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What Defines a Netbook



picture-21A recent article by Peter Glaskowsky at the CNET News Blog outlines what the author believes to be the death and end of netbooks, the affordable, ultraportable computers.  As many readers have commented on his article, Mr. Glaskowsky seems out of touch with the intended purpose of netbooks.  He writes,

The truth is, the Netbook is dead, and good riddance. The concept of the Netbook was based on a tragic misunderstanding: the belief that tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of people worldwide wanted a portable computer that was small, power-efficient, and (here’s the misunderstanding) not good for much beyond accessing the Internet.”

So what exactly is a netbook?  Are they only for accessing the Internet?  Sony has clearly outlined that their small VAIO P is not a netbook.  Here’s the deal: A netbook is not defined by screen size, keyboard layout, or Intel Atom processor; a netbook is defined by the following two factors:


Netbooks are marketed towards individuals, companies, and organizations looking for a cheap alternative to a $500+ USD notebook computer.  Netbooks are typically priced $499 or less.  Although companies like HP and Sony are introducing small notebooks with unconventional designs, their higher costs disqualify them from being categorized as netbooks.  These devices are not netbooks regardless of their Intel Atom processors, lower specs, or lack of a DVD drive.  Netbooks are also marketed towards hobbyists and individuals wanting a cheap, second computer for basic functionality and/or to push to the device’s limitations.

The other extreme is the introduction of devices that have netbook roots like the upcoming Asus Eee PC T101H and T91 Tablet PCs.  Although they are cousins to Asus netbooks like the 1000HA, these two new computers are Tablet PCs based on the netbook platform.  A device is not automatically a netbook simply because it has an Intel Atom processor.  If anything, the success of the netbook platform and the continued consumer demand for touch-enabled devices, coupled with the functionality of Tablet PCs, will introduce more consumers to affordable Tablet PCs.

It is rumored that other netbook manufacturers will be releasing computers with 12″+ screens.  The netbook title applies if the price remains low.  We cannot classify a device as a netbook simply by its shape, size, or weight.  The cost and purpose determine its classification.


Yes, the intended purpose of netbooks is to access the Internet and view or consume multimedia.  This differs from notebooks which are designed to create and publish multimedia.  Just because netbooks do have the ability to perform tasks beyond accessing the Internet does not mean they are automatically notebooks.  Their intended function is not to be a desktop replacement but to live inside a bag as a mobile computing device.  These devices are mobile companions to a larger, full-featured notebook computers.  I do agree with Mr. Glaskowsky when he writes,

“You wouldn’t buy these machines to run Photoshop, edit high-definition videos, or play 3D games, but for most simpler purposes, they’d be fine.”

When discussing the new generation of netbooks, specifically the Asus lineup, Mr. Glaskowsky writes,

“So these new machines aren’t merely Netbooks that are “evolving” or “overachieving“. They’re notebooks. And Moore’s Law will ensure that these systems will eventually suffice for any fixed workload. (3D games get more demanding each year, so small notebooks will always be inadequate for bleeding-edge gaming.)”

Again, Glaskowsky misses that the purpose of the netbook determines the classification.  Many consumers are still unfamiliar with the netbook and its designed purpose.  If the device is created primarily for accessing the Internet and remains relatively affordable, it remains a netbook regardless of higher specs and the ability to play 3D games. Unfortunately, I believe Mr. Glaskowsky has misunderstood what a netbook is, and he certainly has failed to see the widespread consumer adoption. From the coverage of CES 2009 it is clear that the netbook is very much alive.

What do you believe constitutes a netbook? For continued reading, check out what Loren Heiny says about netbooks and his admission that they do have a place at the powerstrip.



  1. Neoxeekhrobe

    01/22/2009 at 5:08 am

    I have been reading about ‘What is a Netbook?’ and ‘What is an MID?’ and ‘What is God knows what else?’ for a long time now. At first I ignored it as something that would die away on its own. It felt straight out stupid(no offense) that some one would argue and would try to name a MOBILE DEVICE THAT RUNS A DESKTOP OS.

