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 for the time. Over the years, the features and price of the netbooks continued to climb in price while classic laptop prices continues to fall and get better performance.

Ultimately, the class of systems faded out when tablets became popular. Recently, the idea of extremely affordable and compact laptops has risen again with a number of companies essentially releasing systems that share many of the traits of 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 need enough processor performance to handle basic computing tasks such as web browsing, email, word processing, spreadsheets and basic photo editing. Frankly, you do not need much computing power to do these tasks. Still, these systems tend to use a different class of processor from traditional laptops that are closer to what is used in a tablet.

Where Is the CD?

When netbooks originally came out, a CD or DVD drive was still very much a requirement for most computers in order to load software at least.

Now it is getting increasingly difficult just to find a laptop that actually features one. This is because optical drives are not a requirement for computers thanks to digital software distribution. So really this is not much of a distinction between a netbook and a tradional laptop anymore.

Solid State or Hard Drive?

Solid state drives or SSDs are becoming much more common with mobile computers.

There 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 offer a much storage space as traditional hard drives. As a result, most netbook class laptops generally have storage capacities of roughly 32 to 64GB of space. In addition to this, they use less expensive drives that offer lower performance than standard SATA based drives found in many laptops.

Display and Size

LCD displays are probably the biggest overall cost to manufacturers of laptop PCs. In order to reduce the overall costs of these systems, manufacturers developed systems using smaller screens. The first netbooks used relatively small 7-inch screens. Since then, the screens have been getting progressively larger. Most new 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 one again to keep the costs down.

The first netbooks were incredibly light at just over two pounds when a traditional laptop was weighing around five pounds.

Now most laptops have become smaller weighing between three and four pounds and competing tablets often weigh less than a pound. This, they don't have the ultra compact size that they once did. They are still very portable for many people.


The typical netbook style laptop is often sold as an extremly portable system that runs Windows but there are restrictions that users should be aware of. For instance, they often ship with a 32-bit version of Windows rather than 64-bit that most systems do. This is typically 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 sometimes cases that the traditional Windows software that you wish to run on these computers will not. This is often due to the hardware limitations such as the memory or the speed of the processor more than anything else.

If you are 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, it is more media focused applications like graphics and video that you will find that the netbook class of systems are woefully underpowered such that you must get a traditional laptop.


Netbooks were always about cost but this was their original downfall. While the original systems were price around $200 while a laptop price was generally over $500, the gradual price increases on netbooks and the decreasing costs of traditional laptops meant that the systems were doomed. Now it is relatively easy to find a traditional laptop for under $500 which many priced around $300. As a result, the new crop of netbook laptops on the market are all roughly $200 which many not getting any more expensive than $250. Tablets are the primary reason that they had to get back to keeping prices as low as possible.


The new class of super affordable Windows laptops is a difficult one. They are certainly affordable at just $200 but their features limit the useful ness. It is 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 becomes whether 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 one. It essentially comes down to how you intend to use the devices more than anything else.