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Originally published Saturday, August 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Netbooks' price, size make them a worthy Apple rival

In the Microsoft-Mac battle, the real question is whether the next computer someone buys is a full-featured laptop or a netbook.

Special to The Seattle Times

A few months ago, Microsoft made great hay with commercials that said rather bluntly that Apple's laptops were too expensive; that cool was the extra factor that made the price higher than comparable computers running Windows.

Excluding some specious issues, such as whether Microsoft was offering a real apples-to-Apple comparison, and whether anyone would willingly buy a machine with Vista installed with Windows 7 on its way, most people don't choose between a Mac and Windows system based on price.

Mac users typically buy more Macs, and this has been true except for Apple's darkest days a decade ago. Windows users typically buy more Windows systems. Apple claims a high rate of Mac laptop buyers who previously used Windows, but that represents a very small percentage of all Windows laptop owners. (For the highest-price laptop market, Apple owns a bigger chunk of buyers and has a bigger rate of switchers among graphics and video professionals.)

The real question is whether the next computer someone buys is a full-featured laptop or a netbook. This is true for Mac users, even though you'd be giving up Mac OS X in favor of Windows XP. (Some netbooks run Linux, but that seems to be an ever-smaller number.)

Netbooks' most tempting feature is their price. For about $300, you can get a nice, small laptop optimized for using Internet-based applications. That includes Google mail, word processing and spreadsheet software, Apple's MobileMe, and Adobe's Photoshop.com.

Netbooks ask the question: Do you need 100 times the computational power of a desktop machine from 10 years ago? Instead, you can buy something modest that leverages Apple, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo's investment in server farms.

Because netbooks are designed to use Internet applications, they lack optical drives and often omit Ethernet and the fastest flavor of Wi-Fi (802.11g is used instead of 802.11n). RAM and hard-disk storage used to be more limited, but $300 models now include 1 GB of memory and 120 or 160 GB drives.

What's left out as a result is weight and size. A typical netbook weighs about 2.5 pounds and measures just slightly more than a sheet of paper, from 10 to 12 inches wide and 7 to 9 inches deep.

Apple makes a similar "lacking" computer that's lightweight, tiny, omits an optical drive and has similar storage specs; it's called the MacBook Air. And it costs $1,399.

But it's not a fair comparison. A MacBook Air can run any software you throw at it. The fairer equation is between the $999 MacBook and a $300 netbook (students pay $50 less for that model). For students, who always have an Internet connection at school and home, who need something small and rugged, and who mostly use e-mail, instant messaging, the Web and a word processor, the MacBook could be overkill. (Apple's lowest priced MacBook Pro is $1,199, or $100 cheaper with an education discount.)

The minute you start getting into other applications, of course, a full-featured laptop and a $700-or-greater price difference make sense. As soon as you need to put together a video for a class or presentation, the netbook's limitations are writ large.

For Mac users, are we willing to trade dollars for the so-called user experience? If we can run our favorite browser (Safari or Firefox) under Windows XP and spend all of our time in the browser, how much does the Mac interface matter to us in the end?

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The answer might be surprising. Google's recent announcement that it was developing an optimized, security-focused netbook operating system could bridge the gap, as could Windows 7, which has gotten sparkling early reviews for its interface, performance and security features.

If we can ignore the operating system in favor of the Web browser, Microsoft's nightmare from 1995 may finally appear: the OS is no longer important. But that might turn out to be Apple's nightmare, too.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to gfleishman@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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