Netbook or Notebook? 5 ways to decide

The laptop of yours has a screen that's plenty big, has enough storage for whatever you want to do, and has versatility out the ying-yang. But it's expensive. It's heavy. Your aching back tells you there must be a better way. There is. It's a netbook, a smaller, lighter portable PC designed to give you the best of both worlds.

With the portability and cheapness of a smartphone and the keyboard of a laptop, a netbook just might hit that sweet spot. Let's look at the positives and negatives, figuring out if netbooks are "just good enough." Join into our argument with ourselves in the comments section at the bottom of the article, pointing out the good and bad points of this exploding computing phenomenon.

Before we get started, what the heck is a netbook, anyway? Netbooks aren't classified by some formal specification, but have informally evolved into a set of characteristics that are pretty close to being standard. Specifically, they weigh between 2 to 3 pounds, they have a screen measuring between 7 and 10 inches diagonally, most run an Intel Atom CPU, they have Wi-Fi B and G (but usually not N), Ethernet connectivity, at least one USB port, a built-in camera and headphone/microphone jacks. Best of all, they're a whole lot cheaper than notebooks and desktops. Here's Wikipedia's comprehensive table showing most of the dozens of netbooks on the market today.

1. Smaller/lighter
Good: Most of these tiny books weigh between 2 and 3 pounds, lightening the load considerably, and also fitting easily in your backpack, briefcase or purse. Their 7-to-10-inch screens are fine for everyday tasks like e-mail and simple Web browsing.

Bad: If you have large hands, you might feel awfully cramped by the keyboards of these small machines, ranging from 80 to 95% of a full-size laptop keyboard. And while you can get away with small screens for simple tasks, if you every try to do real work, with multiple apps and windows open simultaneously, on a netbook, things will start to feel cramped pretty fast.

2. It's all you need
Good: Web browsing, e-mail checking, writing, talking on Skype: these are all ideal uses for netbooks, storing your data "in the cloud" and getting things done without breaking your back lugging around an anvil-like laptop. If you need more storage, you can usually plug in a thumb drive or flash memory. And what about CDs or DVDs? They are so last century.

Bad: Netbooks are underpowered. If you want to edit pictures using Photoshop, a netbook's Intel Atom processor is way too lame to get anything done quickly. The lack of optical storage, even if you can plug in an external unit, is also a dealbreaker for some users.

3. They're getting better at playing back video
Good: Proven by the first appearance of NVIDIA's Ion platform, video playback in small form factors will become more reliable, displaying 720p/1080i for sure, with even some talk of 1080p playback on the HP Mini 110 Netbook, due to ship in a couple of weeks. If this works, you could use a netbook in your home theater to watch downloaded HD movies.

Bad: Even if these netbooks could play back 1080p, they probably can't handle Flash video from sites such as Hulu or YouTube, none of which are enhanced by video acceleration. You'll probably need a lot more horsepower than the paltry processors inside a netbook to play back streaming HD movies, complete with 5.1 sound.

4. Some can run Mac OS X
Good: The Dell Mini 9 has been successfully hacked to run Mac OS X with all its features intact. And, Windows 7 will be available on netbooks.

Bad: Hackintosh on a netbook? It might do in a pinch, but with those tiny, slow processors inside, they're not going to break any speed records. Also, you'll have to buy the software, raising the price so much that it might negate the advantage of a netbook.

5. The price is right
Good: Priced at $300 to around $500, you get a lot of bang for the buck with these cheap PCs. Opt for Linux, and they run even faster, plus you don't have to pay for Windows XP. We even saw a Dell netbook on sale for $200 a few weeks ago, and whoa, that 3K Razorbook 400 netbook you see pictured above is $148.

Bad: Those $300-$500 prices are just the beginning, rising quickly if you add more RAM or disk space, which is sorely needed. You can end up spending 700 or $800 if you get one of the larger netbooks crammed with options.