Netbook Computer Primer

by Mike McEvoy on May 21, 2009

The Netbook computer has made quite a splash in a computer world driven by smaller, lighter, stronger, faster, and easier. Netbooks are the latest version of the portable computer. Similar to laptop computers in many ways except that Netbook computers are smaller, lighter, less expensive and less powerful. They are great for portability but less functional for computing intensive tasks. This Netbook Computer Primer examines just what a Netbook computer is and explores the potential benefits and drawbacks of this new breed of portable computer.

What is a Netbook Computer?

Let’s start at the beginning. Based on current technology a Netbook computer is an ultraportable computer:

    • typically weighing 2.5 pounds
    • having a screen size between 7” and 10”
    • including a wireless networking adapter (g/n)
    • having no internal optical (CD or DVD) drive
    • typically running Windows XP Home
    • utilizing a lower powered CPU such as the Intel Atom CPU.

Netbook computers are designed for less computing intensive tasks such as receiving and sending email and accessing the Internet. Netbooks are basic computing devices that are suited for basic computing tasks. Leading manufacturers include Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, MSI and Toshiba.

The Net book computer has captured many people’s interest for two main reasons – size and price. Based on size and weight a Netbook fits somewhere in between the smartphone and the laptop computer. Key factors that differentiate a Netbook computer from other portable computers are:

Size — Most Netbook computers have a screen size between 7” and 10” measured diagonally. They are larger than a smartphone, which have screens not much bigger than 3” diagonally, and smaller than a laptop computer which range between 12” and 17”.

Price – Netbook  computer prices range from $250 to $800 with an average price in the $350 range. This price can increase if you add an external CD/DVD drive or a larger, extended life battery. Most Netbooks come with 1GB of RAM. Upgrading to 2GB if needed will also add to the cost.

Weight – The other aspect of a Netbook computer being “smaller” is weight. Most Netbooks weigh in at around 2.5 pounds. A smaller screen means a lighter screen and a smaller and lighter battery to power the smaller screen. The weight of most Netbooks falls in the 2 – 3 pounds range however adding a larger, extended life battery can add as much as half a pound to the overall weight.

CPU or Computing Power – Most Net book computers use a CPU from the Intel Atom CPU line. These “brains” are less powerful than the Intel P4, Core, or Core 2 CPUs or the AMD CPUs that are in most laptop computers. While these CPUs provide less computing power they also require much less electrical power resulting in smaller, lighter weight batteries and cooler running Netbooks. UPDATE: Intel released its latest versions of the Atom CPU in early 2010. Be sure to check out the post on “New Intel Processor for Netbook Computers

Optical Storage (CD/DVD) – Internal CD or DVD drives are not included in a netbook computer. External drives can be connected through USB ports for loading software or transferring data to another computer. External optical drives are not included in the base cost of most Netbook computers.

Mass Storage (hard disk drive) – Netbooks offer either a traditional hard disk drive (HDD) that have a capacity between 60 GB and 160 GB, or lower capacity solid state drives (SSD) with capacities ranging from 16 GB to 64 GB of flash memory.


Potential Drawbacks with A Netbook Computer

Size, weight and price provide some real benefits with Netbook computers. There are also a number of trade-offs with the reduced size and weight.

  1. Keyboard size — A Netbook computer’s keyboard is usually about 85 to 95 percent of a full-size QWERTY keyboard. The layout and arrangement of the keys can also vary. Netbooks that have 10-inch screens tend to offer the larger keyboards. Well worth a test drive to determine if the smaller keyboard is a good fit for you.
  2. Computing power – As explained earlier a Netbook computer is not designed for computing intensive tasks such as editing videos or large photos or playing modern video games. Loading programs and saving documents may also be a bit slower than a laptop.
  3. Expandability and Ports – Some netbook computer models may have only two USB ports and may lack a PC-Card slot.
  4. Limited hard disk storage – Some models offer only a 16GB or 32GB solid state drive. After the space required for Windows and your program files these smaller capacity drives may not leave sufficient space for all your other files in the long term. Especially if you are considering copying your 30GB music and photo library onto the computer.
  5. No internal optical drive – as noted above Netbook computers do not have internal CD or DVD drives by definition. It is relatively easy to connect an external drive via USB but it will cost extra.
  6. Battery life – These rating can vary significantly, ranging from 2.5 hours to over 8 hours depending on the model. Many netbook computer manufacturers also offer an extended life battery as an extra cost option.
  7. RAM – Most Netbooks come with 1GB of RAM and can accept a maximum of 2GB. The higher amount will provide better performance but is an added cost.
  8. Mouse buttons and touchpad – The smaller amount of keyboard real estate can also impact the mouse buttons and the touchpad. As with laptops the configuration of these important elements can vary. Another area where a test drive will be beneficial.

