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What Defines a Computer as a Netbook?

written by: Bruce Tyson•edited by: M.S. Smith•updated: 2/8/2010

Netbooks are small notebook computers that are compact, lightweight, and designed for basic functionality rather than for high performance. Because some varieties of netbook computers tend to be economically priced, they can appeal to customers who are not interested in a larger device.

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    Defining the Netbook Term

    To define a netbook computer and to differentiate it from the better understood notebook computer, let’s take a look at the primary factors that make a netbook computer different from other laptop and desktop computers.

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    Size of a Typical Netbook

    A netbook computer is generally smaller than a notebook computer. This is because a netbook employs smaller screen sizes and omits an internal optical (CDROM or DVD) drive. The earliest netbook computers were equipped with 7” screens, allowing them to be very compact. Now 10” and 11.6” models are becoming more common, with the advent of 13.3” models just around the corner. Because of their larger display sizes, high-end netbooks are becoming harder to distinguish from a full sized notebook at a glance. Still, a reduced footprint and lighter weight are marks of a netbook.

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    Basic Functions

    Netbooks work much in the same way as their notebook counterparts, only they have less computing power. As with size, this distinction is becoming less pronounced as more expensive netbooks come to market, although the CPUs that power netbooks continue to be unique for that platform. Historically, netbooks have employed small, low power CPUs to improve economy and to maximize battery life.

    Windows compatible netbooks customarily run on a version of Intel’s Atom processor, although the Celeron M, Via’s C7 and SiS’ Vortex 86 have also been used. Newer Windows netbooks also employ the latest AMD’s dual core Neo X2 CPUs and Intel’s dual core SUxx00 CPUs to provide enough power to run full versions of Windows 7 rather than the more limited Windows 7 Starter Edition or Windows XP Home operating systems found on less powerful units.

    Not all are based on Windows compatible architecture. In fact, in the earliest versions of the netbook ran on variations of the Linux operating system and utilized alternative processors such as the ones offered by MIPS and ARM. Linux netbooks are eclipsed by Windows netbooks in the current market, however. For the coming year, only 3% of netbook computers sold are expected to come with Linux installed. In spite of Linux’s lack of competitiveness, Google is marketing its Linux-based Chrome operating system for use on netbooks. Only time will tell if their alternative will be any more appealing to the market than then other Linux variants.

    Netbooks typically have less memory than a notebook. 512 MB netbooks have given way to models having 1 GB or RAM or more. The latest arrivals come packed with 2 GB of RAM standard and are upgradeable to 4 GB, a specification that is equal to many low end notebooks. In addition, while commonly characterized by smaller hard drives on the low end, many higher priced netbooks are now equipped with drives that no longer distinguish them from drives used in their larger notebook counterparts.

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    Price Ranges

    Originally designed for economy, many netbook computers continue to be available in the $200 price range, making mobile computing available to people who previously could not afford it. These computers are perfect for children and students, as well as people who only need a computer to check email, check their bank accounts, and look up web site, or need a computer to use as they travel. The trend in netbooks, however, is toward larger, more expensive models that sometimes cost more than low end notebook computers, so you can’t always identify a netbook by its price tag.

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    So What Exactly is a Netbook?

    A netbook computer is a mobile computer that is smaller and lighter than a notebook computer, typically with less processing power, but with similar functionality and with potentially lower cost. As with notebooks, netbooks are available at a wide range of prices, sizes, and features. Now more than ever you have the ability to find a netbook that suits your needs as well as your budget.