Netbook or Laptop? The explosion of choices available today can turn the purchasing process into a torturous journey.

By Dan Briody

Buying computers can be a trying experience for any small business. And it's not the prices that make it so difficult; those have come down considerably over the years. No, the problem is the explosion of choices that are available today, any one of which can turn the purchasing process into a torturous journey into techno-jargon and self-examination: Is our company mobile enough to buy laptops? Are we hip enough for Macs? What exactly is 2GB Shared Dual Channel DDR2 at 800MHz, and will it be enough?

Well, I'm sorry to say that these decisions won't be getting easier any time soon. The personal computer industry, once thought to be consolidating and commoditizing, is now splintering into countless different product directions. There are phones that act like PCs, PCs that act like phones, and everything in between. And the latest entrant to further muddy these waters is the netbook, a thinner, lighter and cheaper version of the widely adopted laptop computer.

Netbooks were originally supposed to be classic thin clients. That is to say they would feature a keyboard, screen and terrific connectivity. They would have limited storage and processing power, a stripped-down operating system, and would pretty much rely on the internet for everything. Think of them as simple windows to the internet. And the first netbooks were true to this vision.

But since then the price of PC components has plummeted. Storage is practically free. And memory is only slightly more expensive than storage. So today we have netbooks with 160 GB hard drives (that's big) running Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7. We also have the Apple iPad entering the market in April. These are essentially full-blown personal computers. You can run your office applications. You can download iTunes and other entertainment programs. And you can, of course, go online to do everything from checking your e-mail to sending instant messages.

So, here's the question for small businesses: Should we be buying netbooks? Two years ago I would have answered unequivocally "no." Because, in general, business PCs must be able to run the latest versions of various applications, and that requires maximum space on a hard drive and lightning-fast processor speeds. But lately, the answer I'm giving to some business owners is, "Why not?

Here are the two key questions you'll want to ask yourself when choosing between netbooks and traditional PCs for your business:

  1. What is this computer going to be used for? Different types of businesses use computers differently. Some may need to run compute-intensive graphic design programs. Others may be accessing complex databases. But some may be simply running an office suite and accessing applications over the internet. This last category is where you can save some money by buying a netbook, which can run anywhere from $250 to $500. As more and more applications live on the internet, there is less need to have the computing power in your hands. So consider the computer's use before you overspend.
  2. Who is going to be using this computer? You'll want to get netbooks only for employees who are fairly mobile (that can include those who work from home regularly), because netbooks are meant to be ultra-portable. If an employee is simply going to be using the system in the office, you can get more power and functionality at about the same price with a desktop computer. Also, the keyboards and screens of netbooks are typically smaller, so if the employee is likely to be doing a lot of typing, like a journalist might, a netbook is probably not a great solution.

Other than that, netbooks are a terrific, if not totally distinct, alternative to traditional PCs. They are inexpensive and very portable. And they are increasingly powerful. For executive types who travel a lot, I especially like them as a "companion PC," something you take on the road with you to catch up on e-mail and browse the Web. Bigger than a phone, but easier to type on.

Wavy Line

Dan Briody is the author of two books and is the former Executive Editor of CIO Insight Magazine, a leading publication for information technology managers. He is also a frequent contributor on technology topics for Wired, Inc. and Business Week magazines.

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