Netbook computers provide some very interesting options. As the technology continues to evolve in this hot product area the capabilities are only going to get better and some of the trade offs, such as performance, may decrease significantly. The popularity of Netbooks is also putting additional pressure the price and performance of conventional, fully sized ultralight laptops. The distinctions between these two categories will probably continue to blur. Be sure to check out “Laptops – Netbooks – 8 Key Differences” for more insights on how these two types of portable computers compare.

For students and parents looking for a portable computer for school be sure to see the post on 7 Reasons Netbook Computers are Great for Students

For many people the main decision point between a Netbook computer and a laptop will be size and weight. If you are looking for a very small footprint, very lightweight basic computing device you should seriously consider one these. If you will need more computing power (bigger applications or having many applications open at once), an internal CD/DVD drive, a big, fast hard disk drive, or lots of ports, the laptop will probably be the better option.

Hard to Beat the Price of a Net book Computer


Netbook computers are a relatively new market and in a significant state of flux. In an era of high performance quad-core CPUs and terabyte hard disk drives many people have been surprised by the popularity of these relatively low horsepower devices. A key factor that makes a Netbook computer so interesting is their low price. At $350 they almost become a throw away device – keep it for 18 to 24 months and dispose of it. At a time where you can spend $500 on a Smartphone not including the significant costs of the monthly service contract, a Netbook computer looks like quite a bargain.



Michel July 31, 2009 at 8:09 am

Good article. It served me as a compare/contrast of different laptops. If Apple could make a netbook at a price of $400+ then it can reach out to a lot of people who financially can’t afford Mac products.

Mike McEvoy July 31, 2009 at 10:57 am

Michel, Glad you found the article helpful. Yes, it would be interesting to see Apple sell a Netbook. However I don’t really expect to see one as I think it would impact too much of their higher-priced business. I think they would rather sell (1) iBook than (3) Apple Netbooks.

What do you think? Will Apple release a Netbook?

Ralph84 August 3, 2009 at 9:56 pm

Great info. Enjoy the direct, non-sales, no hype perspective. Very helpful. Thanks

Quinn O. September 6, 2009 at 10:13 am

well, I was a little skeptical about the power of the netbooks, but I broke down and bought a great HP netbook at and I absolutelly love it! It is so small and light and has all the bells and whistles I need. It’s quick, peppy, and gets me everywhere I need to get on the internet and allows me to do my business work too with all the Office programs.

GeoH December 11, 2009 at 11:19 am

Good info, very concise and helpful. However netbooks seem rather low powered. Are there any plans to boost the processing power in the near future while still keeping the small form factor and long battery life? Thanks for the excellent netbook information here.

Mike McEvoy December 11, 2009 at 1:49 pm

@GeoH — Glad you found my Netbook Computer Primer useful. Yes, Netbooks are not designed to be high horsepower computers but are focused on portability, low-cost and long battery life.

Newer, more powerful processors for Netbooks are on the way. 2010 should also see some additional enhancements in graphics/video processing on Netbooks. Not quite sure how some of the newer CPUs will effect battery life. Thanks for stopping by.

Search Craigslist December 21, 2009 at 8:08 am

Netbooks are really low powered. I wish there were any plans to boost the CPU power in the near future :-(

maddy December 29, 2009 at 9:42 pm

i bought hp mini and really like it for my travels, had it 2mos, i didnt buy external cd/dvd drive as didnt know enough about buying one, now i think that is only way i can put my nortons security on,,,,my trial security is now out so havent used it but i had bought months before this purchase,nortons that can be used on 3 computers, so is this the only way i can put it on netbook, i dont want to use it without protection, any other tips….thanks, maddy

Mike McEvoy December 30, 2009 at 10:14 pm

@maddy — It sounds like you have a Norton Internet Security CD that still has some time left on the subscription but no external CD drive to allow you to install the software on your HP netbook. One possible solution is to download the trial version of your same software from the Norton web site and then enter your subscription key when it asks for one. This should unlock the trial version and allow you to use the remaining months of your current subscription.

