What is a netbook?

The term "netbook" is a perfect description of the product: a small laptop PC intended mostly for using internet-based tools and services -- surfing the web, running lightweight apps, saving files to the cloud, and so on. Built with less costly components and fewer optional features, netbooks were designed to be affordable systems for casual personal or family use, limited-duration business work, or as an easily portable travel companion.

Netbooks were very popular from 2007-2014 or so, but their position in the PC marketplace has eroded, with tablets becoming the preferred choice for consumers seeking ultraportable systems for casual use. Plus, the distinctiveness of the netbook as a "smaller laptop" category has decreased as ever-smaller but still full-featured laptops hit the market. Today, the difference between netbooks and regular laptops is less their size than their price, with highly usable netbooks available for $200 or less.

The netbook market is now dominated by smaller manufacturers. Many larger PC manufacturers don't even market systems as "netbooks" anymore, instead offering their netbook-style models simply as lower priced, less powerful options within existing laptop product lines.

What defines a netbook?

The netbook has always been better defined as a concept than by a series of specific size and weight specifications. That's because companies used the term netbook to describe a wide range of smaller-than-a-laptop systems, from models with 6"-7" displays (not much bigger than a large smartphone) to ones with very laptop-like 11"-13" displays.

So, in the simplest terms, a netbook is a laptop (meaning it's got a hard frame and attached lid/display) that is intentionally designed to be smaller and cheaper than other systems in that class. To find this low-cost "sweet spot" in the marketplace, netbooks have some major differences compared to laptops:

  • Processor: Netbook processors need to operate within even smaller spaces than laptop processors, so netbooks typically use low-voltage, low-power CPUs similar to those used in tablet PCs. This limits their cycle times to the range of 1 GHz to 2 GHz and makes advanced spreadsheet or photo editing programs slower than on other systems.
  • Storage: To achieve their light weight (typically about 2 lbs.), netbooks contain much smaller hard drives and, therefore, less storage space. Capacities vary widely, from smartphone-like 32-64 GB models to ones with 150 GB or more. Systems with solid-state drives offer higher capacities but the cost of the drives pushes them to the upper half of the netbook price range.
  • Features: Like tablets, netbooks are built to use the internet for accessing and using remote services, saving data to the cloud, and so on. So, you won't find a DVD drive on most netbooks. There are still multiple ports to attach USB devices, external monitors, etc., but the number and type of ports typically goes down along with the price of the system.

As with most consumer products, if you're willing to pay more, you can find netbooks with comparatively faster processors, more storage capacity and additional features such as touch screens, handles, Bluetooth connectivity, and so on. So, when shopping, read the specifications carefully. Today's market includes an amazingly wide range of netbook-style capabilities, styles and prices.

Pros and cons of netbooks

The typical netbook buyer wants a highly portable, "smaller-than-a-laptop" system but doesn't need the speediest processor, high-capacity hard drive or other features of a bigger, heavier laptop. In short, as shown in the following table, a netbook is a compromise.

Advantages of a netbook:

  • Less costly than most laptops or tablets
  • Convenient to hold, carry and pack
  • Extremely light weight
  • Physical keyboard for email and business apps
  • Long battery life (generally)

Disadvantages of a netbook:

  • Slower processors and less RAM (generally)
  • Small screen size
  • Limited internal storage
  • Keyboard may be smaller than typical ones
  • Few peripheral options (DVD drives, etc.)

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