Netbooks: The Form Factor Time Forgot

Long ago, before smartphones were ubiquitous and children in restaurants were quieted with awful games on iPads, there was a beautiful moment. A moment in which the end user could purchase, at a bargain price, an x86 computer in a compact, portable shell. In 2007, the netbook was born, and took the world by storm – only to suddenly vanish a few years later. What exactly was it that made netbooks so great, and where did they go?

A Beautiful Combination

An Asus EEE PC shown here running Linux. You could run anything on them! Because they were real, full-fat computers. No locked down chipsets or BIOS. Just good, clean, x86 fun.

The first machine to kick off the craze was the Asus EEE PC 701, inspired by the One Laptop Per Child project. Packing a 700Mhz Celeron processor, a small 7″ LCD screen, and a 4 GB SSD, it was available with Linux or Windows XP installed from the factory. With this model, Asus seemed to find a market that Toshiba never quite hit with their Libretto machines a decade earlier. The advent of the wireless network and an ever-more exciting Internet suddenly made a tiny, toteable laptop attractive, whereas previously it would have just been a painful machine to do work on. The name “netbook” was no accident, highlighting the popular use case — a lightweight, portable machine that’s perfect for web browsing and casual tasks.

But the netbook was more than the sum of its parts. Battery life was in excess of 3 hours, and the CPU was a full-fat x86 processor. This wasn’t a machine that required users to run special cut-down software or compromise on usage. Anything you could run on an average, low-spec PC, you could run on this, too. USB and VGA out were available, along with WiFi, so presentations were easy and getting files on and off was a cinch. It bears remembering, too, that back in the Windows XP days, it was easy to share files across a network without clicking through 7 different permissions tabs and typing in your password 19 times.

Netbook sales in 2008, as a proportion of total laptop sales.

The netbook was the perfect machine for the moment. It took full advantage of modern hardware advances, and created a highly usable machine for the important job of surfing the web all day, chatting to your friends. Later models began to push the envelope, with screens pushing out to 9 and later 10 inches, packing more storage, and even featuring battery lives up to 6 hours. Back in 2008, these were crazy numbers, and having less than 20GB of storage wasn’t a liability like it is today. Finally, there was the price.  Low-tier models could be had for under $300. The buying public loved it, and sales shot through the roof. In July 2008, netbooks made up just 1% of total laptop sales. By December, they had almost a fifth of the market.

However, netbooks quickly became a victim of their own success. Hardware manufacturers didn’t appreciate them cutting into sales of higher-end models which came with larger profit margins. Microsoft and Intel began to put pressure on manufacturers to limit specifications. Windows 7 licencing costs were jacked up for any machine with a screen size over 10.1 inches, killing off a series of larger netbooks that had edged towards 12″ screens. Microsoft also floated the idea of a cut-back Windows 7 Starter edition, limited to running just 3 programs at a time. At the same time, as manufacturers sought to compete on features, prices for higher-end models began to rise, outside of the original cheap-and-cheerful brief the netbook originally had.

In the end, the real death knell for the netbook came in the form of the iPad. For the vast majority of users, what they wanted was a simple, cheap internet machine to run Facebook and browse the web. As tablet sales grew, netbook sales fell off a cliff. Trapped between a new competitor and vendors keen to block them out of the market, the netbooks quickly disappeared. In their place, subnotebooks and ultrabooks stormed in – with much larger models at over three times the price point. By 2012, the netbook was effectively dead.

Irreplaceable For The Power User

While the average user found themselves better served by a basic tablet than a tiny laptop, it’s the power users that lost the most when the netbook was killed. There’s great charm and utility in a laptop that can be easily carried with one hand without risk of being dropped or tipping over. Despite the diminutive size, many netbooks packed competent keyboards; I was easily hitting 100 words per minute on an early EEE PC 901. Combined with multiple USB ports and a full Windows install, it made an excellent portable development machine.

A netbook could be carried around in the field, and interface with all manner of hardware. Being a full-fat x86 computer, it ran IDEs, programmed Arduinos, and connected to the Web, all in one neat package. Precisely none of these things can be achieved as easily with a tablet. There are plenty of Bluetooth keyboards and adapter dongles and special apps for working with hardware, but tablets simply can’t compete with a real computer for doing real work. For a hardware hacker on the go, it was a glorious tool. And, at such a low price, it was accessible to everyone — even a broke university student.

