Tablet or netbook? How to choose the right mobile tech

Tablet or netbook? How to choose the right mobile tech

Are you torn between buying a portable PC or a trendy tablet? Here is one editor's attempt to find the best mobile tech.

Tablets, netbooks, smartphones--these days, you can't buy a microwave without being upsold on the 4G, touchscreen, app-store model. But when you're picking out your preferred mobile tech for work (or even for play), you can't rely on a features chart or a list of specs to tell you what you should buy. That's why I decided to try working from the road with three different gadget combinations--a netbook with a smartphone, a Google Chrome OS CR-48 with a "dumb" phone, and an iPad with a dumb phone--to see which arrangement worked best for my needs and my budget.

Outside of working at PCWorld, my mobile needs are fairly low-tech. I spend most of my weekdays working at the office or at home, or on a bus between the two, meaning that I'm usually within Wi-Fi coverage and I don't really need a smartphone for my daily life. Recently, however, I've been traveling more for work, so I needed gear that was portable, offered mobile broadband service, and could last for a whole day on one charge.

Combo #1: Netbook and Smartphone

First I decided to try working with a netbook and a smartphone. My colleagues Jason Cross and Ginny Mies outfitted me with an HP Mini 1103 and an Evo Shift 4G, and I went off to Los Angeles to work remotely for a week.

I immediately noticed that although the idea of an incredibly lightweight, portable PC was appealing, working on one didn't really deliver. I was able to use the netbook for everything I had to do in a standard workday: connecting to the VPN, filing and producing stories in PCWorld's content management system, uploading video and photos, and so on. It wasn't easy, though.

Using the netbook felt kind of like working with a Swiss army knife: Just because a Windows 7 netbook can do everything doesn't mean it's actually good at doing anything. Since it's a Windows PC, you don't have to worry about not being able to use the applications or Web services you need to get your work done--but you'll have a hard time getting accustomed to using them on a netbook.

For example, I rely on Web apps for most of my tasks, which works fine on my dual-monitor office setup. But it's a lot harder to edit a document when I can see only a paragraph or two at a time. Even simple stuff, like reading a Web page or a spreadsheet, was downright frustrating on the HP Mini 1103's 10.1-inch, 1024-by-600-pixel display. And when I got frustrated, I got less work done.

The Android smartphone was handy for keeping tabs on my work Gmail and Google Calendar, and Google Maps was invaluable in helping me navigate L.A.'s public transit system. Whenever I had to leave the comfort of readily available apps and navigate the Web, however, I'd hold off until I could find a place with Wi-Fi to use the netbook. I'm so spoiled by my normal dual-monitor office setup that when I had to rotate the phone and zoom in and out just to read small text or to tap the correct link in the phone's Web browser, I decided I'd just do without. Although I had hoped that the Evo Shift 4G would be sufficient for all my mobile Internet needs, I eventually broke down and activated the smartphone's $30-per-month Wi-Fi hotspot feature, using the phone only if I was in transit.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that all of my work equipment could fit inside my carry-on bag along with clothes and toiletries, but that was about it. Knowing that I could work anywhere felt oddly liberating, but I wouldn't willingly subject myself to the netbook/smartphone combination again. It's nice to have an easily portable PC, but you end up paying in usability.

Also, this package doesn't come cheap. The HP Mini 1103 was only $300 when it launched in February, but the Evo Shift 4G still costs a pretty penny: Add the $150 initial price (subsidized by a two-year contract) to $100 a month for Sprint's "Simply Everything" (unlimited talk/text/Web) plan, $10 a month for 4G service, $30 a month for mobile hotspot service, and $7 a month for handset insurance. You're looking at spending about $1700 each year on cellular service, plus $450 for the actual equipment before taxes and fees.

The Bottom Line: The netbook/smartphone combination is flexible and versatile, so if your on-the-go work needs are rather unpredictable, this setup is probably your best bet. It will cost you in time and stress, though, and I found that I simply didn't get as much work done because the two devices were so frustrating to use over a full workday.

Combo #2: Chrome OS Netbook and Dumb Phone

Chrome OS netbooks are here, and they promise to be faster and safer than your standard Windows netbook. Chromebooks don't really have any local storage, however, and the "OS" is basically the Google Chrome browser, so they bring their own new and exciting netbook issues along with them. I tried Google's test CR-48 Chrome OS netbook from its January pilot program, along with a basic Nokia dumb phone, to see how this combination stacks up for work.

Of course, most people who want a netbook for work don't want to do everything on the Web. I can get away with that, most of the time--I do a lot of writing in Google Docs, and I can use PCWorld's CMS just fine with the CR-48.

But working with the Chrome OS for a few days didn't give me a good reason to choose Chrome over Windows. The CR-48 starts up in a few seconds, but the time it takes to associate itself with Verizon's 3G network and your nearby Wi-Fi network slows down the startup process, since you can't do anything until you get an Internet connection.

