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A Short History of Netbooks, a Technology Before Their Time

original-eee-pc-netbook

Once, people seemed to love netbooks and were buying them in droves. Today, people love to hate netbooks. Netbooks sit unused and gathering dust in drawers and closets. But the core ideas behind netbooks lives on today.

Netbooks are like many other technologies before their time, like Microsoft’s Windows XP tablets and Windows mobile smartphones. The core ideas behind netbooks lives on today — Microsoft is even trying to push small, cheap $199 laptops with Windows 8.

The Beginning of Netbooks: Desktop Linux on the Asus Eee PC

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Netbooks began when Asus released the first Asus Eee PC in 2007. The original netbook had a lightweight, Linux-based operating system, a small and fast sold-state drive, no optical drive, and long battery life compared to other laptops of the day. It was very small, with a 7-inch screen and a cramped keyboard, but it was much more portable than the common Windows laptops at the time.

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Netbooks Became Cheap Windows PCs

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Netbooks eventually evolved and moved toward Windows and heavier hardware. The latest version of Windows at the time was Windows Vista, and Vista was just too heavy for these underpowered netbooks. Microsoft resuscitated Windows XP to run on these computers. Manufacturers began making netbooks with hardware configurations more like a traditional Windows laptop — many netbooks were heavier, had a slower mechanical hard drive, an optical drive, and less battery life. In 2009, CNET wrote that “Netbooks are nothing more than smaller, cheaper notebooks.”

Windows 7 was optimized to run well on less-powerful PCs, and netbooks eventually shipped with “Windows 7 Starter edition.” Microsoft’s original plan was to only allow three desktop applications at a time to run on Windows 7 Starter edition. They removed that limitation, but you still weren’t allowed to change the wallpaper on Windows 7 Starter Edition PCs without a third-party program. Microsoft would be happy to sell you an upgrade to Windows 7 Home so you could change your wallpaper, though!

Netbooks didn’t perform all that well even with their Linux systems, but moving to Windows certainly didn’t help. Between the heavier Windows software, all the bloatware manufacturers had to include to make a buck, and the antivirus software they required, they didn’t offer a great software experience. Those cramped keyboards and cheap trackpads didn’t offer a great software experience, either.

Overall, netbooks triggered a race to the bottom in terms of PC prices. They trained people to look only at price, and the market was filled with cheap, low-quality laptops.

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The Death of Netbooks

Many people bought netbooks. After all, they were such a great deal — especially if you could grab a $200 netbook when it was marked down to $100 or so! However, people weren’t all that happy using them. The hardware was cramped, tiny, and slow. The Windows operating system was too heavy for the hardware, and it wasn’t designed to be very useable on such a small screen.

Eventually, netbook sales began to drop fast. People had bought enough netbooks and realized they weren’t even using them — people didn’t want netbooks. Even PC makers didn’t want to sell netbooks, as those ever-cheaper machines drove their profits down.

Windows 8 didn’t help netbooks — there was no Windows 8 Starter edition for cheap netbooks, and Windows 8 required a minimum of 1024×768 for that new interface. Many netbooks had small 1024×600 displays. Netbooks were on life support, but Windows 8 wasn’t designed for them like Windows 7 was. Windows 8 just wasn’t a fit for netbooks.

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Netbooks Were Before Their Time

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Never mind what netbooks became. The core ideas behind a netbook were just before their time, and before we had the hardware to really make them work. A netbook is a small, lightweight computers with a fast solid-state drive, long battery life, and no optical drive. It’s called a netbook because it’s designed just for getting on the Internet and using web-based services, not for using demanding desktop applications, storing a huge media library, or playing demanding PC games. We see devices inspired by all these ideas around us today:

  • Tablets: A tablet is a small, lightweight computer with fast storage and long battery life. People use them to get on the Internet. Sure, typing on a tablet’s touchscreen isn’t ideal, but typing on a netbook’s cramped keyboard also isn’t ideal. If you just want a small device to throw in a bag or to take with you so you can quickly get on the Internet, a tablet will probably offer a much better experience. At seven inches, a Nexus 7 is about the same screen size as the original Asus Eee PC.
  • Ultrabooks: Windows Ultrabooks and Apple’s MacBook Air are the higher-end idea of a netbook. They’re designed to have long battery life and be portable. They’re larger because a laptop just needs to be larger to offer an appropriately sized screen and large keyboard for comfortable typing. They can run desktop software better than an old netbook, but they’re still not the ideal computers for people who need a hefty amount of processing power.
  • Chromebooks: Chromebooks really are the new netbooks. Rather than Windows, they run a specialized version of Linux — just like the original netbooks did. They’re cheap and low-end, and are a bit small compared to the larger laptops most people seem to prefer. There’s no question that Chromebooks offer a much better experience for browsing the web than those old netbooks did, complete with larger and better keyboards, trackpads that often outclass the ones in more expensive Windows systems, and a specialized operating system.

Microsoft wants to get in on the low-end, small laptop action, too. They’re now advertising a $199 HP Windows 8 laptop. They’ve lowered Windows license prices to $0 for manufacturers of small PCs. We might see the resurgence of netbooks — or those cheap Windows PCs might work out better this time.

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One of the big lessons of netbooks is to pay attention to more than price. People were driven to netbooks in large part by their low prices, but they just weren’t a right fit. In the same way today, you can get a $50 tablet from a manufacturer you’ve never heard of — but that tablet probably won’t offer a great experience.

Image Credit: Roland Tanglao on Flickr, J Aaron Farr on Flickr, Ryan McFarland on Flickr, slgckgc 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 08/27/14