Going places with your netbook

Why small computing is in

By Andy Sweet

If you're in the market for a back-to-school laptop, a portable PC, or just a basic computer that won't break your budget, there's a chance you've heard the word "netbook." No, it's not a fishing manual for old-time sailors, it's a type of PC that's catching on—and for good reason.

I've been using an ordinary, middle-of-the-road netbook for the last year and love it. Read on and I'll give you the inside scoop on netbooks—what they are, why there's so much buzz about them, and what's in the fine print.

Picture comparing a laptop and a netbook
Netbooks save on size but don't skimp on features.

What's a netbook?

Basically, netbooks are just small laptops with a couple of differences that we'll get into in a bit. Their small size makes them highly portable, so they're perfect when you're on the go. You can bring a netbook along when you wouldn't consider lugging a heavier, bulkier laptop. For example, when I'm flying, my netbook sits on the tray table, while other passengers struggle with their larger, heavier laptops.

If you find yourself using your PC mainly for checking and writing e‑mail and browsing the web, rather than crunching numbers, then a netbook could be a great match for you. I often have mine nearby when watching TV, so I can look up a show's website for more information, or find out what other movies an actor or actress has been in.

Why so popular?

First, a netbook is still a full-fledged PC with a real keyboard. You can only do so much on a phone, no matter how smart it is. Typing on my phone is usually limited to "LOL," but I've typed stories, notes, proposals, and yes, even this column on a netbook—in my backyard, no less. And because netbooks are PCs, you can still do the routine PC tasks you're used to doing—installing programs made for Windows, printing files, attaching devices, connecting to networks, and more.

A compact PC that gets great mileage

The main thing that makes a netbook a netbook is its compact size—they're portable and light. My netbook weighs only about 3 pounds, and at about the same size of a hard-cover book, it fits in my bike messenger bag with plenty of room to spare without weighing me down. It just feels smaller, and it's not even one of the smaller models. Some netbooks are even small and light enough to fit comfortably inside a purse.

Netbooks take advantage of power-sipping CPUs that give them very good battery life, which makes them even more portable. I get several hours of use without having to worry about the next charge, needing to camp out near an electrical outlet, or lugging a power cord along.

And let's not forget one of the most compelling reasons to get a netbook—price. Netbooks aren't intended to be (or advertized as) the screaming sports cars of the computing world, because they don't have the fastest hardware. But that's what makes them affordable, and I find my netbook more than adequate for the tasks I do every day—casual web surfing, checking e‑mail, and writing. A netbooks is a great choice as a portable, primary PC, and makes a smart, inexpensive second PC as well (which is how I use mine).

Keeping it real—the limits of a netbook

Now, like many things in life, there are a couple of tradeoffs to consider. Netbooks are light, portable, and easy to use; that's a given. But just remember that powerful laptops still have their place, so you might need to give up a couple of luxuries when using a netbook.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • No DVD drive. One of the things that make netbooks so small is the lack of an internal DVD drive. If you get most of your programs and data from the Internet, or watch movies online, this won't be as much of an issue. If you need to play DVDs, you can always get an external DVD drive. If all you want to do is access files stored on a DVD, maybe some old pictures you've archived, you can always use a desktop PC or a laptop and copy your files to a USB flash drive, Secure Digital (SD) card, or other removable storage device. (SD cards are used in many digital cameras, and many netbooks have SD slots.)

  • Smaller screen. The resolution of my 10-inch screen (1024 x 600) is fine for reading. But, you might need to do some extra scrolling when looking at large pictures, big maps, or websites designed for larger screens. Also, you probably won't find a top-of-the-line video card under the hood either, so adjust your expectations when playing games or watching movies. (It's fine, just not great.)

  • Smaller keyboard. Some people just won't be comfortable with a small keyboard. My netbook's keyboard is 90% of a full-sized keyboard, and for me, that's the sweet spot. I can type easily with no more typos than usual. But, unless you've got small hands or are buying one for a child, I'd stick with that 90% size or close to it. The best way to know is to try one in person—computer, electronics, and office supply stores are a good place to start. (I've even seen entry-level models at larger toy stores!)

  • Moderate performance. Those efficient CPUs that give netbooks long battery life naturally are a little slower than what you might find in other PCs. So you probably won't be using your netbook for intense 3D gaming, Hollywood video editing, or DNA genome sequencing. But for everyday use, I've had no complaints, even when I've had several different programs open at the same time.

  • Limited disk space in some models. Some netbooks use solid-state drives (SSDs) rather than hard disks—sort of like using a built-in USB flash drive as a hard disk. But they're often fairly small (maybe 16 GB), so they can fill up pretty fast with music and pictures. The netbook I bought in 2008 has an 80 GB hard disk. Today, that's considered small. Many netbooks now have 160 GB or larger hard disks. If you do buy a netbook with a SSD and find yourself running low on disk space, you can use a large-capacity SD card to make more space.

Tips for making the most out of a smaller screen

Because you have less space to work with on a netbook screen, here are some easy tweaks you can make to help use that space more efficiently:

  • Use small taskbar buttons. Windows 7 made the taskbar buttons larger and more visible than in earlier versions of Windows, but you can toggle the size to make them smaller. For more information, see Change how buttons appear on the taskbar.

  • Auto-hide the taskbar. This one might take some getting used to, but every little bit of space helps. When you set the taskbar to auto-hide, it's only visible when you move your cursor over where your taskbar lives. Then the taskbar pops back up so you can open programs, use Jump Lists, and get to files. When you're finished, the taskbar minimizes out of the way. For more information, see Show or hide the taskbar.

  • Use small icons on the desktop. This will help save space for gadgets or shortcuts if you like to keep them on your desktop. For more information, see Show, hide, or resize desktop icons.

  • Hide optional menu bars. The menu bars on your web browser can take up a good chunk of your window. You might find you can live without some of them (and you can always add them back later). If your program has a large menu bar, check the program's Help to see if the menu bar can be minimized.

The Goldilocks theory of PC size

Netbooks have a lot to offer, and so do their bigger siblings the laptops. Each has its place—it's really a question of the right tool for the job. If a phone is too small for what you need to do, but you don't want the weight and price of a traditional laptop, a netbook might be just right. To learn more about what to look for in a netbook, see Finding a netbook that's right for you.

For more information about netbooks and Windows 7, check out Installing Windows 7 on a netbook and Upgrading Windows 7 on a netbook using Windows Anytime Upgrade.

About the author

Andy Sweet is a writer on the Windows team at Microsoft. Most recently, he developed user interface text for several Windows 7 features. Previously, he helped create instructor-led training for Windows IT professionals and was a science and technology editor for Encarta Encyclopedia.

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