The other day Engadget editor Joshua Topolsky wrote an interesting commentary about trying to get real work done on his iPhone 3GS. The verdict? He couldn’t. The on-screen keyboard certainly didn’t help matters, but the biggest problem was the lack of multi-tasking support. How often do you find yourself trying to do work on a computer that requires a single window only?

Not everyone sees things the same way though. BlackRimGlasses’ Ethan Kaplan says he barely uses his Dell Inspiron Mini 9 anymore, because he finds the iPhone 3GS to be just as easy to use, if not easier in most situations. He says he can type just as fast using the on-screen keyboard, which is more of a dig against the Mini 9 keyboard than a word of praise for the iPhone’s. There are also a number of applications that have been optimized for the iPhone, and while it actually has a slower processor than the Mini 9, Kaplan says it feels faster.

Of course, he makes no mention of the lack of multitasking support. Presumably he can get buy without it, while Topolsky can’t. And to be fair, plenty of other smartphones running Windows Mobile, Symbian, Blackberry OS, PalmOS or WebOS can run more than one application at a time. But in addition to multitasking support, a good netbook also gives you a nearly full-sized touch-typable keyboard, a higher resolution and larger screen, and the ability to plug in peripherals like a mouse if you’re not happy with the built-in touchpad. On the downside, they’re bigger and heavier than smartphones, and you can’t typically carry them in your pocket.

Personally, I’ve found I have little use for smartphones and a whole lot of use for netbooks. Almost everything I do online requires a higher resolution display, touch-typable keyboard, and the ability to toggle between programs. But where do you fall? If smartphones were a bit faster, ran Firefox (which they will soon), and met most of your software needs, would you still want a netbook with its larger screen and keyboard?

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20 replies on “If smartphones did what you wanted, would you still want a netbook?”

  1. As much as people might not want to hear it this is NOT a technology question ad much as its a human factor engineering or ergonomics.

    If we look at history of other information devices, i.e. books, you see that netbooks follow books.

    The first netbook to really take off was the 7″ Eee PC, and i’m not sure its an accident that a trade paperback is also 8.5 by 6 (give or take). Also no accident that 10″ netbooks are the size and shape of a hardcover book.

    You really can’t fool the human body, it know how big is too big and how small is too small. That’s why I don’t see netbooks getting smaller or smartphones getting bigger. What I see is functions moving from one to another or shifting around to be on the best device. Both devices will have a long life.

  2. At this point, if you add the two bottom categories together (9% and 21%), it looks like 30% of voters would ditch their netbooks for something they could put in their pocket. This is surprising, to me at least.

    Since it doesn’t seem to be possible to stuff the ballot box without hacking, maybe they have bigger pockets than I do (I don’t wear suits). Or maybe liliputing.com is so much fun to read, it’s catching the spillover from iPhone and converged device sites 😉

    I have to wonder how the “nope” voters define “better.” Also, the question in the title is “Would you still WANT a netbook?” and the poll asks if you would CARRY one. Presumably some of the Nopers would still want one but just wouldn’t carry it when they went out.

    Do you think 30% of liliputing voters are really that displeased with the netbook format?

    1. Nope. They might just be displeased with the smartphone market. The
      reason they *are* carrying netbooks, or at least reading about them is
      precisely because smartphones don’t do what they want.

      But this is why I use polls like this sparingly. There’s no way to
      include the complete range of opinions in 4 or 5 poll questions. But I
      figured we’d be more likely to get a lively discussion going on this
      question with a poll than with an unadorned blog post. 🙂

  3. Screen size. Until someone perfects a roll-out / fold-up screen or a good set of virtual reality glasses, some tasks are so much better on a larger screen that a carrying netbook is an attractive proposition.

    1. The exact two words: screen size.

      The phone could make me coffee and even have an attachment to pleasure me, it just wouldnt matter waht the options were if the screen size is 2-3 inches.

      I have a 52 inch tv and two 24 inch monitors at home, I dont see myself watching a movie on the friends Iphone ever again after that one time.

      My N95 serves its purpose but it doesnt do what I want the netbook to do.

  4. There are just some tasks that a Smartphone can’t do, like asking a one armed man to open a jar. It not the Smartphones fault, it does its best with the restrictions of being put in a pocket and not weighing the same as a Plutouim brick. Sometimes you just need a keyboard, screen, and storage to do what you need to do.

  5. i still don’t see the point of a phone that does more than make calls, keep time, and calculate.

    i’ll be keeping my computing to computers.

  6. Been there, done that. It was called a Pocket PC, and after you added $200 of gadgets (keyboard, modem, extra battery, etc.) and $600 of software to run desktop files, it basically choked because it was overloaded. If your work doesn’t include web-based or mobile-specific software, just get a real (small) computer — a netbook!

  7. While I don’t have a netbook I do have a notebook (14″) and an iPhone 3G. First of all I think the on-screen keyboard of the iPhone is 1,000,000 times better than a physical keyboard. I just had to make a mental adjustment (i.e. trust the keyboard), and learn a few typing habits (like not relying on the point of pressure of my fingers but rather the center of contact). My old blackberry keyboard never was this efficient.

    That being said a smartphone is not a notebook/netbook replacement. I view my smartphone as a tool to get through specific tasks that do not involve much process or creative thought. Check and update your e-mail, calendar, tasks etc, check. Read a web site, check. Look up a contact, location, direction ,etc.. check. But.. sit down and write a new office document, only in a pinch. It is a task oriented device. If I am always doing single tasks I find that I don’t really need real multitasking. The only exception is I wish there was a hot key to jump to the last task (i.e. between mail and calendar)

    My phone is basically my organizer. I review e-mail (and sends quick notes), create a work schedule, jot down tasks and notes, etc. Then when I get back to my computer I have time blocked to focus on specific work tasks. For this is beats a netbook/notebook any day of the week.

