed insight into using the smaller keyboard.

In the way of research I leaned heavily on the experience of Tim Higgins, the Editor at Small Net Builder. He tried many netbooks. He’d purchase one, use it for 30 days then send it back if it in some way annoyed him. His criteria for evaluating the netbooks seemed well considered. Surely the model that satisfied him would suit me fine as well.

Tim went through a number of candidates before settling upon one that he found acceptable. Some models had sucky keyboards. Others were too noisy or showed every fingerprint on the case & display. While yet others suffered poor battery life or got hot on the lap.

The model I selected, HP Mini 2140 pictured above, was one that he was not able to try by the time I made my purchase decision. He was able to give it a good look at the CES 2009 show, and seemed very positive about it at the time.

I actually waited a couple of months before making my purchase. I was concerned that the default LCD display, at 1024 x 576 pixels, was too low resolution for my needs. HP was offering an optional “HD” display that was 1366 x 768 pixels, but it wasn’t yet shipping.

When availability of that optional display kept slipping I eventually broke down and ordered the standard model. I don’t regret this as I needed the netbook for some real work, but the display resolution has never really been satisfactory.

The project the caused me to pull the trigger on the purchase was a large installation in San Francisco. Over a period of about 4 months I spend a lot of time flying to & from SFO, which is a 4 hour flight from Houston.

Occasionally I would get upgraded, but mostly I sat in coach. The flights seemed to be really full, and very occasionally I’d get wedged between two really large people. It was usually impractical to use my company issued HP laptop with it’s 15″ display. It was just too large. So I bought the Mini 2140.

Over the course of the following year I made regular use of the Mini. It went with me to places where the larger notebook seems overkill or inappropriate. We used it to watch TV (Hulu) when my wife was in a hospital room with no TV one weekend. She used it as she made trips to/from Austin to care for her elderly mother. I used it to do a lot of web browsing & writing.

For a while it looked like Stella was simply going to keep it, but it’s recently found its way back to my desk. It has served us well, and continues to do so.

However, both of us are in businesses where something so small cannot be our primary computer. We make a lot of use of Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and other programs that demand large screen real estate, tons of memory and massive storage.

In fact, this defines a lot of what we do with computers. We are quite often content creators.

This brings me around to this weekends launch of the iPad. I’m lead to believe that the iPad is not a solution for me. I’ve read all the early iPad reviews and watched PCMag’s excellent video review.

As attractive as the iPad is…and it is…I simply cannot see it as a good fit for the ways we have used the netbook in the past year. The netbook form factor, specifically the inclusion of a high quality keyboard, is key to providing a good solution for our needs.

So it is that I find myself seriously considering the purchase of a new netbook. I’d like to finally get one with the HD display. The object of my affection is the newest model from HP, the Mini 5102.

Whereas the Mini2140 came only in champagne gold, the 5102 comes in blue, red and the more typical…black. I won’t likely get the red one shown above.

The 5102 is really nice, but to get the HD display I must custom order one that isn’t one of their “Smart Buy” configurations. That makes the device considerably more expensive. The pre-configured systems are all in the $450-550 range as long as you don’t want the built-in 3G wireless internet access or the touch screen option.

Yes, they have a touch screen option, but not at the HD display resolution. I actually have a real work-related use for the touch screen capability, but I’m not willing to give up the display resolution to get it.

To get the configuration that I desire the 5102 comes in at a whopping $720. That’s including a 15% promotional discount. As it happens I don’t have to pay for it with money out of my pocket. My employer owes me for a couple of unusual things that I’ve done over the past quarter, and even this price is a fair trade.

Still, the cost is considerable so I looked around E-Bay and various places online to find the 5102 or the earlier 5101 model. There simply are none out there to be found with the optional HD display. Actually, I did find one suitable 5101 model from a reseller in Canada, but the asking price was within reach of the price of the newer 5102 when you consider cross-border shipping.

All of this has also had me considering other models, like the HP Mini 311 (pictured above) or Lenovo X100e, that have 11.6″ displays at 1366 x 768 resolution. I actually went to our local Micro Center retail store to have a look at the 11-12″ models.

The HP Mini 311 looks and feels cheap. Where one review that I’ve read suggested that the keyboard might be a little bigger and more durable, the display model at the store was actually missing half a dozen keys. Point taken. They didn’t have the x100e. That’s a pity as I would have liked to laid hands on it.

I’m currently thinking that the larger display (11-12″ vs 10″) is not what I’m after. A larger netbook is just harder to use in that coach class seat. No, the 10″ display is big enough, but it needs to show me more pixels. Also, the 95% keyboard of the 5102 is bound to be a little more comfortable than the 92% keyboard of the 2140 model.

The Mini 311 has a larger display and case dimensions, but stuck with the 92% keyboard. That seems like an unwarranted compromise given the physical space was available.

One of the nice things about the Mini 2140 was that even though it was small and kind of affordable it’s really well built. It feels like a good quality device. That’s worth something to me.

Perhaps all of this is just a rationalization of my decision to spend a considerable sum on a netbook, which is supposed to be a less expensive type of computer. In the light of the launch of the iPad it’s been interesting to study how we use the hardware.

  • Personally I find the Acer 1820PT very tempting. Very.

  • Are you looking at linux or windows for the netbook (if chosen)? My thinking (aka where is Fred going with this)… If you’re using Windows, have you considered a tablet pc? Something like the lenovo x200 or the HP TouchSmart tm2t …

    • It’s going to be Win7 since all the apps I need are Windows based. I’ve looked at tablets PCs but they look too costly, and a lot closer to a full sized laptop. My funding source will go the $750 for the Mini 5102, but not the $1500+ for a good tablet PC.

      In a few months we’ll also have HPs Slate tablet to consider, but that would truly be a toy and not as much of a serious tool.

  • James Body

    I am warming to the iPad…

    … particularly as you can put a SIP VoIP client on it and use it as a phone…

    http://www.crunchgear.com/2010/04/05/review-truphone-for-ipad/ “Truphone – it’s out there now, it’s free and it works…….” John Biggs – Crunchgear

    • Greg

      But you would look stupid holding the ipad up to your face while talking….

      Use and itouch/mifi combo… or better yet, get an android phone… they are practically free with the service contract.

      • I do find it odd that some folks try to turn any mobile device into a phone, when some devices are simply not well suited to being used in that role.

  • We have an iPad in the office and are testing with iSip and our products. We’ll see… It may just be an excuse to play with a new gadget or to make a funny video, like this guy…

  • Well, the HP 5102 is on order now. Silly expensive, too. But given that it was funded by other means what the heck. I opted for the faster 1.86 GHz processor, 6 cell battery, HD screen and…yes….the red/black aluminum case. Kinda flashy. They project delivery on 4/22, which is just as well cuz if I took it to NAB with me this week it’d raise eyebrows given the air of fiscal austerity that has gripped my employer the past quarter.

  • I’m finding it harder and harder to resist the shiny new apple object.. MUST RESIST!

    • Be strong! I just picked up the mini 5102 from Fedex this morning. Haven’t even unboxed it yet. Will have a grand unboxing later today, with pictures.

  • Someone tweeted that Engadget reviewed the 5102 (http://www.engadget.com/2010/04/16/hp-mini-5102-review/) but that review went live a week after I ordered mine.

    Now that I’ve had a couple of hours of playing with it I find that I agree with their review. The HD screen makes a huge difference compared to the mini 2140. The keyboard is great and the full 2GB of memory helps it feel more like a real laptop, but in the smaller form factor.

    We’re gonna be traveling buddies.