The key differences between netbook computers and laptop computers can seem rather blurry if you are not up to speed on portable computer technology. In the shifting world of computer technology how do you tell the difference between laptops and netbooks and decide which factors are most important to you? Is it size, weight, operating system, CPU, cost, battery life, or all of the above?
This article will explore 8 key differences between netbooks and laptops to assist in your portable computer shopping. Also be sure to check out my earlier posts Netbook Computer Primer and 7 Reasons Netbook Computers are Great for Students.
Where Netbooks and Laptops Differ
1. Screen size
A general rule of thumb for a netbook is screen size between 7 and approximately 10 inches. Laptop screen size will generally vary between 12 inches 17 inches. There are some exceptions to these common sizes as a few manufacturers have made netbook computers with screens as large as 11 inches and some ultra portable laptop computer have been made with screens as small as 11 inches. There are also some laptops with screens as large as 20 inches. However at that size the concept of portability vanishes due to the overall size and weight of the laptop (or is it a portable desktop?).
A key factor in laptop and netbook computer design is the relationship between size and weight. Netbooks are smaller than laptops and weigh less. An average weight for a netbook is between 2.5 and 3.0 pounds. Mainstream laptop computers will be in the 5 to 7 pound range. Some premium ultra portable laptops can weigh in as low as 3 to 4 pounds. Screen size also directly effects computer weight as a larger screen is heavier. Plus the larger screen requires a larger, heavier battery to power the screen.
3. Battery life
The battery life between chargings for laptop and netbook computers varies dramatically. Most netbooks promise a battery life between 5 and 10 hours. Some older models are still in the 3+ hours range with some newer models achieving a battery life of up to 14 hours between charging. Most laptops will deliver a battery life between 3 and 5 hours. However with recent technology advances some moderately priced laptops are offering battery life between 7 and 12 hours per charge.
4. CPU & Processing Power
If there is one area where the difference between netbook computers and laptops computers is clear it is in processing power. From all perspectives laptop computers have more processing power than netbooks.
The vast majority of netbooks use the Intel Atom NP450 CPU with earlier netbook models using an earlier version of the Atom. Laptops use more powerful CPUs including the Intel Core Duo, Core 2 Duo or, more recently, one of the Intel i3, i5 or i7 CPUs. Ultra low voltage versions of some of these CPUs are also used in some ultra light laptops. Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) also produces CPUs that are commonly used in laptops including their Turion and Athlon CPU product lines.
5. Optical Drives (CD/DVD)
CD/DVD drives are another clear area of difference. Netbooks do not have an internal CD or DVD drive. You must buy an external drive or download all software from the Internet. You can buy an external CD/DVD drive that connects via the USB port and costs approximately $50.
A large majority of laptop computers include a built-in CD/DVD drive. Some ultra portable laptops do not have an internal drive but come with an external CD/DVD drive as standard equipment.
The majority of netbooks are priced in the $275 to $400 range. Laptops can range from $400 at the very low end to over $2,000 for some ultra light systems and high powered gaming laptops. By their basic design laptop computers have more flexibility in the final configuration.
Another item to consider in any cost comparison is the fact that netbook computers do not come with a CD/DVD drive. An external CD/DVD drive will add $50 to the cost. Larger, extended life batteries are also available for many netbooks. Some models come with the more powerful batteries as standard equipment otherwise the longer-life battery will add $50 – $75 to the cost. So when adding in the cost of an external CD/DVD drive and an extended life battery your netbook could end up closer to the $375 – $450 price range.
7. Operating System
Most laptops are now shipping with Windows 7 Home Premium. Most netbook computers now ship with Windows 7 Starter Edition installed. The Starter Edition is similar to Home Premium although it cannot utilize the features of the Windows 7 Aero advanced graphical interface. Due to the lower processing power and the reduced graphics processing capabilities of netbooks the less demanding version of Windows 7 Starter Edition is a much better fit.
Some laptops are still available with Windows XP although they are mainly focused on business world. Laptops with Windows XP are available direct from manufacturers (Dell, Lenovo, etc.) or through corporate resellers. All laptops sold in retail stores include Windows 7.
8. Graphics Capabilities
As mentioned in the Operating System section above, netbooks have significantly less power for processing complex graphics. Laptops have a more powerful CPU than netbooks plus many laptops have an additional powerful graphics processor which assists in providing higher screen resolutions, enhanced video processing capabilities and the power to play computer games. A netbook is not the optimal solution for playing computer games or watching DVDs or videos.
The Differences Will Continue With Laptops and Netbooks
There are a number of gray areas when comparing netbook computers and laptop computers including weight and battery life. However, there are also a number of areas where there are very clear differences such as processing power, built-in CD/DVD drives, and cost.
For the sake of comparison I’ve followed the 90/10 rule and compared the 90% of mainstream laptop computers and netbook computers. If you look hard enough you could most likely find a few exceptions in each of the eight categories described above. However, as general rule and for most retail shopping and mainstream computers these comparisons should hold up quite well.