What is it?

A netbook is a very portable, very lightweight, low cost, low powered and green alternative to a large laptop. The screen size is usually much smaller than its laptop counterpart, the onboard storage is also much smaller and the battery life is usually far superior as well.

Due to its low storage capacity, it’s often seen as a laptop the runs its applications from the Internet rather than its hard drive. The hard drive, or more commonly seen SSD – which we covered last week – is large enough to house a good operating system, plus a few choice applications but no more than that.

Web browsing and very lite office applications seem to be the primary usage for netbooks, but it’s becoming ever more increasingly versatile as a replacement to the laptop. This is all down to its affordability, good battery life and usefulness around the home, out of the home or office.

What are the variations of the technology?

Netbooks come along in a few different variations. These can really be pigeon-holed into just three categories; screen sizes, storage space and operating systems.

The first option can range from the likes of a 7-inch screen, up to and even beyond a 10-inch display.

Storage space on a netbook comes along either as an SSD format, or an actual physical hard drive. These in turn can also vary in size considerably; commonly seen is a smaller 4GB SSD up to a much larger version from a 20GB hard drive, upwards.

Batteries for netbooks are usually only seen in just two different offerings, a 3-cell and a 6-cell version. If you imagine there are several D-size batteries powering the unit, with 3 or 6 of them stacked end to end, then you’ll get some idea of the size. There are two rows of the 3-cell batteries used in making up the larger option, which is often seen in the hard drive models only due to the power consumption needed as compared to an SSD.

The other variant commonly seen is the operating system. The two platforms here are Linux and Windows XP, with the life of XP being clearly extended due to the popularity of netbooks today. Both are primarily used for their low install and the smallness of their code whilst running, all of which doesn’t tax the system whereas Vista would very much do so.

What’s also seen within some manufactures SKU’s are these options working together for a more balanced choice of product. One of the iterations usually offered is the bundling of Linux, a larger hard drive with a bigger battery, with the other being Windows XP Home on a smaller capacity SSD with a smaller battery. These two versions equal themselves out in cost, whilst at the same time being fairly equally matched in terms of their battery life.

What’s constant in all models is the low powered, but still fast CPU which is ideal for this type of computing. These processors are often refreshed, if and when a new range of CPUs are released by the likes of, the leading manufacture in this field, Intel.

Their Atom processors are a very popular choice with nearly all the netbook makers, for their versatility and other points that we will go in to later.

Wi-Fi is a standard feature onboard all of the netbooks around today. Some might even say these computers are designed solely for use on the Internet, whilst relying heavily on on-line features rather than software installed on the system.

Many manufactures today offer other aspects to their netbook designs, with options such as mobile broadband embedded on the platform.

Why should I care?

There are several key benefits to netbooks, ranging from portability, a long battery life and affordability. Although the latter could also be seen in the budget models of laptops, when the other benefits are not present.

These devices are truly portable, weighing in at around the 1.2kg mark on average with a size very comparable to a paperback book – making them very accessible to all. This includes a battery that in most cases will last a normal working day, if used wisely.

The processing power of most is good enough to browse the Internet, use word processing and listen to music all at the same time, without putting a strain on the system in any way. This just adds to the overall usability and attractiveness, as an alternative to the bulkier laptop.

What's a good example in practice?

The first to produce and really coin the phrase netbook, in terms of defining it for today’s market, was Asus back in mid 2007. They’ve produced a good array of netbooks since then, just as MSI have, who came along next in producing their offerings.

Some of the mobile telephone networks around today, such as Orange, even offer up netbooks for free bundled in with a contract for mobile broadband, at a reasonable cost per month.

Prices for netbooks range from around the £150 mark, to the £500 price point. This all depends with what’s onboard, from larger storage, bigger screen sizes and larger batteries.

Also names of the larger manufactures could add to the cost, with the likes of Samsung, HP, Sony, Lenovo and DELL also offering up netbooks of late.

Is there a competing technology that I should be aware of?

The alternatives to netbooks are of course, laptops. These, by default, have faster processing powers, larger screens and greater access to larger hard drive storage sizes. This is besides an optical drive, which is normally missing from netbooks today.

These computers are normally twice, if not three times the size of a netbook with a cost attached that matches and a battery life that cannot always be matched either.

What is in store for the future?

As expected with all next generation computers, the aim is to better the ones they’re now superseding and replacing. Netbooks are no different in this formula either, with the development driving forward possibly more so at the moment than laptops. What’s due in the next generation are the likes of faster processors, better memory, increased storage – all with the promise of a longer battery life too.

Asus are due to be bringing out, within the next month, their latest S121 netbook. This boasts the world’s largest SSD of 512GB, with a 12-inch screen.

There’s a common misnomer that anything above a 10-inch screen is considered to be falling into the category of laptops, this just simply isn’t true. At the time of the first incarnation of netbooks, the screen was only around the 7-inch mark which clearly separated itself from the display sizes of laptops solely by its dimensions. This added to this misconception and possibly added more fuel to the speculation at the time, it’s also where this idea could have come from.

When technology advances, so does the specifications of every netbook, everyone would expect this to happen with screen sizes, as with everything else.

The S121 was announced at CES in Las Vegas back in January, along with their T91 which is also due for launch in the next month or so. This is a netbook with a difference, as the screen can be swivelled around to cover the entire keyboard, which turns the device into a tablet based computer. It’s both a normal netbook, along with being the world’s very first tablet-netbook hybrid computer.

Another popular manufacture of netbooks is MSI, who also unveiled another new format at CES. They’ve gone a different route though, in order to stand out against their competition. MSI announced and showed off their X320 netbook, a very very slim device. This almost has the feel of that extremely thin Apple notebook, the Air, as this new netbook from MSI is only 1.98cm thick.

There have been rumours of late of Nokia being said to be producing a netbook, presumably running their Symbian OS. With the other popular platform rumour being that of Google, said to be porting its mobile phone OS, Android, to a netbook as well.

There’s a distinct possibility that one day the lines between the netbook and laptops will be blurred, within their capabilities, their possibilities and even price.