I came across this article today, which asks the question “When does a netbook stop being a netbook?”.
I have thought about this question in the past, and so I read the article with interest. I was one of the early adopters of the Asus EeePC 701, which was truly a “netbook”, in the original meaning of the word. Its 7″ screen was so small and its processing power was so feeble that it was most definitely a class apart from “normal” computers. It wasn’t really capable of running a “normal” OS, such as Windows XP or Vista, and running a customised Linux distribution immediately set it apart from other computers.
More recently, netbooks have been getting more powerful, thanks to technology such as Intel’s Atom CPU. Screen size has also been creeping up, to the point where it is an acceptable experience to run Windows without any modifications. For example, the EeePC Seashell.
Does this mean these new-generation netbooks are no longer netbooks but simply small laptops?
Traditionally, laptops were slightly more expensive than desktops, and ultra-small laptops (such as the Toshiba Portégé range) were significantly more expensive. The EeePC broke from this tradition by being small and cheap, which is what made it revolutionary.
You couldn’t do everything on a netbook, but you could do the most common tasks everywhere – such as access to websites and email.
Wikipedia defines netbook as:
A netbook is a small portable laptop computer designed for wireless communication and access to the Internet.
This is pretty much what the original EeePCs were all about. I bought mine to carry around Bristol for my job, and to have easy access to an ssh terminal on the move. It was perfect – it was light and had a decent battery life. I didn’t care that it had a rubber-band CPU, because you don’t need any power to ssh to other hosts.
So what of the latest netbooks with their 10″ screens, dual-core CPUs and full-blown Windows installations? I think this brings them more in line with other laptops. Of course this is neither good nor bad; it depends entirely on the needs of the user. But the most important factors for me are size, weight and battery life. My EeePC 901 is a killer combination – it’s perfect for what I do.
The only reason I upgraded from the 701 is because I wanted the extra storage space for Fedora. I now run Ubuntu Netbook Remix, which will happily fit into 4GB, though.
The other features described in the article, such as fingerprint readers, also increase the cost and weight and reduce the battery life of the newer netbooks. I would personally go without for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned. Like the author of the article, I’d like to see a distinction between netbooks and ultra-compact laptops.
Netbook = cut-down computer built for portability and long battery life. Good for basic tasks; low price.
Ultra-compact laptop = Fully specced laptop, shrunk down into a tiny case. Loads of power for all the things you might want to do, and a price tag to match.