What Is a Netbook?

How Low Cost Windows Laptops Are Reviving an Older Computing Concept

HP Steam 11 Netbook Class Low Cost Windows Laptop
HP Stream 11. HP, Inc.

Netbooks were originally developed back in 2007 as a new class of personal computer system. The original models were designed to offer 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 more for power efficiency. They tend to use a different class of processor from traditional laptops that are closer to what's used in a tablet.

This is because they only need enough processor performance to handle basic computing tasks like web browsing, email, word processing, spreadsheets, and basic photo editing.

Unless you need support for gaming and streaming, or intense photo and video editing, you do not need much computing power.

Where Is the CD/DVD Player?

When netbooks originally came out, a CD or DVD drive was still very much a requirement for most computers since that was the common way to install software. Now, however, it's becoming increasingly difficult to find a laptop that actually features one.

This is because optical drives are not a requirement for computers thanks to digital software distribution. Most software programs are available online, even commercial programs that aren't freely available.

Therefore, in this respect, there really isn't much of a distinction between a netbook and a traditional laptop.

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.

In fact, 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 storage capacities of roughly 32 to 64 GB.

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

Netbook Display and Size

LCD displays are probably the biggest cost to manufacturers of laptop PCs. In order to reduce the overall costs of these systems, manufacturers developed them using smaller screens.

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

The first netbooks were incredibly light at just over two pounds, while a traditional laptop was weighing in around five pounds. Now, most laptops have become smaller, weighing between three and four pounds, and competing tablets often at less than a pound.

They don't have the ultra-compact size that they once did, but they're still very 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 64-bit that most systems do. This is because the netbook class laptops feature just 2 GB of memory and the smaller 32-bit software executables take up less space and memory.

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

If you're thinking of getting a netbook computer, look very 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 too restricted. Instead, however, it's more the media focused applications that involve graphics and video that you'll find the netbook is woefully underpowered to run.

If you find that your favorite applications will not work on a netbook, you might 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 were doomed.

Now, it's relatively easy to find a traditional laptop for under $500. As a result, the newer crop of netbook laptops on the market are all roughly $200, many not even getting any more expensive than $250.

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 laptops is a difficult one. They are certainly affordable at just $200, but their features limit the usefulness (for most people).

It's much harder to justify a netbook over a tablet when you can essentially get nearly identical internal components from a netbook inside a Windows-based tablet. The main difference is seen when you decide whether or not you prefer a touchscreen or a keyboard for input.

Also, the wider range of software makes it harder to distinguish a traditional Windows system from a tablet. More than anything else, it essentially comes down to how you intend to use the devices.