The recent launch of Google’s Nexus One may have injected new life into the smartphone wars. But a battle that’s just as compelling is the one between smartphones and netbooks themselves. Both appeal to those who want maximum portability in a device that allows them to stay connected wherever they roam, and both are potentially attractive to those who currently have neither.

But before ever getting to the question of which smartphone or which netbook to buy, many have to decide whether a netbook or a smartphone makes more sense for their needs.

It’s not an easy decision to make - especially since both smartphones and netbooks help you accomplish many of the same tasks, and they’re both typically fighting for the attention of consumers that can afford one but not both.

Here’s a rundown of where the netbook versus smartphone battle stands.


There’s no contest here: the smartphone wins by a hefty margin.

While netbooks are the thinnest, lightest form of notebook computer that you can purchase today - many can be carried as easily as a small stack of papers - they are still computers, which means you’ll be tempted to haul a power supply and perhaps some accessories, which will only add to the bulk. Smartphones, by comparison, will slip neatly into your pocket. Portability is often the main reason why people get tipped toward the smartphone in the smartphone/netbook debate.

Battery life

Here the nod goes to netbooks.

Today, the best netbooks can squeeze nine hours of continuous use out of a single battery charge - long enough for those who use the device sporadically to go an entire week without recharging. Smartphone users, by contrast, must constantly keep an eye on remaining battery life.

Although smartphones might advertise as many as 14 hours of standby time, standing by is usually not what smartphones are doing.

Heavy data use, Wi-Fi use, mp3 playing, and other activities can knock down real-world battery life to just a few hours. And things get much worse if the weather is cold. It’s not uncommon for your average smartphone user to have a charger at home, one in the car, and one in the office — by necessity, not choice.


Smartphones are usually the easier way to get and stay connected while on the road, since they typically are sold by cell phone carriers with both a phone and wireless data plan. So with a smartphone, you’ll be on some carrier’s network. Network coverage will be your primary concern, and there you’ll need to consult local studies to find out which carrier provides the broadest and best coverage for the areas you need. Pay special attention to network coverage abroad if you’ll be traveling out of the country on a regular basis.

Netbooks can provide the same degree of hassle-free connectivity, but you’ll probably need to look for - and purchase - a separate wireless data plan from your local cell provider. That’s because while netbooks are designed for Internet connectivity out of the box, manufacturers do not assume that everyone who purchases a netbook will want or need a wireless data plan. Some will simply want to use their netbooks at home through their wireless router. Chances are good, though, that wherever you buy a netbook today you can also easily add on a wireless data plan.


If you’re looking for a portable device that approximates the experience you have when using your desktop or full-size notebook computer, you’ll find it with netbooks. But that doesn’t mean that smartphones lose the usability battle outright. In fact, if you haven’t used the keyboard - or touch screen - on a smartphone lately, you’re probably in for a pleasant surprise.

You’ve no doubt seen legions of people “tapping” on their smartphones around you. You can bet that they’re not tapping in agony. In fact, after some initial adjustment, you’re likely to find that smartphone keyboards and keyboard shortcuts allow you to be surprisingly productive.

Web browsing

There’s no doubt that browsing the web is easier on a netbook.

While a growing number of web pages are designed to be viewed easily on a smartphone - those ending with the .mobi extension are made for “mobile” devices such as smartphones - most smartphone users have to employ tricks such as panning and zooming when viewing conventional web sites. A number of applications are being developed that reformat certain types of web sites for smartphone users. Tapatalk, for instance, is available for iPhone and soon other smartphone users who want to browse and respond to posts on web forums. But the fact that such applications exist is testament to the problems that smartphone users have in browsing the web. Advantage: netbook.

Office applications

If you’re looking for the ability to use typical office applications in an ultra-portable package, then netbooks win out in this category. You won’t be tempted to work on complex spreadsheets on a smartphone, although there are spreadsheet-like applications available for most. With netbooks, though, you can fire up just about any traditional application that runs under Windows or another operating system, although you may still be hampered by the very small screens and limited horsepower of the processors used to power today’s netbooks.

If e-mail is your primary need while on the road, a smartphone - especially one from BlackBerry - will prove very satisfactory, however, and will make more sense than a netbook because of its portability.


Here the advantage would seem initially to go to netbooks, but the cost factor is highly dependent upon how you intend to use your smartphone or netbook.

In terms of device acquisition, both smartphones and netbooks cost about the same. But with smartphones you will want not only a cell phone plan but also a data plan. Total cost of ownership over a two-year period - generally the length of the contract you will sign with a carrier - can easily cost more than a high-end desktop computer.

Netbooks can be substantially less expensive over the same period of time, particularly if you do not purchase a wireless data plan that allows you to roam as you can with a smartphone. If you do purchase such a plan - which is really what you’ll want to make the netbook work as intended - then cost of ownership approaches that of a smartphone.

Bottom line

Your decision about whether to choose a smartphone or a netbook should come not from tallying the scores in the categories above but by knowing the strengths of each device and weighing those against your own priorities. If you’ll be using a netbook primarily to catch up on e-mail, then a smartphone is probably the better choice, even if you’re concerned that a smartphone’s keyboard won’t be comfortable enough. If you need maximum computing flexibility in a very portable package, then a netbook very likely makes more sense than a smartphone, despite the wide range of applications available to smartphone users today. In the end, before you invest in either of these devices, you can avoid a potentially costly mistake by getting some extended hands-on experience with both.