Let me know if that does the trick. Thanks for stopping by.

pest control prices January 23, 2010 at 3:09 pm


Another option is to create an iso file out of the disk. If you know how to set up a virtual drive this could be another option.

Back to the topic, I had a friend who used a Netbook to do his scientific work out in the field (he investigates forest ecosystems and how they work). Those things are so small and easy to tote around that it’s ideal for hiking or traveling with.

Gerry @ small laptop computers February 8, 2010 at 12:47 pm

@ mandy
Another option and one which I have moved to, is to forget Norton, forget ESet, and the other commercial packages and go to the new Microsoft Security Essentials. This is a free package from Microsoft which offers free anti virus and malware protection, that when combined with Windows Firewall, and Windows Defender which are already part of Vista and Windows 7, give you about all the protection you need. If you apply common safe surfing practices along with the free software you are going to be about as safe as you can get. You can Google MS Secrity Essentials for the download location from Microsoft. I am curious if others are using the free anitivirus from Microsoft?

websiteinstantlauncher May 26, 2010 at 2:58 pm

I’ve been look at the netbooks but they just don’t have everything that I want at a reasonable price and have the right add on but I keep looking thanks for all this good information and thank you for the article you posted on my blog it very well writen thanks again

The Searher June 1, 2010 at 10:16 am

Glad I found your artiicle buried among all the netbook ads. Great info – unbiased, concise and very useful for my shopping needs. Are there any plans for Intel to make netbooks more powerful? A bit more horsepower would be great.

Barbara Parker June 17, 2010 at 1:44 pm

I am senior citizen. Looking for something to travel with to allow us to get e-mail and play games (solitare, etc). Netbook was suggested by Son – also, want to know if possible to use a mouse with it? Thanks

Tony@ Gearhub July 11, 2010 at 8:05 am

Power is a bit low, however, it is very handy. Especially if you travel to work via train every morning. It takes me about 30 minutes to get there and I can pull out the notepad and get a head start. Very convenient product.

chyardi January 31, 2011 at 10:41 pm

What is the difference Notebook with Laptops?, or the same?

Mike McEvoy January 31, 2011 at 11:16 pm

A good question. Actually the terms “notebook” and “laptop” are used pretty interchangeably these days. At one time notebooks were the smaller laptops, generally in the 10″ to 13″ range.

However with Netbooks occupying the smaller form factor and the arrival a few years ago of “ultraportable” laptops and “ultralightweight” laptops the term “notebook” computer became pretty much irrelevant.

What I see now are Laptops, Netbooks and Tablets. Although many people will still use the terms notebook and laptop interchangeably. Hope that makes sense. ;-)

Thanks for your question. Hope you enjoy my blog.

carol b. February 27, 2011 at 4:28 pm

I would like to put an antiviris program on my HP net book but it does not have a cd slot to put the cd in to down lod it. What can I do?

Mike McEvoy February 27, 2011 at 9:27 pm

Hi Carol, thanks for stopping by. Since netbooks do not include in internal CD/DVD drive you have three potential options for installing antivirus software:
1. You can download it from the software publisher’s web site directly onto the netbook
2. You can purchase an external CD/DVD drive that will connect to your netbook via a USB port
3. If you are connected to a network with other computers you may be able to share the CD/DVD drive on another computer on the network and then access it with your computer. This option is a bit more “iffy” and will require some technical knowledge. Even then a given piece of software may not allow you to install it from a shared drive.
Regardless, one of those three methods will work.

Gerry February 27, 2011 at 9:13 pm

@carol b.

Your Netbook should have a USB port. Insert a USB memory stick in the USB port and download the Antivirus software to the USB stick and the install the software from the USB stick. The free Microsoft Essentials anti virus has turned out to be an excellent free solution in terms of anti virus and Malware protection.

Antonio March 8, 2011 at 10:58 pm

Just read your article, like it, great spec’s about notebooks. Notebooks sound great at first, but the drawbacks make you think twice. Something to consider when buying a notebook or laptop. The best notebook I like is the HP mini311, but it cost more too.

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