Once it is online, the Chromebook is great at handling the Web (better than the iPad), but in my tests it wasn't flexible enough for me to rely on as a primary work machine, especially if I ever needed to work with photos and video. And since I was depending on the CR-48 as my mobile Internet device, my plucky candy-bar dumb phone couldn't pick up any of the slack.

On the plus side, this setup costs significantly less, so if you go on day trips for work and can turn to a proper laptop or desktop PC later to finish your projects, you might want to consider a Chromebook. The initial purchase will cost you about $500 for Samsung's 3G Chromebook, and you get 100MB of 3G data per month for free for the first two years. If you need more data (and you probably will), you can opt to buy a prepaid monthly-use plan at a rate of $20 for 1GB, $35 for 3GB, or $50 for 5GB; alternatively, you can pay $10 for a one-day unlimited-use pass. The cost of the phone and cell plan is fairly reasonable: I pay $30 each month for a prepaid T-Mobile plan that gives me 1500 minutes or text messages.

In total, if you went for the $50 data plan, you'd be looking at $80 per month (including taxes and fees) for service ($960 a year) plus $530 or so to buy the Chromebook and phone--not bad compared with combo #1.

The Bottom Line: If you can get by with working only on the Web, the Chromebook isn't bad. It costs too much for what it offers, though. Unless you're operating on a strict budget and your monthly mobile Internet needs can fit under the free 100MB ceiling, you'll probably want to choose a tablet or a Windows netbook for your main mobile gadget.

Combo #3: iPad 2 and Dumb Phone

The legendary iPad-versus-netbook rivalry has destroyed online friendships and ruined article comment threads, for good reason: They're both very good devices, but they're meant for two very different kinds of people.

Like most Apple products, iPads don't fare well in comparison charts of features and specs. Describing a netbook in terms of its component parts is easy, but doing the same for a tablet that defined its category is not so simple. Yet the majority of my fellow PCWorld editors are toting iPads these days, not netbooks, and I had to know why.

At first, I was skeptical of the iPad's "magic" because I could easily envision using a netbook for everyday work, but I couldn't picture myself writing a story on a touchscreen keyboard. After all, I usually work in a tabbed browser with at least six tabs open: two mail accounts, Google Calendar, the Google Docs home page plus one or two documents, and Pandora. I simply couldn't imagine using an iPad to work like that.

As it turns out, I was right--but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. See, the way I work comes from the PC world (pardon the pun), where screen space, bandwidth, and processor cycles are abundant. Trying to replicate my six-tab arrangement on the iPad would be frustrating since the tablet simply doesn't multitask as a full-fledged PC can. Instead, I had to adapt to the iPad, which meant changing my working habits a bit: I decided to use Evernote instead of Google Docs for my on-the-go work, and to depend on iOS's built-in Mail and Calendar apps, plus IM+ for my messaging needs, to cover the bases.

The acclimation process is kind of a pain. Although I can comfortably set up a new PC to replicate my ideal workflow in 30 minutes or so (thanks mostly to RockMelt and Ninite, which make it easy to migrate my Web bookmarks and settings, as well as to batch-install my preferred apps), I'm still working on fitting my life around the iPad. I can't multitask the way I do on a PC--chatting with a coworker while working on a document is tough. But I have noticed that I'm able to concentrate much longer on a single task.

Overall, the iPad isn't better or worse than a PC--it's just better and worse at different tasks. Writing is surprisingly fun on the iPad, even without a Bluetooth keyboard. Editing a text document with a touchscreen is a bit more difficult.

Surprisingly enough, the iPad/dumb-phone combo costs about the same as the Chromebook/dumb-phone combo: $600 for a 16GB iPad 3G, plus $50 per month for the 5GB data plan. Add the same T-Mobile $30-per-month prepaid plan to your bill, and you're looking at about $630 for the initial expense (not counting tax) and $960 each year for your mobile Internet and voice/text service--not much of an Apple tax here.

The Bottom Line: People who say you can't get "real work" done on a tablet are wrong. You certainly can, but you might need to take a while to figure out the best way to do it. Once you do, however, it's far easier (and less frustrating) than trying to work with a Windows or Chrome OS netbook. I also found mobile broadband to be much more useful on the iPad's relatively roomy display than it was on the Evo Shift 4G in combo #1.

If you need Windows-only applications to do your job, you don't have much of a choice: Go for a slick ultraportable like the Samsung Series 9 over a netbook. The laptop may cost more, but the usability is worth the investment. (You also might be able to get by with a tablet and a good VNC application to access your home/work PC remotely, if you don't need those applications often.)

Otherwise, I highly recommend the 3G-tablet/dumb-phone combination. Working with a 3G tablet is a wholly different experience from working with a PC--and in my case, it's preferable.

Patrick Miller is PCWorld's how-tos and HDTVs editor. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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