Netbooks Versus the iPad for Work Travel

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Q: I travel a lot for work and I'm tired of lugging a big laptop around. What should I buy, an iPad or a netbook?

A: Not to turn the question around on you, but the real question is: do you need what we've traditionally called a computer? Back in 1982, when people were just beginning to tentatively invite them into their homes, James Fallows began his description of "Living With a Computer" like this, "When I sit down to write a letter or start the first draft of an article, I simply type on the keyboard and the words appear on the screen."

The ability to use a keyboard to write and edit is perhaps the most fundamental part of computerness. Despite all the various attempts to unseat the keyboard, it has proven remarkably resilient, because computers are still largely vehicles for the written word, and half that battle is writing and editing. No other input device does that nearly as well as the keyboard. Sure, you could get an external keyboard and carry that around. But then you lose the glorious sleekness and portability that defines the iPad. At that point, maybe you should just get a netbook.

When I travel, I've been using a little Samsung N310 for a few months and I love it. It's about the size and weight of a hardback book and it can do nearly everything that I normally do with my Macbook Pro. On the other hand, it's certainly possible that you don't need a computer. If what you need is a browser and entertainment device, you cannot beat the iPad. The experience it provides is unparalleled. Just know that your text editing (not to mention file managing) abilities will fall somewhere between what you can do on your smartphone and your (real) computer.

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More questions? View the complete Toolkit archive.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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