    I mean why not we ask ourselves did anyone ever tried to name different kind of notebooks? There are and have been notebooks with different sizes and power(capabilities) for years but we all call them notebooks. Then why try to differentiate between mobile devices that run a desktop OS? The distinction is very overlapping and for me its either a notebook or a pda.

    Sony’s Vaio UX is a overblown PDA(no matter what any one says, the AMOUNT of things we CAN do on it are not much different from what we can do on a PDA – limitation due to screen size b/c all kind of functionality can be coded for any device with certain give and take).

    And Vaio P is a overshrunk notebook.

    And life could be so much simple and easier, all we have to do is to stick to basics.

    Once again, I am not criticizing you or your post, as I understand that you wrote what you wrote because thousand had asked you. I just hope that the answers get as simple as what I have tried to express.

    P.S. Being a geek I just love to call UX UMPC, Ultra Mobile PC(whish it were a uMAC ;) but on a serious note, I consider it as a overBlown PDA.

  2. Nate

    01/22/2009 at 8:20 am

    This guy is way off base.

    He seems to base his entire opinion on a very narrow definition of the category. I don’t think he gets what a netbook is.

  3. Chad W Smith

    01/22/2009 at 9:23 am

    I’m sorry – screen size has to be a consideration for the definition of a netbook.

    Here we have a cheap (under $500) laptop – from a maker of netbooks (Acer) – that isn’t designed to play 3D games, do video editing, or anything power-intensive. It has specs that are similiar, if not lower, than most netbooks on the market today…

    1GB of RAM
    120 GB Hard Drive
    WiFi G
    VGA out
    (only 2!) USB 2.0 ports
    Ethernet 10/100
    mic-in, headphone-out
    6-cell battery – and only a (single core) 2.0 Ghz Celeron “efficient processor” – not much faster than the defacto standard 1.6 Ghz Atom…

    The kicker is – it has an optical drive (DVD burnder), and… (wait for it…) a 14.1″ screen! Oh, and did I mention the monster weighs over EIGHT POUNDS?!?!?

    That’s not a netbook. But according to your criteria, it is.

    Here’s the real test for a netbook. (I’m quoting myself from another “what is a netbook” blog post.)

    1) Small – 10″ screen or smaller – if it’s 10.2″ round down, I’m not going to be that picky.
    2) Lightweight – under 3 pounds at least. The lighter the better.
    3) Cheap – base model must start under $500US.
    4) Form factor – notebook like – convertible tablet style also works. Clamshell, with keyboard, trackpad-touchscreen-nub-or-other-mouse-like-device, and screen built in.
    5) Portable – this means battery powered and wifi. BlueTooth, WiMax, 3G, etc. are extra – or could possibly replace wifi if everything else matched up.
    6) Full internet experience – browser with Ajax and Flash support. And you can download stuff.
    7) Near full desktop experience – not Android, WinCE, Maemo, or some mobile phone OS – Windows XP, Desktop Linux, Mac OS X, or similar. With desktop style apps, word processor, media player, browser, office stuff, etc. And new apps should be easily installable.

    The 12-inch (or larger) wannabes are not netbooks. They are just cheap, underpowered, lightweight notebooks. Here’s why I say that.

    12 inch notebooks existed before the Asus Eee PC. The PowerBook, the iBook – they both had 12″ models a decade ago. HP, Dell, Toshiba, IBM/Leveno, Sony… They all had and have 12 inch notebooks that are not and were not netbooks. The size is the key factor for a netbook to be a netbook. If you take that away, you’ve just got a cheap underpowered notebook.

    The MacBook Air covers all but 2 of the 7 things I set out: Price and Size. But those are the two most important things.

    If a company made a cheap, lightweight, portable, full-powered notebook that was $399, had an Atom CPU, no optical drive, weighed 2.5 pounds, and ran Windows XP with Firefox 3 – but the screen was 15.4″ – no one would even suggest it a netbook.

    They might compare it to a netbook. They might say it’s an alternative to a netbook for people with fat fingers or who hate small screens. They might even suggest that it was inspired by the netbook phenomon. But they would not call it a netbook.

