What Is a Netbook?

A brief history of a brief laptop

The term netbook describes a small laptop computer designed mainly to run internet tools and services, such as web browsing, saving files, and a few apps.

Netbooks were introduced in 2007 and retailed for around $200 to $400. This low cost made netbooks a popular choice for people who didn't want the expense and hassle of buying and lugging around laptops, which were more expensive and heavier than they are today.

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The term netbook was coined by Intel while it was marketing its low-power Centrino Atom processor, used in all first-generation netbooks when they came out in 2007. Less than a year later, most PC makers had netbooks.

Rise and Fall of the Netbook

Netbooks were popular between 2007 and 2014, but as tablets rose in popularity, netbooks fell from favor. Tablets packed a powerful tech punch, and they were hard to beat in combing portability and functionality.

At the same time, full-featured laptops grew smaller and more powerful. With laptops no longer the big, impractical machines they once were, price, not size, became the deciding factor when choosing between a netbook and a laptop. When laptop prices fell, netbooks were doomed.

The rise of the smartphone hurt netbooks even more. These mini-computers fit into pockets and can handle all the email and web surfing users need.

Today, most PC manufacturers no longer market lightweight, less-expensive systems as netbooks. Instead, they market netbook-style laptops simply as lower-priced, less powerful options within their current laptop product lines.

Chromebooks were another threat for netbooks, offering similar capabilities at rock-bottom prices.

How Netbooks Differed From Laptops

Netbooks were technically laptops because they had hard frames and an attached display, but were smaller and more compact than portable computers designated as laptops.

Even within the netbook ecosystem, there were differences between how netbook models looked. When something was smaller than a laptop, it got a netbook designation, whether it had a 6-inch or 11-inch display.

Internally, most netbooks used low-voltage, low-power CPUs and had a smaller-capacity hard drive and lower RAM capacity. This led to a less-than-optimal experience when doing intensive tasks such as watching movies or playing games. Most netbooks didn't have an integrated DVD drive but did have multiple ports to attach USB devices.

Netbooks were designed to handle only basic computing tasks, such as web browsing, email, and word processing. At the same time, full-featured laptops could act as desktop replacements.

Many netbooks came with the Windows operating system installed. With Windows 8, Microsoft required systems to have a resolution of at least 1024 x 768, leaving many netbooks with no upgrade path. Windows 10 is compatible with ultra-small displays.

Netbooks Today

The writing was on the wall for netbooks when the price factor, their biggest plus, became a moot point. Netbook prices began rising as manufacturers tried to add more functionality; meanwhile, the price of traditional laptops fell.

Today, nearly every PC maker has an inexpensive, ultra-portable laptop in its lineup. There are still specialty ultra-small laptops that defy categorization. For example, the GDP Pocket is a network-like device that retails for around $500. Still, it's referred to as a small laptop, not a netbook.

Asus markets a thin and light HD laptop for about $200 without calling it a netbook, while Dell has a $250 Inspiron model.

But the term netbook lives on, even if it doesn't mean exactly what it meant in 2007. Toshiba has a 10.1-inch model that it calls a netbook for about $450. Used HP, Acer, and Asus netbook models can often be found online. Some marketing materials throw around the term netbook to refer to any light, inexpensive laptop.

  • What's the difference between a Chromebook and a netbook?

    Like netbooks, Chromebooks are compact, portable, and come with limited features beyond basic computing. One distinct difference is that Chromebooks run on the Chrome OS, which is all Chrome browser-based. Chromebooks can also run Android apps and come in convertible 2-in-1 formats.

  • What is a netbook versus a notebook?

    The primary difference between netbooks and notebooks comes down to laptop size. While they're small like netbooks, notebooks tend to be closer in weight and size with regular laptops. Notebooks typically come with displays of 15 inches or less and weigh less than 5 pounds.

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