Thankfully, hope is on the horizon. The hardware market is a different place in 2020, and the netbook concept has once again shown viability to manufacturers. To qualify as a true netbook, a machine must hold true to the original values that made them great. Machines running a mobile OS, ARM processor (although that may change in the near future as OSes continue to ramp up support), or have other software limitations are not worthy to wear the name. Compact size and low price are also key attributes.

ASUS’s early netbooks boasted great battery life. Other notebooks have caught up in recent years, but 10 years from the Vivobook is nothing to sniff at.

Models like the HP Stream and ASUS VivoBook pick up where netbooks left off. Packing just 4GB of RAM and low-end CPUs, they’re not powerful machines – but they’re not supposed to be. They’re a real computer for under $300 USD, shipping with Windows 10 S. This is an “app store” version of Windows, but can be upgraded to full WIndows 10 at no cost. With under 100GB of storage, you won’t want to load these down with all your photos, videos, and applications. But, with many of us leaving all that in the cloud anyway, it won’t hold you back.

The main competitor holding back the netbook from true glory is no longer the tablet, but the Chromebook. Running a special Linux-based OS crafted by Google, these machines are intended to be lightweight web browsers, and little more. Rather than running local apps, they’re designed to work almost solely in the cloud, with a browser-based app framework. The platform has become widely popular at the bottom end of the laptop market, crowding out the possibilities of a full netbook resurgence. They do, of course, have a hardcore Linux following that happily scrap ChromeOS for a Linux install or run them side-by-side with a healthy dose of workarounds to suit the hardware. This is where a lot of the netbook aficionados ended up when the netbook hardware standard became scarce.

An Eye To The Future

It’s unlikely that we’ll see netbooks return to the prominence they once held for those four amazing years at the turn of the last decade. The average user looking for a social media machine is best served by tablets or cut-down Chromebooks. This leaves powerusers as the primary market for the netbook, and many with larger pocketbooks will simply opt for a more powerful ultrabook instead. Pour one out for the college students, who will have to mortgage their beat-up Corolla, or else lug a bulky 15″ clunker over to their capstone project to figure out how they let the smoke out. For now, netbooks remain sleeping — may they one day rise again.

156 thoughts on “Netbooks: The Form Factor Time Forgot

  1. I put Linux Mint on my MSI Wind U100 about a year ago. I had trouble with the original WiFi card working in Linux so with a swap to an inexpensive Intel WiFi card, it works great. I always liked it for the portability.

  2. Have you considered a Galaxy Tab with keyboard is about the same form factor (I use an S6, DeX, etc. as my main device, I’m typing it on one now). I usually disable the touchpad and use the SPen when I need that kind of interaction.

    1. In general tablet & keyboard combos are not rigid enough, need a firm flat surface, don’t have enough USB or easily removable storage (Half of them bury SD card nowadays)

      I was nearly tempted by that Asus transformer detachable, but have seen them nearly dump on the ground when jostled, and not hold angles rigidly.

  3. always loved tech,

    my first laptop purchase was in 2015, of a refurbished Samsung ultrabook from ’13 @ 799$ usd.
    I’m still using it, its small 2.2lb weight, 1080p res., 4GB memory, backlit keyboard. When I first purchased, I was totally unaware of the needs of mobile power users – I spent countless hours ‘cringing’ that I had wasted my precious dollars on a machine that wouldn’t serve my needs, even after a statistical approach to cost / computing power.

    After owning it for 5 years, becoming much more stable in my personal life, and utilizing the accessories available to mobile power users.. the cringe factor has entirely disappeared, it’s a sexy machine. The only thing I’m not sold on is its whimpy intel HD 4000 (new drivers released for the windows market in 2020, Samsung is yet to support them). It runs a mean Linux terminal / mesa lib. with a TDP of 40w (13w idle) during Turbo (gaming, or compiling).

    In terms of what the laptop market is dealing with in 2020, im pissed I didn’t wait 5 years for the m-GPU market to grow substantially – along with the holes in my wallet, and free time! I’m not pissed that I have 9/10ths of what the market is serving up, at a fraction of the price. Holy Grail anyone?

