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Are Chromebooks the New Netbooks, and What Does That Mean?

chromebooks-in-a-school

Netbooks — small, cheap, slow laptops — were once very popular. They fell out of favor — people bought them because they seemed cheap and portable, but the actual experience was lackluster. Most netbooks now sit unused.

Windows netbooks have vanished from stores today, but there’s a new super-cheap laptop — the Chromebook. Chromebook sales numbers are impressive, but their usage statistics tell a different story. Are Chromebooks just the new netbook?

The Problem With Netbooks

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Netbooks seemed appealing, especially in an age before tablets and lightweight ultrabooks. You could buy a netbook for $200 or so and have a portable device that let you get on the Internet. The name “netbook” spelled that out — it was a portable device for getting on the ‘net.

They weren’t really that great. The original netbook was a lightweight Asus Eee PC that ran Linux alone and had a small amount of fast flash storage. Netbooks eventually ran heavier Windows XP operating systems — Windows Vista was out, but it was just too bloated to run on netbooks. Manufacturers added slow magnetic hard drives, bloatware, and even DVD drives! They couldn’t run most Windows software very well. The build quality was poor and their keyboards were tiny and cramped.

People liked the idea of a lightweight device that let them get on the Internet and loved the cheap price, but the actual experience wasn’t great.

netbooks-on-store-shelves

Chromebook Sales

Chromebook sales numbers seem surprisingly high. NPD reported that Chromebooks were 21% of all notebooks sold in the US in 2013. If you combine laptop and tablet sales into a single statistic, Chromebooks were 9.6% of all those devices sold. That’s 2/3 as many Chromebooks sold as iPads in the US!

npd-chromebook-usage-share-chart

Of Amazon’s best-selling laptop computers, two of the top three are Chromebooks. These definitely look like successful products.

amazon-best-selling-laptop-computers

Unlike netbooks, Chromebooks are taking off in a big way in the education market. Many schools are buying Chromebooks for their students instead of more expensive Windows laptops. They’re easier to manage and lock down than Windows laptops, but — more importantly for cash-strapped schools — they’re very cheap. Netbooks never had this sort of momentum in schools.

Chromebook Usage Statistics

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Here’s where the rosy picture of Chromebooks starts to become more realistic. StatCounter’s browser usage statistics show how widely used different operating systems are. For example, Windows 7 has the highest share with 35.71% of web activity in April, 2014. The chart doesn’t even show Chrome OS at all, although there is an “Other” number near the bottom.

Click the Download Data link to download a CSV file and we can view more detailed information. Chrome OS only accounted for 0.38% of web usage in April, 2014. Desktop Linux, which people often shrug at, accounted for 1.52% in the same month.

To its credit, Chrome OS usage has increased. Chromebooks were widely mocked back in November, 2013 when the sales numbers came out. After all, they only accounted for 0.11% of web usage globally in November, 2013! But Chrome OS numbers have been improving:

  • Nov, 2013: 0.11%
  • Dec, 2013: 0.22%
  • Jan, 2014: 0.31%
  • Feb, 2014: 0.35%
  • Mar, 2014: 0.36%
  • Apr, 2014: 0.38%

Chrome OS is climbing, but it’s definitely still in the “Other” category. It isn’t as high as we’d expect to see it with those types of sales numbers.

Chromebooks vs. Netbooks

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Chromebooks are more limited devices than traditional PCs. You can do quite a few things, but you have to do it all using Chrome or Chrome apps. Most people won’t be enabling developer mode and installing a Linux desktop. You don’t have access to the powerful desktop software available for Windows and even Mac OS X.

On the other hand, these Chromebooks are less compromised than netbooks in many ways. They come with a lightweight operating system designed for portable, mobile devices. They don’t come packed with any bloatware, like the bloatware you’ll find on competing Windows PCs and the original netbooks. They’re cheaper because the manufacturer doesn’t have to pay for a Windows license. There’s no need for antivirus software weighing the operating system down. They’re larger than the original netbooks, with many of them being 11.6-inches instead of the original 8-inch bodies many older netbooks came with. They have larger, more comfortable keyboards and fast solid-state storage.

Really, Chromebooks are what netbooks wanted to be. People didn’t buy netbooks to use typical Windows software — they just wanted a lightweight PC.

Of course, for many people, the real successor to netbooks is tablets. If all you want is a portable device to throw in a bag so you can get online, maybe a tablet is better.

chromebook-laptop-battle

Where Does This Leave Chromebooks?

So, are Chromebooks the new netbooks? It’s a bit early to answer that question. Chromebooks are definitely not out of the competition — their sales look good and their usage share is increasing. On the other hand, Chrome OS is still pretty far behind. They’re not catching fire like tablets did.

Maybe netbooks were just before their time and Chromebooks were what they were always meant to be. Just as Microsoft’s Windows XP tablets failed, Windows XP netbooks also failed. Tablets took off with a more refined operating system on better hardware years later. “Netbooks” — or Chromebooks — are now taking off with a more purpose-built operating system on better hardware, too.

It’s hard to count Chromebooks out because they provide a much better experience than netbooks ever did. If you’re one of the people who wants to use old Windows desktop apps on your portable laptop, you may think netbooks were better — but most people don’t want that.

But maybe people either want a full desktop PC experience or a full mobile tablet experience. Is there a place for a laptop with a keyboard that can only view websites? We’ll have to wait and see.


Image Credit: Kevin Jarret on Flickr, Clive Darra on Flickr, Sean Freese on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 05/21/14