What Is a Netbook?

Learn how low-cost laptops are reviving the netbook concept

HP Steam 11 Netbook Class Low Cost Windows Laptop

HP, Inc.

Netbooks were developed in 2007 as a new class of personal computer system. The original models were designed to offer a basic computing experience in a compact laptop design with a price tag of roughly $200 to $300, which was incredibly inexpensive at the time.

Over the years, the features and price of netbooks continued to climb while classic laptop prices continued to fall. Ultimately, netbooks faded out when tablets became popular.

Most recently, however, the idea of extremely affordable and compact laptops has risen again with a number of companies essentially releasing systems that share many of the same traits as netbooks but without that specific name.

Speed Is Not Everything

Most netbook class laptops are not what you would consider fast. They are not designed for speed but for power efficiency instead. They tend to use a different class of processor from traditional laptops that is closer to the processor used in a tablet.

They only need enough processor performance to handle basic computing tasks such as web browsing, email, word processing, spreadsheets, and basic photo editing.

Unless you need support for gaming, streaming, or intense photo or video editing, you don't need much computing power.

Where Is the CD/DVD Player?

When netbooks originally came out, a CD or DVD drive was still a requirement for most computers because it was the common way to install software. Now, it's becoming increasingly difficult to find a laptop that has one. Optical drives are not a requirement for computers anymore thanks to digital software distribution. Most software programs are available online, even commercial programs that aren't freely available.

Netbook Hard Drive

Solid state drives (SSDs) are becoming much more common with mobile computers. Their compact size, low power consumption, and durability make them ideal for mobile devices.

Netbooks were originally some of the first personal computers to use them with any regularity. They still have the disadvantage of not offering as much storage space as traditional hard drives, though, and as a result, most netbook class laptops usually have relatively small storage capacities of roughly 32GB to 64GB.

In addition to this, they use less expensive drives that offer lower performance than standard SATA drives found in many laptops.

Netbook Display and Size

LCDs are probably the biggest cost to manufacturers of laptop PCs. To reduce the overall costs of these systems, manufacturers developed them using smaller screens.

The first netbooks used small 7-inch screens. Since then, monitors have been getting progressively larger. Most newer laptops that are considered netbooks feature screens with a 10-inch or 12-inch size. It should be noted that they often are not touch screens and have lower resolutions to keep the costs down.

The first netbooks were incredibly light at just over 2 pounds, while a traditional laptop was weighing in around 5 pounds at that time. Now, most laptops have become smaller, weighing between 3 and 4 pounds. They are competing with tablets that often weigh less than a pound.

They don't have the ultracompact size that they once did, but they're still portable for many people.

Netbook Software

The typical netbook-style laptop is often sold as an extremely portable system that runs Windows, but there are restrictions that users should be aware of.

For example, they often ship with a 32-bit version of Windows rather than the 64-bit version that most systems have. This is because the netbook-class laptops feature just 2GB of memory and the smaller 32-bit software executables take up less space and memory.

The downside is that there are occasions where the traditional Windows software that you want to run on these computers will not run. More than anything else, this is often due to the hardware limitations such as the memory or the speed of the processor.

If you're thinking of getting a netbook computer, look carefully at the hardware requirements of any software you intend to run on it. Items like mail, web browsers, and productivity software, for the most part, won't be restricted. However, the netbook is woefully underpowered when it comes to running media-focused applications that involve graphics and video.

If you find that your favorite applications will not work on a netbook, consider a traditional laptop or a gaming laptop.

Netbook Prices

Netbooks were always about cost, but this was their original downfall. While the original systems were priced around $200 with laptops over $500, the gradual price increases on netbooks and the decreasing costs of traditional laptops meant that the systems' main attraction (price) was soon doomed.

It's relatively easy to find a traditional laptop for under $500. The newer crop of netbook laptops on the market are all roughly $200. Tablets are the primary reason that netbooks had to get back to keeping prices as low as possible.

More Information on Netbooks

The newer class of super-affordable Windows netbook-class laptops is interesting. They are certainly affordable at just $200, but their features limit the usefulness for most people.

It's difficult to justify buying a netbook over a tablet when you can get nearly identical internal components from a netbook inside a Windows-based tablet. The main difference is determined by whether you prefer a touch screen or a keyboard for input.

Also, the wider range of software makes it harder to distinguish a traditional Windows system from a tablet. Almost anything you can do on a laptop, you can do on a tablet. More than anything else, the choice comes down to how you intend to use the device.