Netbooks vs. smartbooks: what are the similarities and differences?

The Intel world coined the word "netbook" to describe a slimmed-down notebook computer based on its Atom processor that is designed to use more software and applications in the cloud than on the device. The term netbook implies there is wide-area wireless onboard in addition to WiFi. However, some netbooks on the market are more like notebooks with hard-disk storage, and some have solid state storage for longer battery life.

Intel is counting heavily on netbooks to drive WiMAX sales for companies such as Clearwire, but so far the vast majority of netbooks are not WiMAX-capable, though they are sporting wide-area broadband on UMTS/HSPA networks (AT&T and T-Mobile USA in the U.S.) or EV-DO Rev. A networks (Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless in the U.S.). The HP netbook being sold by Verizon Wireless contains a Qualcomm chipset that provides wide-area broadband for both technologies and covers all of the U.S., European and Asian systems--it is truly an almost-anywhere-you-go netbook.

Intel will not have this space to itself for very long. One of the new chipsets designed by Qualcomm over the last couple of years is a full-blown, 1-GHz processor known as Snapdragon. This chipset is a direct competitor to the Intel Atom, and it will be showing up in a number of "smartbooks" (as opposed to netbooks). It is at this point in time that the two worlds collide.

We will have netbooks with embedded wireless built by computer companies, and smartbooks with computer power built in from the wireless side of the fence. It will be interesting to see which side captures the most market share and how these machines develop over time.

According to the Qualcomm website, smartbooks are designed to augment, not replace, notebooks and/or smartphones. Embedded wireless will include 3G mobile broadband, Bluetooth and WiFi. They will have GPS capabilities as well as 3D graphics, HD video and a full Internet browser, and they will be instant-on. They will weigh less than 2 pounds, be less than 20 mm thick (0.787 inches), and have eight hours of battery life with week-long standby time. Other smartbook attributes will include an intuitive interface, a sizable high-resolution display, an easy-to-use touchscreen, customizable operating systems and optimization for Web applications.

We will have to wait awhile for the first smartbooks to hit the shelves before we can check them out to see if they meet all of these objectives. However, from what I understand, they will, and they will come not only in the typical clamshell form factor with larger screens, but in more compact touchscreen tablets, and we should start seeing them in the fall.

It appears as though there will be some major differences between various versions of netbooks as well as between versions of smartbooks. Some of these devices will have solid state storage, which means they won't have as much storage as your desktop computer, but if you are OK with using the Internet for storing your data and applications, and you trust the wired and wireless connections, this probably will not be a big issue for you. If it is, there are some devices that have hard drives, but battery life will not be as good as with the solid state drive systems.

Perhaps the biggest difference I see in these two classes of products is that it looks like all of the smartbooks will be instant-on, while only some netbooks will be instant-on. Running Windows XP will still require waiting for the system to boot unless it is kept in standby, but other operating systems, including Linux, will provide instant-on capabilities. The importance of this is that these devices are likely to be used more during the day when users don't have the time to wait for a system to boot up in order to access their email or other information. These devices are not the first of what used to be called sub-notebooks or ultra-mobile PCs to provide instant-on capabilities. In the 1990s, many companies, including HP, released what would today be called netbooks using the Windows CE operating system, which permitted instant-on access to applications and information. I think instant-on is one of the most important features I will take into account when considering a purchase of either a smartbook or a netbook and it appears that smartbooks will all be instant-on. The next consideration will be what applications they run. I'm certainly not going to try to deal with file compatibilities across operating systems.

How many of us will carry wirelessly-enabled netbooks or smartbooks? How many devices will we carry and how often? Today I carry a smartphone (BlackBerry) all of the time and take my notebook with me when I will be away for more than a one-day trip, and only if I need to create work while I am away. My notebook weighs less than 3 pounds, has a battery life of 4 hours or more, a DVD reader/writer, 160-GB hard drive, and is fully synced to my desktop so I have every file I need with me, and it has Bluetooth, WiFi, and wide-area broadband.

Will I purchase a smartbook or netbook and then have three devices? If I must have two or three separate subscriptions for wireless access, one for each device, I probably will stick with my notebook for a while, at least until there are new pricing models or I come to trust having my data and applications in the "cloud," which I don't completely trust at the moment.

These products are "tweeners," and looking at the specifications, it is clear that smartbooks offer much better battery life than netbooks so far, but the rest of the comparisons will have to wait until we are able to test drive both classes of devices side-by-side. My final question is whether the iPhone and phones designed after it have changed people's perception of whether they need one of these new devices. Time will tell.

Andrew Seybold is an authority on technology and trends shaping the world of wireless mobility. A respected analyst, consultant, commentator, author and active participant in industry trade organizations, his views have influenced strategies and shaped initiatives for telecom, mobile computing and wireless industry leaders worldwide.