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Tech Profile: the Netbook

The Netbook is the Tablet’s ancestor. The idea is to shrink a laptop to the point it becomes easy to carry everywhere with you. Therefore, processing power and screen size often become secondary considerations. Netbooks are intended as companion devices; the portable complement to another, more capable, computer.

Those micro laptops filled our casual computing needs until tablets came along. The term “Netbook” is not used as much these days, but they are still around. Their most direct descendants are the Chromebooks and inexpensive Windows convertibles.

It’s all about Mobility

You should only consider a Netbook if you already have another computer. Your goals should be to improve your current mobility and autonomy.

For instance, your other computer could be stationary and you just want to browse the web or read your files while you’re away; your other laptop might also be bulky and impractical to carry around.

Built to be Cheap

Since Netbooks are designed to play second fiddle, they are usually quite affordable. You're expected to already have a computer and perhaps even a smartphone, so odds are: you don’t want to spend too much money on yet another device.

Netbooks in disguise can be found hiding among laptops at lower price point. It could be tempting to get a more spacious Netbook with a 15 or even 17” screen but those also come with severely limited battery endurance and are much harder to carry.

Is the loss of autonomy worth a roomier workspace? That’s your call. Maybe power outlets are easy to come by on your typical day, or you’re not usually gone for more than an hour or two.

There are also premium Netbooks. They’re a bit of an oddity, but they might be worth considering if you spend a lot more time on the move than at a desk. I would recommend taking a look at recommendations for the Road Warrior if that’s your situation.

When you should you pick a Netbook over a Tablet

In general, I would say the Netbook is the mobile companion for productivity-focused people while tablets fare better for entertainment purposes.

Netbooks make good travel companions, especially when you want to get some writing done. You could equip your tablet with a keyboard, but you can usually get a more capable Netbook for less.

Plan for Common Activities; not Worst-Case Scenarios

Remember that a good Netbook is a companion device; you still have your main computer to handle challenging tasks.

I’ve found that the best usage strategy with Netbooks is to do the heavy lifting with your main computer and take a “less is more” approach as far as the Netbook’s concerned. The reason for this is: as you start looking for more capable companions, you end up sacrificing ease of transportation, battery autonomy, and/or economy.

For better results, focus on things you know you will be doing all the time while away from your main computer.

What “Plan B” looks like on a Netbook

When you encounter a task which would be painfully slow to handle on a Netbook, you still have options. For instance; since the Netbook is your secondary machine, you can use an internet connection to connect to your main machine and do the work there. Free programs to do just that include Team Viewer and Chrome Remote Desktop.

Of course, this requires a good internet connection and your main machine must be on and ready to take the call for that to work.

Additional notes Concerning Chromebooks

Chromebooks take the Netbook concept to the letter and made the Chrome Web Browser the cornerstone of their design.

This approach is a lot more viable than it might sound. Think about it: the most popular apps on mobile devices are in fact websites (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Netflix...). Besides online activities, the rise of cloud computing and web-based applications (like Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365) made simple web access a very powerful tool.

Final thoughts

Considering how much value you get on stationary computers compared to smaller devices, it makes sense to want to invest as little as possible on your mobile companion. Netbooks are built with this strategy in mind and provide mobility and autonomy for the lowest price tag available. This makes them ill-suited as someone’s sole computer; unless that person’s needs are unusually simple.

As their name suggest; Netbooks are strong enough to browse the web, and often, that’s all the horsepower one needs. If you need more oomph or, simply, a computer capable of standing on its own, a Laptop is probably a better fit for you.