What Is a Netbook and What is It Good For?

April 29, 2009

in computer hardware,computer performance

by David Hakala

A netbook is a physically small portable computer that relies on wireless Internet connectivity to access Web-based services that provide much of the functionality found in more powerful desktop machines. Netbooks typically run Windows XP or some flavor of the Linux operating system rather than the more resource-hungry Vista. Netbooks are significantly cheaper than desktop or notebook computers. But are they worth buying at all?

Physical size is a significant limitation of netbooks. Keyboards are cramped. Displays are on the order of 10 inches diagonally versus the standard 14-15 inches of notebooks. But if you are used to sending text messages on a cell phone, a netbook may seem luxuriously spacious to you.

Relatively little computing power is built into a netbook. Processor speeds and RAM capacity are low; hard drives are small. Netbooks are not made to run large applications like Microsoft Office or 3D games locally. They are not made for storing gigabytes of photos, videos, and other data. Instead, they rely on other people’s more powerful computers “out there” on the Internet.

Instead of Outlook on your hard drive, a netbook uses Google Mail on the Web (or another Web-based email interface). Instead of storing Microsoft Office on a netbook’s tiny hard drive and running it under a slow processor, you use Google Apps or some other Web-based word processor, spreadsheet, calendar, etc.

Most netbooks can be used to watch streaming videos via YouTube and other sources, but they won’t have a built-in DVD drive. A netbook may not have a removable media drive of any kind, instead downloading and uploading data via the Internet

Obviously, a netbook’s wireless connection is critical to its usefulness. While all new netbooks use the latest wireless technology, some models will receive wireless signals better than others. Test drive netbooks “live” on the Internet before buying one.

Travelers like netbooks because they are small and light. Students like netbooks because they are cheap. A netbook can be a good “kid’s computer.” Don’t turn your nose up at netbooks.

David Hakala has perpetrated technology tutorials since 1988 in addition to committing tech journalism, documentation, Web sites, marketing collateral, and profitable prose in general. His complete rap sheet can be seen at