What is a netbook?

Share

netbook.jpgPaul and I were having a chat this morning. Actually, it was more of a go at marketing departments. Packard Bell were the ones staring down the barrel, as it goes, but it could have been any laptop makers.

“Packard Bell launches the first netbook with AMD,” the press release read, and as my colleague said, we’re not so sure.

The problem is that we’ve got no proof. No one’s really set the definition of what makes a netbook and when a netbook becomes a notebook. We’re all clear that the Asus Eee PC 700 is a netbook but things start to get very laptoppy by the time you get to the Packard Bell dot m/a.

So, I think it’s about time we made some hard and fast rules on the matter here at Tech Digest. There’s some obvious categories we can look at, like size and weight, but, before we do, it’s important to remember what a netbook is all about. What’s it for? What’s the niche?

Well, according to Wikipedia, for the want of anywhere better to look –

“A netbook is a laptop computer designed for wireless communication and access to the Internet. Primarily designed for web browsing and e-mailing, netbooks rely heavily on the Internet for remote access to web-based applications and are targeted increasingly at cloud computing users who require a less powerful client computer.”

Ok. So, straight off the bat we’ve got our first stipulation.

TECH DIGEST RULE ONE OF NETBOOKS – A NETBOOK MUST HAVE WIRELESS ACCESS TO THE INTERNET

So, all netbooks must have Wi-Fi and or 3G access built-in. External dongles do not count.

Ok, what next? Well, it says they’re designed for web browsing and e-mail and rely heavily on the internet for remote access to web-based apps. Right, so it’s not a home or work computer, as we would expect. It’s for access to files when away from your base. It’s a mobile machine in other words.

TECH DIGEST RULE TWO OF NETBOOKS – A NETBOOK IS FOR USE ON THE MOVE

If it’s for mobile computing, then it’s got to be light and you have to be able to fit it into the kind of bag that you’d be carrying round anyway, regardless of where you were going. We’re talking size and weight here, and the question is – what are you prepared to carry around or, more to the point, what extra burden are you unlikely to notice?

Anything under a kilo qualifies in my book. That’s less than a bag of sugar. I can carry sugar. Two kilos is definitely too much. Hang on. Quick straw pole of Shiny Towers…

…right, it seems the average weight of the bags here is around 2-3 kilos. I’d suggest 50% more in your bag is too much, so I’m ruling 1.5kg and over out. I reckon 1.3kg is fair.

Sizewise, we’d have to rule out anything over 12-inches straight away. Wouldn’t fit in my bag. Ten inches is definitely ok. I’d say the biggest a netbook could be is 11.5-inches.

What else? Well, the apps are largely cloud-based and a less powerful computer is needed and, through that, the netbook can save battery life because, being a mobile machine, a long life is more important than high performance.

TECH DIGEST RULE THREE OF NETBOOKS – A NETBOOK MUST SACRIFICE PERFORMANCE FOR AS MUCH BATTERY AS POSSIBLE

First up, a discrete graphics processor is right out. Any juice for powering a GPU could be used for prolonging battery life, so a big “no” there. Integrated graphics, I’ll allow and certainly the likes of the Nvidia Tegra “system-on-a-chip” which inTEGRAtes a CPU and GPU in one silicon lump.

I’m rolling the idea of single-core CPUs in my head as well but, as much as I can see how that netbooks are only really for internet based activity, I can also appreciate that they could still involve a degree of multi-tasking and, provided efficient low voltage two core and above processors can be manufactured, then I’m happy to let that go.

So, that’s size, weight, power, battery but the last area I’d like to look at is cost. These things need to be cheap.

TECH DIGEST RULE FOUR OF NETBOOKS – A NETBOOK MUST BE CHEAP

We’re getting under powered, tiny little machines here. They have less hardware and less metal and they can’t do as much as their bigger brothers. There’s no way they should cost anything like as much. So, I’m setting a ceiling of £400. You can get a full size Dell for less than that, so that’s an absolute max.

CONCLUSIONS

So a computer is only a netbook if it…

  1. has Wi-Fi and/or 3G
  2. weighs 1.3kg or less
  3. has a screen less than 12-inches
  4. sacrifices performance for battery life
  5. has no discrete GPU
  6. cost less than £400

So, as we suspected, by that measure, the Packard Bell dot m/a is not a netbook. Other manufacturers, please take note/net.

Daniel Sung