ASK NBB #5: What is a Netbook?


Tonight’s edition of ASK NBB answers a question I’ve been asked more often than any other – the most basic and crucial one of all.

QUESTION:

What is a netbook?

-Multitudes of curious friends and family I've told about this site

ANSWER:

As always, there’s a quick answer and a good answer. Here’s the quick answer:

A netbook is a year-and-a-half-old category of smallish laptops prized by consumers for their portability and low cost.

And the good answer? Well, in order to give a good answer, I think we need to start with a different question: What is the difference between a notebook and a netbook?

While many decently savvy people may ask what a netbook is, they already know it’s a small laptop – what they really want to know is why it’s different. For that reason I’ve selected a number of categories that I think most powerfully distinguish the notebook from the netbook, and at the end of this article you’ll know just what makes the netbook unique. Here we go!

ASUS Eee PC

Screen Size

Display size is the most noticeably different thing about a netbook – it’s small. Early netbooks started around 7-8.9 inches, but as manufacturers and consumers got comfortable with netbooks the standard has shifted to 10 inches diagonally. You almost never see 7-inch netbooks anymore, and 8.9-inch devices are a rarity as well. On the other side of the spectrum, manufacturers such as Acer have released netbooks with screens as large as 11.6 inches.

Netbook comparison via Gizmodo

Once you get towards 12 inches, you can pretty much confirm that the device isn’t a netbook. However, with the advent of 10-12 inch smartbooks and MIDS that get confused with netbooks all the time, we’ve learned that screen size alone can’t tell you if your device is a netbook. Naturally, that means we need another category:

CPU

The processor is a big deal when it comes down to seeing if your device is a netbook. The vast majority of netbooks use the Atom N270, a 1.6 GHz chip developed by Intel to have just enough guts to run basic applications but beefy enough to boost the price of the device it’s in. A few netbooks have adopted the newer but comparable Intel Atom N280, but the idea behind it is just the same – don’t throw in power you don’t need, and you won’t have to pay for it.

Intel Atom via RegMedia

What other names do you hear when discussing netbook CPUs? One big one is ARM, hardware known to work particularly well with Linux, and Qualcomm has got a CPU called the Snapdragon in its lineup. VIA has a few chips out there including the VIA Nano, but aside from these, few other CPUs are household names in the netbook industry.

What do these chips have in common? They clock in at around 1.6 GHz, and they’re meant for light work – content consumption rather than creation.

Storage

While storage in netbooks ranges from 6 GB to over 200 GB, a few notable trends show up. Early netbooks tended to use solid-state drives – drives with no moving parts – but as SSDs tend to have less capacity and are more expensive, manufacturers began to shift towards the number that is now standard – a 160 GB hard drive.

But don’t think there isn’t diversity in netbook storage. MSI used a dual SSD-and-HDD drive system in its MSI Wind U115 Hybrid to increase space and achieve wondrous things with its battery life. Other netbooks, having lower storage capacity, make use of cloud apps like the ZumoDrive to store data online. There are plenty of applications out there aimed at maximizing your efficiency on a netbook with limited storage, many of which are free.

Operating System

The majority of netbooks use Windows XP – in fact, 96% of them do according to a recent survey. The focus on XP has led Microsoft to impose a lot of strange requirements on netbooks in an effort to defend its profit margins. Regardless, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a variety of choices for your netbook’s operating system.

Windows Logo via Bertverdonck

Ubuntu Linux is a popular one, especially since Canonical released Ubuntu Netbook Remix 9.04. A few hardy netbooks run the clunky Windows Vista, but for the majority XP is a better choice. Jolicloud is a curious Linux-based OS on the way optimized for netbooks, and it looks extremely cool. Moblin 2.0 has been raising a lot of eyebrows with such features as the touch-sensitive Clutter Interface, and Google’s Android OS has been implemented in a few netbooks so far. Even as Microsoft works to get Windows 7 on the table, it seems more and more operating systems are becoming acceptable to netbook users.

Linux Logo via File-extensions

Unfortunately, there is currently no Apple netbook option other than making your own Hackintosh. Apple has been notoriously dismissive of the netbook industry, with Steve Jobs saying Apple “[doesn’t] know how to build a sub-$500 computer that is not a piece of junk.” Regardless, rumors of an upcoming Apple netbook or netbook derivative abound.

Battery Life

While battery life on a netbook isn’t always terribly different from what you’ll find in a notebook, it’s crucial to understand the category if you want to understand netbooks.

Netbook battery life can run from under 2 hours to over 25 in terrible or perfect conditions – it all depends on what you’re packing. 3-cell batteries generally get 3-4 hours of battery, which in my opinion is useless for a machine designed for flawless mobility. On the other hand, 6-cell batteries can get you up to 7.5 hours of life, which is more than enough for most tasks.

9-cell batteries have been seen before, and the largest I’ve seen out there is the hideously massive 10-cell for the Eee PC. The NorhTec EduBook even runs on AA batteries!

A number of factors will affect the maximum battery life your netbook will get you, with the most prominent one being the model you’re using. Operating system is also important, with Linux netbooks getting better battery life than Windows in most cases. We have a useful battery life comparison for some major models here if you’re interested.

Price!

At last, everyone’s favorite thing about netbooks – their pricing. Most netbooks run between $250 and $500, with the major variations in pricing being due to OS choice, battery size, and features like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or 3G. The ASUS Eee PC 1004DN, which has an optical drive, is an example of a netbook with bonus features that cost you.

Acer Aspire One via NotebookCheck

Some netbooks are starting to be downright luxurious, like the HP Mini 1000 Vivienne Tam Edition or the Zen Acer Aspire One. While those are meant to be more of fashion pieces than competitive machines, they’re a sign of the fact that netbook manufacturers want to stay around when the economy gets better and people aren’t just attracted to netbooks for strictly budgetary reasons.

As far as I know, the extremes of netbook pricing are $50 for some AT&T netbooks and around $900 for the Sony Vaio P. However, the $50 netbook is only available with the purchase of a wireless contract, and some people (Sony included) don’t even consider the Vaio P a netbook.

Conclusion

So there you have it! Hopefully by now you know what a netbook is, and just as importantly, what it’s not. As more and more devices in the subnotebook range like the CULV laptop hit market, the playing field is set to get a lot more confusing, but I’m confident that with your newfound knowledge you can stand on your own two feet.

Good luck to you, and Happy Netbooking!

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Interested in getting your own question answered on ASK NBB? Here’s how! Be sure to check out ASK NBB #3 for my projections for the future of the netbook industry, or ASK NBB #4 for some discussion of the evolving Eee PC.

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