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By Jon Cook
MoneyMix Contributor

With Apple shipping around 16 million iPads in 2010, the hype of this new sensation persists, according to TheStreet, San Francisco. Add to that the anticipated release of the iPad 2 early in 2011, and the talk about tablet computers just escalates.

Before you rush out and buy an iPad, weigh your options. Depending on your personal computing needs, you might be better off choosing a regular laptop or netbook.

In a Wall Street Journal personal technology column, Walt Mossberg made a comment that rings true with most reviews: "The iPad is a better device for consuming content than creating it." But, Mossberg also says that "The beautiful touch screen device has the potential to change portable computing and to challenge the primacy of the laptop."

The tablet computer has grown a category that barely existed just more than a year ago. Many consumers prefer the styling, apps, touchscreen, and compactness of tablets over the traditional netbook, according to reports from Gartner, a technology research firm in Stamford, Conn. Only 33.4 million netbooks were sold in 2010, just a slight increase over the 32.2 million netbooks sold in 2009.

In short, the tablet—a device somewhere between a smartphone and a laptop—is not meant for heavy computing such as research-paper writing, blog posting, video editing, or music production.

ipad functions

What the iPad can do is run most of the 200,000 iPhone apps, including a wildly popular
e-book app. It includes Apple's iWork suite for $30, is compatible with a $60 Bluetooth keyboard, and can access a growing number of specialized newspaper, magazine, and game apps created solely for the iPad.

So, if all you want to do is check e-mail, surf the Web, play games, listen to music, take notes, or read the newspaper, this device is what you need. If you need to do more, you might want to look at other options.

"The iPad is definitely light, small, and compact, but it falls short when word processing, writing long e-mails, or using special software for school or work," says Heath Skarlupka, a systems administrator for Bock Labs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The iPad does beat laptops in portability. This is especially true when you pay for 3G access from AT&T, allowing the device to access the Internet anywhere there is a cell phone signal. This requires you to buy the 3G-enabled iPad—$129 more than the basic Wi-Fi version—and pay roughly $30 a month for the data plan.

In the end, you pay $489 for one year of Internet access. That's a lot, so if you always can get a Wi-Fi signal where you use the Internet, at your house or, say, a coffee shop, you can pocket this money and just get the Wi-Fi version.

You also should know the iPad doesn't support Adobe Flash Player, and that's needed to view content on many popular Web sites including Hulu, ESPN, Pandora, and Facebook. Check if your favorite sites are powered by Flash before you buy.

The iPad also isn't the best for reading e-books. Other devices, such as the Kindle, beat the iPad as a reader because of their antiglare screens.

Keep in mind, things that are limitations of this device might not be with the release of the iPad 2 and future models.

other options

If you find the iPad falls short, or if you need a more flexible compact device that allows you to get work done, consider a netbook or a small laptop computer with a 10-inch to 11.5-inch screen (iPad is 9.7 inches). The new MacBook Air also is a consideration with an 11- or 13-inch screen, but the price (usually from about $1,000 to $1,600) is higher than for most other laptops or netbooks.

"Diehard Apple people will buy the iPad, but I think everyone else will find they are better off with a netbook or conventional laptop," says Skarlupka. "Netbooks are just about as compact, and you are free to choose your own operating system."

 Check out an iPad vs. netbook comparison.

 Find the right computer for college.
Netbooks (ranging from $250 to $500) generally are cheaper than the iPad ($499 to $829), and netbooks usually have more processing power.

"Netbooks are also easier and cheaper to maintain if something goes wrong with the device," says Skarlupka. If your iPad breaks, you need special tools to work on it, so you might have to send it to back to Apple to have it fixed. However, when you buy an iPad or other Apple products, you'll also have the option of buying an Apple Care agreement ($69 for iPad coverage) that covers some technology and hardware problems. If you buy your device from an Apple store, you also can go there for some types of one-on-one assistance.

before you buy

Keep in mind that both netbooks and the iPad are really meant to fill a niche as a secondary computer you can take on the road while having a bigger, more powerful computer at home. Most people who buy these devices generally don't use them as a sole computer.

That said, Skarlupka says a 32 GB (gigabyte) and 64 GB iPad or netbook would be an adequately sized hard drive as long as you don't use it as your only file storage device.

"If you have a lot of music or movies, you could fill a whole 32 GB hard drive, but it's not meant to be a repository for all of your media," says Skarlupka. "These mobile devices are designed for you to load some media on to use for a while and then exchange for new stuff later on."

Before making the final decision between an iPad, netbook, or laptop, know what you want from the device and research options online and by visiting retailers. Then, take these considerations into account:

  • Hard-drive size
  • Capability
  • Flexibility in additional software available
  • Whether you're getting the features you need for the purchase price

popular netbooks

popular laptops

Published January 18, 2011

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Some retailors still sell the original iPad. We may publish another article in the future that talks about the iPad 2.


This should really be updated to compare the iPad 2 with Netbooks. It Does have a camera now- video and still shot. Also, you can use Facetime on it (with wifi). I believe there's even a Skype application for it.

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