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What Are Netbooks?

Guide to Netbooks and How They Differ From Traditional Laptops

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Acer Aspire One Netbook

Acer Aspire One

©Acer

Netbooks are the hottest trend in personal computers today. Their extremely small size and very low price tag make them very attractive to people looking for a low cost yet portable laptop that they can bring just about anywhere. They have opened up computing to a whole new group of people who didn't feel they could afford a laptop previously. But is a netbook a good choice over a traditional laptop? This article looks into what exactly makes a netbook and how to decide if one is right for you.

Speed Isn't Everything

Most netbooks are not what you would consider fast when it comes to computing. They are not designed for fast speeds 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. This is where they tend to get the nicknames as internet devices or mobility platforms. Frankly, you don't need much computing power to do these tasks. The majority of netbooks on the market use the Intel Atom processors, while a few are available with processors from VIA.

Where's the CD?

Since their computing tasks are limited and costs are a key factor, the number of features in a netbook is less than you would find in a traditional laptop or even an ultraportable. Items such as CD/DVD drives are not required and only add to the cost and bulk of the system. By removing features like this, they can reduce the weight, size and power consumption. As a result, most people will not be able to use a netbook as a complete PC replacement without purchasing additional peripherals such as external drives.

Solid State or Hard Drive?

Speaking of drives, many of the least expensive netbooks use flash or solid state drives in lieu of a traditional hard drive. This one again reduces the overall size of the system and reduces power consumption. The problem is that the memory chips used for solid state drives are relatively expensive per gigabyte. This results in limited storage space (sometimes not even enough to hold Windows XP) or rapid increases in the cost of the system compared to a standard notebook. Because of this, most of the netbooks now use hard drives.

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 with the most common size now being 10 inches. Newer systems are being made available with 11- and even 12-inch screens. Many companies are reluctant to go larger since it cuts into sales of larger traditional laptops.

With netbooks being smaller than ultraportables, they also tend to be much lighter. This makes them great for those who need to have network connectivity while they are traveling or basic productivity computing. The small size does have its drawbacks, though. Netbooks tend to be very narrow, forcing the keyboard to also be smaller than a traditional laptop design. These small keys can be very problematic for use over extended periods of time or for those with larger hands.

Software

Software is another big item when talking about netbooks. Windows Vista is generally too resource-intensive to support the hardware. Microsoft has made available Windows XP Home for netbooks as long as they don't exceed certain specifications. This will eventually be phased out for a lighter version of Windows 7 once it ships. Even then, Microsoft will place hardware restrictions in order for manufacturers to get the less expensive versions of the OS. The current Windows XP restrictions are:

  • CPU: 1.66GHz Single Core and Lower
  • Memory: 1GB Maximum
  • Drive: 160GB Hard Drive or 16GB SSD
  • Screen: 12.2-inches and Smaller

The rumored Windows 7 restrictions for netbook licensing are:

  • CPU: 2GHz Single Core and Lower and 15W Thermal or Lower
  • Memory: 1GB Maximum
  • Drive: 250GB Hard Drive or 64GB SSD
  • Screen: 10.2-inches and Smaller

Of course, manufacturers always have the option of selling specifications beyond the Microsoft imposed restrictions. To do so, they either must sell it with a full OS license that increases the cost or go with an alternative such as one of the various Linux operating systems.

Costs

The goal of netbooks was to be less expensive than a traditional laptop PC. This is true for some of these models, but many netbooks have expanded features or items that have driven their costs up. The original netbook goals were to cost around $100. They ended up costing between $200 and $300. Many of the latest models are now priced above $400 and even as high as $800 because of additional features. This puts many of these netbooks directly in competition price wise with full-featured budget laptops.

Conclusions

Netbooks offer up some great values in the computing world as well as extremely mobile computing platforms. The problem is that they fail in most aspects of having all the standard features of a traditional laptop. This makes them a good choice for supplementing a desktop PC for those that don't want to buy a full laptop when traveling away from the office or home. They are very good as network appliances for web browsing or accessing email. If you are thinking about getting a netbook, be sure to ask yourself two questions:

  1. Does it meet my computing needs?
  2. Am I willing to sacrifice features for portability over a larger and slightly more expensive budget laptop?

If the answer to these two questions is yes, then a netbook might be a computing item to consider. Check out my list of the Best Netbooks for various features and prices.

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