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Laptop, Notebook, Netbook…What’s the Difference?

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December 23, 2009
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Maybe you’re doing some last minute Christmas shopping or maybe you’ve taken the advice in our recent blog post and are spending a little money now to avoid paying taxes on it later, but you’ve been looking at a portable computer and all the jargon has your head spinning. Here’s a quick background and explanation to help you decide which option is the right one for you.

In the hardware world, there’s a pretty lively discussion going on about the difference between laptops, notebooks, and netbooks.

Opinion seems to be converging around the idea that laptops and notebooks are virtually the same: small, portable, but powerful computers that can function as a more travel-worthy substitute for a stationary desktop model.

Netbooks, on the other hand, are a relatively new innovation – just a couple of years old, which might make them ancient in some technology circles, but it means that some folks are still figuring out what the term means.

Way back in the beginning of netbooks, these ultra-small, ultra-light computers offered pared-down capabilities that could satisfy most of the needs of a user on the go. You could access a Web browser and email, and if you used cloud-based applications like Google Docs you could even do some word processing and basic spreadsheet operations. But your average netbook, lacking an optical drive and equipped with a slower processer, wasn’t going to be terribly fast or powerful or great at running really resource-intensive applications. And the tiny keyboard made prolonged use a bit of a pain.

But then a funny thing happened: the year 2008. And as the economy took a dive, more and more users started looking at netbooks and deciding they made a very good, affordable alternative to regular laptops. By Q1 of 2009, netbook sales were seven times larger than they were in the first quarter of 2008.

Not surprisingly, manufacturers noticed a huge new market that was growing like gangbusters in the middle of a downturn. New entrants joined the game, and in order to differentiate themselves, started adding features and enhancements to the stripped-down netbook. Screen sizes and keyboards are now getting larger. Graphics are getting better. Some folks argue that, at least among certain brands, there’s virtually no difference at all between a netbook and an ultralight laptop.

Still, as a general rule of thumb, if you’re looking for a very cheap and light machine that you wouldn’t be heartbroken to lose or see destroyed – in other words, if you’re a student who needs a note-taking device, or a frequent traveler who has robust offsite storage and just needs an on-the-road Internet access device – a netbook could be the perfect thing.

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