Although they were never as successful as analysts once thought they’d be, netbooks are still a great option for someone needing an inexpensive, highly portable computer. Smaller, lighter and cheaper than a laptop, a netbook normally features a keyboard and Wi-Fi connectivity, while its other features — memory, storage, speed and I/O ports — are scaled down from a full-size notebook. However, there’s a great deal of difference from one netbook to the next. If you’re in the market for a computer to stash in your backpack or track your sales calls, a netbook could be the answer. With most manufacturers phasing out their netbook lines, discounts abound.
Two elements are common among netbooks: form factors no wider than their keyboards and screens no larger than 12 inches, with many netbooks featuring 10.1-inch full-color screens. To keep size minimal, most netbooks don’t offer optical drives, and many use solid-state storage instead of spinning hard drives. To preserve battery life, the processor in a netbook is usually significantly slower than the quad-core screamers in many full-size notebooks, and RAM frequently tops out at 2GB. If you use Photoshop or multitrack audio recording software, you may find a netbook too slow for your liking. One area a netbook may compare favorably is ports: some models boast USB, Ethernet, audio in/out, SD card readers and video ports. Many also offer a camera for video conferencing.
In addition to reduced storage and processing power, most netbooks have run on reduced versions of Windows, with XP being supplanted by Windows 7 Starter. Windows 8 netbooks are available, but their specs normally include larger screens and more RAM than netbooks are known for. Chances are, if you seek a true netbook with Windows, you’ll be using Windows 7. If you’re comfortable with Linux, a few netbooks ship with the open-source OS, and you might find it runs more briskly than Windows.
The primary factor differentiating netbooks from larger-but-lighter ultrabooks is price: netbooks were developed as a low-cost alternative to a full-size laptop. On the other hand, when Apple unveiled the MacBook Air, the new model was priced at a premium. Netbooks frequently come in at under $400, with sub-$300 prices not uncommon. As models are discontinued, the prices of available stock should decrease further, and refurbished models with factory warranties could make a netbook very attractive as a second computer.
The demise of netbooks is primarily due to the exploding touchscreen tablet market. With models such as the iPad and Windows Surface taking the public by storm and Android models offering a low-priced alternative, tablet sales overtook netbooks in mid-2011. At the same time, Ultrabooks such as the MacBook Air and ASUS Zenbook offer full-size laptops with fast processors and extremely light weights. Once priced higher than Apple’s MacBook Pro line, the Air is now positioned as an entry-level Mac with a sub-$1,000 price tag. Another netbook alternative is the Chromebook, a sub-notebook form factor running Google’s Chrome OS. Unveiled in 2011 and built by several manufacturers, Chromebooks boast light weight, nearly instant startup and prices under $250. While the Chromebook’s dependence on the cloud for storage and apps isn’t for everyone, the price alone makes these computers an option as “traditional” netbooks begin to disappear.