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What Is The Difference Between A Netbook And A Laptop?

Updated on June 5, 2011

Netbooks were once considered slow, underpowered and cheap. After 4 years since it's inception, their definition is evolving. A netbook was once only ideal for simple computer tasks such as web browsing and word processing. Now netbooks are becoming more capable machines. You can watch streaming HD video and even play games on some. The definition of laptops is also changing. Compared to netbooks, Laptops are heavier, have larger screens, larger keyboards, more storage and more features. Laptops are now taking over the definition of “computers”. In the past, when we thought of “computer”, we reserved that default definition for desktop computers. Today, as electronics are getting smaller, laptops are now taking over that default definition.

Today, we have netbooks, laptops and ultra portables. How can we tell the difference between them and where do these differences begin and end? Let's me attempt to answer that question in this article.

Enter The Netbook

Although the concept of the netbook can be traced back to the mid 90's, it wasn't until Asus released their famous Eee PC line in 2007, when the term “netbook” became a household name. The netbook is in essence, a network computer. Asus originally installed their Eee PC's with a custom Linux OS but as the market began to grow, more popular operating systems such as Windows XP and Windows 7 became available. Netbooks were designed to access networks(the Internet) easily(hence the name). Since accessing the Internet only require little resources, lots of RAM, powerful GPU's and powerful processors weren't needed. As a side effect, netbooks developed a reputation of being slow, cheap, and underpowered.

Think Evolution

Laptops were still around and while the netbook market was still developing, laptops continue to sell well. Laptops became more powerful and convenient to own. Sales of laptops overtook desktop computers and people found it much more convenient to own a full size laptop without the mess of plugs and a separate monitor. Mid-ranged laptops were more than capable handling most games. Laptops eventually branched out and specialized in their own area. Thinkpads were popular in the business market. Macbooks were popular with artists. And anyone could afford a Dell. There were laptops for everyone with different budgets. In the past, where power and RAM was more important, it was more practical to buy a desktop than an underpowered laptop for the same price. Today, laptops are just about on par with desktops in terms of performance and people are willing to pay a little extra for the convenience. In the past, “computer” was synonymous with “desktop.” When we think of “computers” today, we think of laptops. It's interesting that in the past, “laptops” were considered “portable computers”, today that title belongs to netbooks.

Can't Shake A Bad Rep

I currently own both a laptop and a netbook. I use my laptop as my main workhorse and I use my netbook to type and browse the web. After using them for a while, I started to notice some interesting things. It seems that netbooks are getting a lot of hate. Maybe for good reasons. Many people assume that netbooks are slow and will remain slow. This is partially true. Let's look at that argument. For the past 4 years, netbooks came from Intel's Atom N270, N450, N455, to N550. I'm ignoring AMD's Neo chipsets for the sake of simplification. As far as the Atom chips, they're not much different from each other. The newest Atom N550 is the biggest jump from the rest because it's a hyper-threaded dual core but other than that, they are still relatively slow. Lack of performance has been affecting netbooks as a whole and they can't seem to shake that reputation.

Things That Make You Go, "Hmmm..."

In comparison, laptops continue to take huge jumps in performance in the past 4 years. Laptops came from Core 2 Duo, i3, i5, to i7 quad-cores. Each chipset gave significant improvements over the previous. Laptops have also had higher peaks. High end laptops like the Macbook Pro and the Sony Vaio Z-series gave consumers the best performance and they sell themselves. People are willing to pay good money for good products. People are less likely to pay over $500 for a netbook. There are some netbooks that are trying to shake off the bad rep. The new dual core AMD Neo K325 is more powerful than it's Intel counterpart but the first K325 powered netbook cost $579(Dell Inspiron M101z). I paid $369 for my Eee PC and I thought that was a little pricey. Trying to get people to spend over $500 on a netbook will make you go, “Hmmm...” That's the problem. People have ingrained in their minds that netbooks are slow and cheap. For the same price, you could get a more powerful entry market laptop. The premium you pay is in the portability.

Because of this bad rep, a new line of laptops is emerging. The “ultra portables” or “thin and lights.” These laptops pack power and portability. Price is high as expected. It's rare to get all 3. These laptops include the Macbook Air, Dell Adamo, and Toshiba Protégé. What I find interesting is the fact that some of these ultra portables are about the same size as netbooks. The new Macbook Air being a prime example. Apple was careful not to call the 11” Macbook Air a “netbook”. Maybe because of their reputation for being cheap and slow. Personally, I view the Macbook Air as a high end netbook but since there's so much bad rep associated with them, the term “high end netbook” may sadly be considered an oxymoron.

When the iPad and tablets started entering the consumer market, many analysts predicted that they will kill off netbooks. Having owned fully touchscreen phone and a BlackBerry, I knew this was a possibility but I predicted that to be unlikely. Many people prefer to use hardware buttons and a good keyboard is factored when purchasing laptops and netbooks. What may kill netbooks is its own reputation. I see ultra portables as an evolution of netbooks just with a different name. It's like calling “toilet paper” by the term “bath tissue.”

Final Thoughts

In time, the difference between a netbook and laptop will narrow. Currently, my netbook can handle word processing, web browsing, and even photoshop. My laptop can handle everything I throw at it. As hardware gets better, size will be the primary factor that separates netbooks from laptops. People still require larger screens to watch video. No matter how powerful a netbook or ultra portable gets, they will still be limited by their size. What do you consider a netbook and laptop?

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      5 years ago

      I looked for the difference all over and I found that many times netbooks are called cheap undersize mini garbage. I was surpirsed by this because I have an Acer Aspire One 756-2420 Netbook and surprisingly it can do more than my sisters Toshiba laptop (besides an internal CD player). Mine is actually faster and has a larger hard drive and my sisters was only made in 2010. I was surprised by all of these insults towards netbooks. (The Toshiba was about 600$ while my Acer was only about 300$ and is now selling for 250$)

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      7 years ago

      There is no difference between laptops and netbooks. Netbooks are just smaller cheaper laptops. The only real difference is an artificial limit put in place by Microsoft and Intel (WinTel) licensing. WinTel saw smaller cheaper laptops as a threat to sales of higher end systems. They conspired and used licensing rules to limit the maximum CPU power as well as screen size, memory capacity and HD/SSD size. The 'maximum system requirement' limit on 'netbooks' is based on Microsoft Windows XP Home and Windows 7 Starter licensing. You can't buy an XP netbook with 2gb of RAM for example. There is nothing stopping you from upgrading the RAM yourself though. Notice how you don't see any XP netbooks with 12 inch screens? You can thank Intel licensing restrictions for that. Microsoft and Intel did their best to kill netbooks, especially ones running Linux.


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