Netbooks: The Little Laptops That Could

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Desktop or laptop? It’s generally the first decision you make when considering the purchase of a new computer. Over the past couple of years, however, a third category of PCs has taken the market by storm: the netbook.

A portmanteau of ‘internet’ and ‘notebook,’ netbooks were originally created as super-small, super-cheap supplemental notebooks suitable for two things – surfing the internet and word processing. Though the origins of the netbook go further back than one would think, they were originally popularized when hardware developer ASUS released the Eee PC in 2007. With a 7-inch display, 900-megahertz processor, Linux-based operating system and 8-gigabyte solid-state drive (a type of data storage unit, like a hard drive, that uses flash memory – think large-scale USB drive), the original ASUS Eee PC model easily fulfilled its duties as an ultra-portable web surfing, document writing machine – but not much else.

Like all technological progress over time, however, there was nowhere for netbooks to go but up. Efficiencies in hardware meant that companies could cram much more into such a small package. Processors getting smaller, more energy-efficient and more powerful meant that the role of netbooks could expand to more than just web surfing and word processing with a longer battery life to boot. Slightly bigger displays, more RAM, bigger hard drives, Bluetooth compatibility, 6+ hour battery life and Windows XP pre-installations are all features that you can find in today’s netbooks, and that have solidified this subgenre of notebooks as a viable alternative to the modern laptop. And as popularity has increased, more and more companies have put out their own netbook solutions, from highbrow companies like Samsung, Dell, and HP to lesser-known companies like Acer and MSI.

At this point you’re probably asking yourself (or at least you should be), “Are netbooks right for me?” I can’t say for sure, but let’s look at a few different scenarios. If you have a desktop and you’re looking for something small and cheap that you can take around with you for travelling, class, etc., a netbook is a great option. If your main computer is a laptop and it’s fully functional, a netbook might be a little redundant unless you’ve got one of those high-end laptops that serve as desktop replacements. If you’re a college student looking for something that fulfills your basic computing needs – internet, instant messaging, word processing, music and video – without costing a fortune, a netbook is an ultra-affordable way to get the job done. If you’re a PC gamer who salivates at the thought of running “Crysis” at full settings, you might want to gloss over the thought of getting a netbook. If you’re an artist who uses high-end editing software like Adobe Premiere, you’ll want something that packs more of a punch.

So you’re in the running to get a netbook – how do you know what to look for? Well, as I was describing above, you need to find the specifications that suit your scenario. But as an example, let’s take a look at my own netbook, the ASUS Eee 1000HE.

Though it’s a bit dated now, the ASUS Eee 1000HE still ranks as one of the best and most popular netbooks on the market. It sports a 1.66-gigahertz Intel Atom processor, 160-gigabyte hard drive, 10-inch display, 1 gigabyte of RAM (though I upgraded it to 2 gigabytes for an extra $20), a keyboard 92% the size of a standard keyboard, 3 USB ports, an SD card slot, built-in wi-fi, Bluetooth, webcam, and Windows XP pre-installed all for roughly $400. Oh yeah, did I mention the battery life? If you tweak the settings the right way, you can get roughly 9 hours on a full charge. When I looked at my year-and-a-half old $700 HP laptop that had fewer features in comparison, there was no hesitation when I decided to make the jump.

What can you expect out of your netbook? For the most part, exactly what you can expect out of any low-end notebook. In fact, I’ve only come across three drawbacks to owning a netbook. For one, most if not all netbooks sacrifice having an optical drive to conserve space. That means no CDs or DVDs – sort of. If you’re crafty enough, you can figure out how to rip the data contained within these storage mediums as an image file and then mount the file using a virtual drive. You know, either that or just shell out the extra $50 for an external DVD drive. Second, netbooks can’t really handle any high-definition videos – my 1000HE struggles with YouTube HD. Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, don’t expect to be doing much gaming on a netbook. Or, at least, don’t expect to be doing any up-to-date gaming – my netbook can manage older games just fine, and I can even get “World of Warcraft” and “The Sims 2” working adequately on their lowest settings.

Finally, you’ll probably want some brand names. Though I don’t have much to say about their other computers, I have high praise for ASUS’s Eee PC line. In fact, despite them putting out newer models, I recommend the 1000HE to anyone interested in what netbooks are all about. It’s small, powerful, and cheap – pretty much anything you could ask for in a portable computer. If you want options, however, I also recommend netbooks from Acer, Samsung and HP.

Over the past two years, netbooks have quickly evolved from basic internet/word processing devices to ultra-portable multi-purpose computing solutions. And as time goes on, they’re only going to get more powerful while maintaining their low cost. So if you’ve been thinking about investing in a new computer, a netbook just may be the way to go.

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