What Is a Netbook?

A computer by any other name would work the same, no? Well, whether you call them netbooks, ultra-mobile PCs (UMPC), laptots, minibooks, or anything else, these small computers do work extremely well.

A netbook is not just an overgrown PDA. Although Intel was clever enough to adapt a processor first designed for mobile applications, they didn't have something quite like this in mind. The predecessors of the Intel Atom N270 now used in most minibooks was designed for cell phones, PDAs, and other mobile applications.

But laptop designers never run out of ingenuity and using that low-power consumption CPU to create a child-sized laptop proved to be the perfect solution to a problem. The goal was to make an inexpensive laptop that could be made small, durable, and yet still powerful enough to work in developing countries.

They succeeded, and how!

Contemporary netbooks offer as much power, speed, and capacity as laptops of only a few years ago, which was already impressive. They can run Windows XP (some even Windows Vista) or various versions of Linux. Ubuntu Linux comes standard on some models, or as an option on others. Many manufacturers use Linpus Linux, another great flavor.

Hard drives are invariably smaller than that offered on their full-grown cousins. But even the tiny 8GB SSD (solid state drive) installed by default in some models is beefy compared to a desktop of 10 years ago. Things move fast in consumer electronics. Most now offer an alternative capacity of anywhere from 30GB to a huge 160GB. The latter is more than what used to come in most laptops only a year ago.

That highly functional power comes in a package that is typically about 10 inches wide by 7 inches deep by 1 inch high. Some are a bit smaller. All weigh under three pounds and many are as light as barely more than two. That small size and weight is, of course, the chief attraction since it makes these units ultra portable.

The screen is the first to suffer from that downsizing but even here netbooks manage to eek out some very worthwhile monitors. A few offer resolutions as high as 1024 by 600, which is fully usable. Those screens are typically bright, crisp, and - on some models - superior in at least one respect to their big brothers.

How so? Netbook displays are usually backlit LCDs that can be used just fine in full sunlight or the bright lights on an airline terminal or classroom. Many laptops would wash out under those conditions, but the average minibook still performs well at that level. Sitting on the deck outside or a campus quad on a sunny day is definitely possible with a standard UMPC.

Most are not intended to be used as a full-time substitute for a full-sized laptop. But for a younger student they might. Even for an adult professional on the go a netbook can be the preferred option for a lot of assignments. Like anything in consumer electronics, it comes down to the intended use and application.

Those applications run the gamut, but web surfing, email, and document creation are the most common. Firefox, Thunderbird, and Open Office or the Microsoft equivalents all present no problem to today's netbooks. Or, minibooks. Or, laptots, UMPCs, little computer thingies... anything you want to call them.

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