What is a Netbook? And why should you care?

In some of my previous posts, I dropped the term “Netbook” a couple of times, but an email from one of our readers made me realize I never really explained what a Netbook is.

Of course, since this is Gadling, I’ll not only explain what it is, but I’ll also explain how a Netbook can help you on the road, or how it can help you travel lighter.

The short version of the “Netbook” description is that it is a small portable computer, designed mainly with Internet access in mind. Netbooks are low power, low weight and (usually) low cost.

So, what makes the Netbook special, and why should you care?
The first (current generation) Netbook was introduced in 2007 by Asus and was called the “Eee PC”. Asus claimed that the Eee was Easy to learn, Easy to work and Easy to play, hence the slightly silly name.

The first Eee was an instant success, and forced every other major manufacturer to design their own little machine.

Anyone who has been around computers for more than 8 or 9 years will have a weird sense of déjà vu, as this sudden comeback of small computers is nothing new. Back in 1998 most companies had at least one small computer in their lineup, including one from British PDA designer Psion, called the Netbook.

What can a Netbook do?

Essentially, everything about the Netbook is perfect for people who travel. The machines are lightweight, they use fairly low power components which increases battery life, they are small enough to be used in a cramped coach seat. Most of them are also very affordable.

A Netbook can be found from most major retailers for as little as $299. In fact, the Netbook craze has taken off so well, that they make up 9 of the top 10 selling computer products at Amazon.com at the moment.

As a computer geek, I took an instant liking to Netbooks, and have to admit that my small machine has pretty much replaced my trusty (and bulky) laptop on the road. My Netbook has a 160GB hard drive, a 10″ screen, and can run any application I need, including some heavy multimedia applications like Slingplayer. With the built in webcam, I can make video calls.

Most Netbooks have at least one card reader slot, making them perfect for copying photos off your digital camera, and keeping them safe.

What can’t a Netbook do?

With their huge popularity, you’d expect Netbooks to be the perfect solution for every computer task. There are however still some things you can’t really do with a Netbook.

Gaming – Don’t worry, you’ll still be able to play Solitaire and Minesweeper on a Netbook. Just don’t expect to be able to run graphics intensive games. Many games will also run into problems with the relatively low resolution of the Netbook screen.

Multimedia – almost everything you can do on a “normal” computer will still work just fine on a Netbook. This includes iTunes, Windows Media player and most other media playing applications. A Netbook will have no problems playing large video files, but files in HD quality may be a tad too demanding for the graphics chip inside the machine. Because Netbooks are small, you won’t find a DVD player in them, so if you need to watch DVD’s, you’ll need to “rip” the movie to your hard disc, or purchase an external DVD drive (which pretty much defeats the purpose of a small machine).

There are plenty of other things Netbooks are not very good at – depending on the brand and model of Netbook you purchase, you may get a machine with a fairly small keyboard, so don’t plan to write your next bestseller on it. Also, folks with poor eyesight may find the small screens to be a bit too small, it is just another price you pay for having a light machine.

Picking a Netbook

When you start considering the purchase of a Netbook, you need to ask yourself whether you can live with the limitations the machine presents.

Most Netbooks are often in the same price range of a regular notebook, and that regular notebook has a much larger screen, a DVD drive, full size keyboard and more.

Let me give you a closer look at one of the most popular Netbooks on the market at the moment, the $349 Acer Aspire One:

This machine weighs just 2.3lbs and has an 8.9″ screen with a resolution of 1024×600 pixels. The Aspire One runs on an Intel Atom processor, at 1.6GHz.

The Aspire One is available in several “flavors”; with a solid state hard drive, or with a standard hard drive.

When you start shopping for a Netbook, your first choice will be whether you want a Linux based machine, or Windows. My personal opinion is that while Linux may be a cheap option, it really does not make sense to learn an entirely new operating system when the Windows XP option is just a few bucks more.

The second choice you’ll need to make involves the hard drive. The cheapest options usually involve solid state drives (referred to as SSD). SSD drives are pretty new in the consumer market, and their size is usually limited to about 8 or 16GB. If you plan to use your machine for nothing more than some basic web browsing and email, then the SSD drive will be just fine. If you need to store large files like movies or music, then you will most certainly want to consider a regular hard drive. These drives usually start around 80GB up to 160GB in most Netbooks.

One other advantage of SSD drives is that they are more shockproof than conventional hard drives, since they don’t use any moving parts.

Finally, but just as important; you will need to carefully select a battery. Most machines come with a three cell battery pack, which is good enough for about 2-3 hours of work. If you are often stuck in coach without a power port, then that may not be long enough. If you need more power, you’ll have to find yourself a Netbook with a 6 cell battery. This power source should last up to 5 hours, but there is a trade off; the battery pack adds a lot of weight and bulk to the machine, and these 6 cell packs often stick out the back by an inch or more. Another solution is to carry an external battery pack, like those offered by APC. Of course, with a larger battery, you once again lose a lot of the benefits of a nice small machine.

So there you have it; a Netbook is a small laptop, nothing more and nothing less. But it is without a doubt the biggest thing to happen in computers all year. In just 12 months, we went from one model Netbook, to well over 50. If you travel a lot, and you’d like to shave a couple of pounds off your carry-on bag, then a Netbook may be the perfect solution for you.