iPad vs Netbook: Which Should You Buy For Your Teen?

Figuring out which will help most in school

Tablet and laptops
Leland Bobbe Studio Ltd. / Contributor/Getty Images

It’s increasingly common to for middle- and high-schoolers to have their own computers to help with school work. Parents seeking low-cost computers have many choices, including the iPad and netbooks.

Since prices on these devices are generally within $100 or so of each other, the question is: which is best for your teen?

Roughly Equal

  1. Price – Netbooks and iPads cost roughly the same amount--US$300-$600 (if you include just the 16GB or 32GB iPads). When buying don't just consider price. For instance, the iPad is a little more expensive but it offers greater portability and power. If price is your key factor, a netbook will probably be best.
  1. Apps – A mixed bag. Most iPad apps cost $1-$10, making them much cheaper. On the other hand, despite the large selection at the App Store, Windows-based netbooks can run nearly any Windows software—and that’s a bigger library.
  2. Support for Google docs – Both devices allow you to create and edit text documents or spreadsheets for free via Google Docs.
  3. Webcams – Some netbooks offer built-in webcams for video chats or taking low-resolution photos. The iPad 2 has two cameras and FaceTime support.
  4. Connectivity – – Both devices connect to the Internet over WiFi networks and have optional 3G connections for always-on data (assuming you buy a monthly data plan from a phone company for an additional $10-$40/month).
  5. Screen size – The iPad offers a 9.7-inch screen, while most netbooks have screens between 9 and 11 inches. While not identical, they’re close enough to call this one even.

iPad Advantages

  1. Multitouch screen and OS – The iPad has the same multitouch screen as the iPhone and iPod touch, and has software designed specifically for touch-based input. Some netbooks offer touch support, but since they're basically miniature laptops it’s limited and often feels added on to an existing operating system. The iPad experience is more robust and natural.
  1. Performance – The iPad offers smoother, faster computing than most netbooks. There are a number of technical reasons for this, but the bottom line is that you’ll never see an hourglass asking you to wait for the iPad to process something and you’ll get few, if any, system crashes.
  2. Battery – While most netbooks have batteries that offer 8 or so hours or use, the iPad blows them out of the water. In my testing, I got more than twice that battery life, and substantial standby time as well.
  1. Screen quality – The iPad’s screen simply looks better, and is of higher quality, than those used in most netbooks. Compare the two side by side and you’ll see.
  2. Weight/portability – At just 1.33 pounds, the iPad weighs about half of most netbooks. And, at just 0.34 inches thick, it’s easy to slip into nearly any bag or to carry with you.
  3. Security – Many netbooks (though not all) run Windows, an operating system rife with security holes and viruses. While the iPad isn’t immune from security problems, there are far, far fewer issues and no viruses that I’m aware of.
  4. Web-browsing experience – Thanks to its multitouch interface and ability to zoom in and out on pages, the iPad offers a superior web experience (though it doesn’t have tabbed browsing like netbooks).
  5. Media playback experience – The iPad's core is the music and video playback features of the iPod, meaning everything that made the iPod a hit is part of the iPad.
  6. eBook experience – Designed, in part, to compete with e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle, the iPad supports Apple’s iBooks format, as well as ebooks from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, among others. The selection of text books available as ebooks may be lesser, though.
  7. Great gaming – Just as with the media experience, the features—motion control, touchscreen, etc.—that have made the iPod touch a portable gaming hit are available in the iPad. The iPad’s game library is growing every day and touch- and motion-based controls make for exciting, engaging gameplay.
  1. Built-in parental controls – While there are many Windows programs to let parents control the content their children can access on netbooks, the iPad has many of those tools built in to the operating system and supports add-on programs, too.
  2. No pre-loaded garbage programs – Many new computers come pre-loaded with free trials and other software that you don’t want. Netbooks do, but the iPad doesn’t.
  3. Cool Factor – The iPad is definitely one of the current "it" devices. Netbooks are nice, but they don’t have the cachet of the iPad. And being cool is important to teens.

Netbook Advantages

  1. Runs Microsoft Office - Netbooks that use Windows can run the world-standard productivity software: Microsoft Office. While the iPad has equivalent programs, they’re not as robust or widely used as Office. (Netbooks running OSes other than Windows probably can’t use Office, though.)
  2. Runs Specialized Software – If your teen is interested in math or science, Windows-based netbooks can run specialized math and science programs that the iPad and non-Windows netbooks can’t.
  1. Ease of Typing - The iPad’s touchscreen and onscreen keyboard are difficult for writing papers or anything much longer than emails. For writing, the physical keyboard and traditional design of netbooks are far superior. The iPad can use Bluetooth keyboards, but that requires an extra purchase.
  2. Storage capacity – The iPad’s maximum 64GB of storage is good, but many netbooks nearly quadruple that, offering 250GB to store files, music, movies, and games.
  3. Better for programming - If your teen is interested in learning how to program computers or write web-applications, they’ll do it on Windows. The iPad’s offerings in this area are almost non-existent right now.
  4. Support for external devices – While both the iPad and netbooks lack them, netbooks support external CD/DVD and hard drive drives. The iPad is less expandable.
  5. Flash support – This is becoming less important, but netbooks can run Adobe Flash, one of the leading programs used to deliver video (e.g., Hulu), audio, web-based games, and other interactive content on the web. The iPad offers alternatives that allow access to the same content, but there are still some things that only Flash can do.
  1. Discounted prices – While the iPad and netbooks cost about the same, some netbooks are available at a discount if you buy a monthly 3G wireless data plan.

Bottom Line

Resolving the question of the iPad vs netbook for your teen isn't as simple as tallying which one has more pros. What those pros are matters more than their number.

Netbooks are strong in the areas most important to school-related uses: writing, using common and specialized software, expandability. The iPad is a great entertainment device, but it’s not well-suited to the productivity needs of most middle- and high-schoolers (Yet. The iPad 2 doesn't quite close the gap, but the third-generation model and next operating system may change that).

But, until that next iPad debuts, parents seeking a computer for their teens’ school needs should consider a netbook or a full-sized laptop/desktop.