    Why? Because 15.4″ laptops have been around for years. So have 12″ laptops. They aren’t netbooks. And neither is the Dell Mini 12, or Asus N20A, or the PowerBook 12″, or the Dell D430 12.1″, or the HP 2510P 12.1″, or the Toshiba Portege M700S7002 Tablet, or the Sony VAIO VGN-TT165N/R 11.1″…

  4. Peter Glaskowsky

    01/22/2009 at 11:57 am

    You’re doing me a disservice by taking my remarks out of context. You’ve dropped several key points from my piece:

    Netbooks are called netbooks because they’re meant to be no larger or more expensive than necessary to perform basic Internet-related tasks. That’s a legitimate definition. Price plus purpose is a lot squishier.

    The first netbooks met the definition implied by the name.

    Current so-called Netbooks simply don’t meet that definition OR yours, I think. They have larger screens, better CPUs and graphics, more RAM, larger hard drives, and consequently higher price tags than necessary to meet the original goals of the Netbook by any definition.

    And to prove this point, I also brought up the fact that there still ARE some machines that qualify as true Netbooks– those based on ARM processors– but they don’t sell. What sells are these very capable 9″ and 10″-display machines using fast Atom processors.

    C’mon, seriously, are you trying to say that that hypothetical 15.4″ laptop of yours isn’t a netbook, but an otherwise identical machine with a 10″ display IS? Then you’ve abandoned your own definition of price plus purpose, and you’ve essentially said that display size is the sole criteria. Well, what does that have to do with the Internet, or therefore, being a Netbook?

    All you’re talking about is a small notebook, often called a subnote.

    Which is all I’m talking about, too. The Netbook is dead. Long live the notebook.

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  5. Osiris

    01/22/2009 at 2:51 pm

    Why would you people waste your time debating this definition? Many mobile technologies have failed to find a universal definition: umpc, MID, smartphone, and now netbook… Whilst I know ppl here could give me definitions for those terms, they have still failed to take on a universal definition and how many times have we seen different websites call something an umpc and another one calls it a MID. Look in this thread alone, someone calling the Sony UX a PDA, whereas most websites/people would report it as an umpc…

    The main point here seems to be the authors cluelessness to current consumer trends. I believe the choice in netbooks will diminish, but with wireless networks spreading and as companies like ASUS reach further economies of scale we are likely to see even cheaper/more advanced netbooks.

  6. Gordon Cahill

    01/22/2009 at 3:40 pm

    Netbooks are just a cheap version of the old sub-notebook. You remember those. Very small, light low powered processor, VERY expensive. The netbook, thanks to cheaper screens and processors are also small, light, portable and cheap.

    Vaio P – sub-notebook
    Acer Aspire One – Netbook

    But as always the lines will blur more and more until we regroup them all together. Then someone will come up with yet another category, a new “cool” name that attemps to define the undefinable. And off we’ll go again, wasting bandwidth on the definition of a category, like it actually matters.

    So, move on people. There’s nothing new here. :-)


  7. MY

    01/22/2009 at 9:49 pm

    My definition of a netbook and I think the most accurate one based on the products out there.

    – $500 or under
    – Max screen size 10-12 inch
    – under 3 lbs
    – Great battery life compared to notebooks.

    Any thing else is a plus. The more a company adds to the netbook the better. It’s just that the prices shouldn’t go above $500.

  8. Dave P

    01/23/2009 at 7:16 am

    The problem is that the term “ultra portable laptop” has been hijacked. PC World’s top 10 in that category lists none under a 2 pounds and some over 4 pounds.

    I would propose the following (especially since Psion is having a cow about the term “netbook”).

    PCs are x86 compatible general purpose computers.

    Laptops are PCs that can be operated with a battery which is incorporated into the machine. They come in three formats – notebooks (attached screen and keyboard), tablets (attached touch screen and keyboard) and slates (touch screen only).

    Laptops come in three sizes – micro (screen of 7″ or less), mini (screen of over 7″ but less than 11″), and regular (screen of 11″ or more).

    Laptops come in three weights – ultra portable (under 2 pounds), light weight (2 to 4 pounds), and regular (over 4 pounds).

    Thus, most “netbooks” would just be ultra portable mini notebooks.

    Unfortunately, rationality and marketing never mix.

    (sent from a bench outside my office with my cigar and my ultra portable micro tablet OQO 02)

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