Should I buy a netbook, ultrabook, notebook, or tablet?

Macintosh Portable

If you’re in the market for a new computer (specifically, a portable one), you’ve got a lot more options than just Mac vs. PC these days. The portable computing market has at least four segments these days: Traditional notebooks, tiny netbooks, super-streamlined ultrabooks, and, of course, tablets like the iPad. Which do you choose? The answer will really depend on what you do with your computer:

  • First things first: I’ve never been a fan of netbooks’ sluggish performance and cramped screen and keyboard real estate. It looks like the computer buying public agrees, with netbook sales dropping precipitously in the last year, particularly in the United States. Sure, you might be able to get a great deal on a netbook right now, but in the long run you’d probably be hoping to replace it in a year or two anyway. Consider a netbook only if (1) you’re broke, (2) your computer’s broke(n) too, and (3) your computer use is limited to web browsing, email, and social networking–but not a lot of content creation. Then reconsider–in reality you may be better-served with a refurbished notebook computer.
  • If your computing needs are light (again, email and the web–and maybe some games) you’ll probably get more enjoyment out of a tablet like the iPad or one of its Android-based competitors. You’ll definitely get more portability out of it. I still do not recommend tablets for folks who are Office power users–the current desktop productivity apps available for tablets are stripped down compared to their Windows or Mac-based counterparts, and Microsoft Office proper is not yet available for tablets. And then there’s the issue with having to lug around a keyboard. Tablets aren’t a good solution for heavy content creators–at least, not yet. Ask me again in a year.
  • Do you want something lightweight (in terms of actual weight), with good computing power, and a normal-sized screen and keyboard? Check out the growing ultrabook segment. If you’ve seen someone toting the sleek, lightweight MacBook Air, you’ll know what I mean. Ultrabooks are fast, lightweight, and typically start at under $1000. Of course, weight reduction comes at a cost: Ultrabooks may lack some of the ports you use regularly on your current computer, and they don’t include built-in DVD drives. If the latter is an issue, you can pick up an external USB drive inexpensively–but you may find yourself using it less and less these days, anyway.
  • Finally, a case for the now-traditional notebook computer–its not as glamorous as its younger brothers the ultrabook or the tablet, but it still gets the job done. And, at least on the PC side, you can purchase a notebook for well under $1000 that will be serviceable for several years. If you haven’t figured out how to rid your life of physical media yet, and you create a lot of content, or you just want a real portable computer without breaking the bank, shop around for a well-specced notebook.

Photo: Thank you to Grant Hutchinson on Flickr. In case you’re curious, it’s a close-up of the Macintosh Portable, an early entry into portable computing from Apple. If you saw one today you’d laugh at what passed as “portable” in the late 1980s!


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  2. On the iPad 2 and the “post-PC era”
  3. Looking for an inexpensive tablet? Your options are increasing in number
  4. HP TouchPad, the tablet for Palm fans, coming July 1
  5. Google Chrome notebook pilot program

Aaron Sumner

Aaron Sumner is the Director of Technology for Research and Development at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. He has worked in web development and instructional technology since 1994.
  • Fred Gingerale

    For professionals and students you cannot beat netbooks. A tablet is useless in those respects. A laptop too big, ultra books are just bigger expensive fancy netbooks. I work from my netbook all day, every day and I’ll NEVER understand how anyone can need more than 2gb of ram for office or school work. And this nonsense about slow processors, the processor in my Asus netbook is more powerful than the one in my 2005 full-sized HP 15″ laptop, which is still plenty powerful enough today for the average office professional or student. My daughter used it for school up until last summer when she bought her first netbook. 90% of people will never need more power for their computers than the average netbook offers. Unless you’re a serious gamer or into graphics design, movie making etc.. the whole “mine is bigger than yours” is just marketing that people buy into.

  • Aaron Sumner

    Hey, it’s your money–but comparing a 2005 laptop’s performance to a new netbook’s isn’t an accurate comparison for buying something new. In fact you’ve kind of proven my point about buying a regular notebook over a netbook in 2012–if I want to still be using what I buy today in 2019, I should probably buy a notebook, not a netbook.

    To put it another way, let me know in a few years how Windows 8 and Office Whatever are working on your Asus.