  8. I’ve tried the excellent folding Think Outside blue tooth keyboard with a Windows Mobile smartphone and with a larger, but same resolution HP iPAQ, and found them to be a little fumbly and gadgety, and requiring a little setup time and space and not very good for, eg, online banking because of the low resolution and uncooperative websites–but OK if no other means was available. (Newer devices would have better resolution.) If you’re biking, hiking, etc, and want to go really light, these things are great.

    Also, I was very pleased to learn that stylus typing on a tiny onscreen qwerty keyboard is quick and easy. I carry my iPAQ everywhere I go and use it as a PIM, ebook reader, etc. I prefer to have my phone as a separate device. Sorry if this is blasphemy to converged device enthusiasts.

    But, since I got a netbook, I use it a couple of hours a day and the iPAQ, maybe five minutes. If I had to give one up, there’d be no contest. You just can’t beat the versatility and convenience of a small clamshell device like one of the smaller, lighter netbooks with a good keyboard.

    Of course, it depends on what you’re using the device for and how much you can conveniently carry.

  9. Interesting topic.

    For about a year or so, I did use a smartphone in place of a netbook. It was a Nokia N73, one of the lower-powered N Series models. Applications and functionality (clipboard, multitasking, etc.) were fine. The two areas lacking were the keyboard and screen. The former was fixed easily when I invested $30 in a portable bluetooth keyboard. The screen remained a problem though. When typing, I either had to sit the phone behind the keyboard, an arm’s length away (requiring huge fonts and making editing text feel very cramped) or hold it in front of my face, which meant typing one-handed.

    For editing large volumes of text, I could see a larger screen like the iPhone’s working well. But I don’t want to try typing 5,000 words on an on-screen keyboard.

    I now have an Acer Aspire One. For heavy typing, there really is no alternative to a large screen and keyboard.

  10. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. The stylus-optimized keyboards in the old Palm OS devices worked just fine and were a grand total of about ten pixels high per letter. Go back and read the WPM rates on those keyboards given fifteen minutes or so of practice. They blow the current devices out of the water.

    There is no inherent reason that the keyboards on these devices need to be so frickin’ obstructive. They could use up a tenth the screen real estate and work at least as well, perhaps better. And this doesn’t even get into the new approaches like continuous stroke UIs.

    Afaics, this is yet another case of modern computer makers replacing elegant and working solutions with “it’s better if we do your thinking for you” shlock that treats the user like a child. Yes, this does make for a smaller initial learning curve but once you’re up and running, it’s also like trying to build a working oscilloscope out of Duplo blocks.

    We’re adults and we deserve and would get far more work done with devices that treat us as such.

  11. Yes I would!…. With the following caveats:

    – The screen should be large enough in size and in resolution, but small and light enaoug to fit in pocket. 3.2 inch would be ideal perhaps with minimum width resolution of 800 pixels. Hardware keyboard not needed. On-screen qwerty would do.

    – Must have desktop-like browser in terms of ability to display all types of websites as flawlessly as possible. Web apps is the future.

    – A must-be-available-in-reasonable-price accessory: full-size foldable keyboard + external battery combo to dock the smartphone for comfortable and long-hours typing and viewing. Preferrably with a mounter so the position of the smartphone would be closer to my eyes instead of just on the desk.

    – Must have an affordable, unlimited 3G (or faster) data plan attached.

    Bundle all that in an attractive pricing scheme… my dream mobile gadgetry!

  12. Personally, I cannot justify a smartphone right now for myself and if I had one I still would want the ease of use with a netbook. I find I use my netbook more and more daily for work and play. Call me old fashion but I like the idea of computer to do my work on.

  13. I have thought about this question many times. I run a business that is email intensive. Currently, I have a netbook when on the go during the week, and carry just a smartphone on the weekend. Average weekday business email volume is well over 100 per day….too much to handle efficiently on current smartphones. But weekend email volume only about a dozen per day….low enough that I drop a smartphone in my pocket and thumb type through the weekend while enjoying the freedom from carrying my netbook.

    As smartphone development continues I can imagine a day not too far off when I have a device that is small enough to drop in my pocket yet can handle my weekday volume too. Perhaps the form factor uses projected full size keyboards and projected monitors? Perhaps the form factor is more like the various butterfly triple folding keyboards with 5 inch screen setups (I really liked the Samsung SPH-P9000). Regardless of what form factor these future devices will take, I am confident we will look back at netbooks as just a transitional phase to a future convergence device that drops into your pocket yet handles all your multitasking needs on the go including music and video, phone, and computing, etc.

      1. This thing kind of blurs the lines between smart phones and PCs. It seems as though you would have the limitations of your Windows Mobile software, yet you can access your home or work PC with GoToMyPC. I’m confused. I’d have to try it out to really understand it.

        Edit: I’ve read their poop and understand it better now. This would be great if you are a converged device enthusiast and want to do everything with your Windows Mobile software, and I think a lot of business people, IT people, and a few academicians fall into this category.

        But, if you’d rather have better resolution and the added versatility of being able to use regular PC software, you could carry a small netbook with your smartphone just about as easily as the RedFly, and sometimes even cheaper, if you shop for bargains… but, I don’t know how you could run your smartphone’s Windows Mobile apps on the netbook (for the bigger screen and keyboard) — there’s probably a way 😉

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