    It’s hard being an avid gamer, computer enthusiast, and amateur hacker.. the only thing I’m lacking when I carry this babe around, is a steady 30-60 fps on AAA titles, hell I still play 20 year old games bra. If I knew a bit more about optimization, i’m sure I could get my game collection running well on this ‘ultra’ nightmare, turned ‘low’ – ‘off’ – OR – ‘800×600′ … I just can’t complain when I’m not made of money, and the PC is obviously not out of its’ service life. It has soldered ram, a 128gb ssd, and clocks in @ 1.8Ghz 3337U core i5..

    it’s not F^%K$NG perfect man, but I don’t have nightmares about it anymore – my next purchase certainly will not be a netbook, but of the same ilk, ultra-portable, ultra-efficient, ultra-expensive (we differ here I believe.).. I can’t wait to join the Solar punk movement. Maybe a hack is in order?

  4. I remember it a little different. Originally they were only available with Linux on them selling for $249 and for just over 6 months they sold like crazy. That’s when Microsoft stepped in and forced the hardware vendors to up the hardware so it could run Windows and they could not sell a version with less hardware. They sold the Linux version for the same cost/price as the Windows versions which were now in the ~$350 range. And then Microsoft changed licensing and other games and the market died. No doubt this was what Microsoft intended. Remember what they did to OLPC? A few years later came tablets and Windows PC sales have been sliding ever since.

    1. I thought people got excited, then turned away when they didn’t run windows.

      You’re right about the six months, I waited till the fall (was it 2006 or 2007?) and ended up with a returned unit, price had gone up or no more Linux, some reason I was glad to get that refurbished unit.

      The Linux it came with had never been heard of before that. I remember limitations, but can’t remember if it was the linux distribution, or things real distributions had.

      That was about when they shifted from small solid state drives to 120gb mechanics drives. I thought that was .ore what people wanted, the trend was people wanting lots of disk space.

  5. I don’t think it’s reasonable to disqualify ARM. The experience of using an OG Pinebook feels like those sluggish old miserable netbooks that cost a few times its price in 2020 dollars.

    A pinebook pro feels like what those netbooks aspired to be for just under $200 2020 dollars. It’s a real, full fledged OS. You can run an IDE on it. And it doesn’t suck to use a modern browser with modern sites the same way the netbooks did 10 years ago.

    And if you want to do some hardware hacking, the GPIO on the board gets more interesting than anything I ever noticed on a netbook PDQ.

    Unless running x86 Windows stuff is a hard requirement, life is dramatically better at the netbook price point and form factor in 2020 than it was in 2007 – 2010, in my opinion.

    1. ARM books, tablets, Pi 4s, Android Boxes, whatever, are deceptively fast, because they deceive you into thinking that because the only things they allow you to do are fast. Some video codecs in hardware make you think they do just as good on HD content etc, but the CPU really isn’t doing the math on that. It’s also limited to only a few codecs. Use it on something where it needs to do the math and it’s slower than midrange 10 year old netbooks… apart from most of the time you can’t see that because nobody bothered porting stuff that’s going to be horribly slow. If you take the fastest consumer ARM device the OnePlus 8 with it’s 8 cores up to 2.8ghz snapdragon, that’s a little slower than a 2 core basic i3 so four times the cores to get to x86 entry level. It’s amazing you can put it in your pocket, and it will feel real snappy, if you compiled the apps with the exact same trimmed down feature set for the i3, it would doubtless also feel as snappy, and not so bargain basement.

      All in all, one can make an older netbook just as fast by getting strict with yourself about using a slimmed down lightweight linux distro, it’s all the stuff that you can add to x86 (that’s nice, may as well have this, etc etc) and may have been intended for higher spec machines, that you want to run, even though you’ll be disappointed that it’s running slowly. Since the ARM ecosystem is not as large as x86 you are physically prevented from loading it up with too much crap.

      But if you don’t get it, My A1200 is faster than your Pinebook.

      1. Your A1200 may be faster than my Pinebook Pro by some measures. But it is a damn sight more sluggish at running a KDE plasma desktop. And doesn’t have a a serial console I can use, or those fun GPIO pins. Or a 1080p screen.

        If it’s as much faster as you claim it is, I’m not sure why it can’t drive a decent screen or run a nice desktop like KDE, or run firefox or chromium in a usable way for things like nextcloud or google docs, but unless you have some super secret A1200 that is much, much better than the one I had, it can’t.

        It *feels* faster running KDE plasma on its 1080p display than my old hacking laptop that has a 3rd gen i5 with a 768p display, using an identical software load that’s been compiled for aarch64 instead of amd64.

        While I may be academically interested in the fact that applications could squeeze more operations per second out of that i5, I’m not interested in doing that just to make the desktop not suck or just to make it drive a display that doesn’t suck.

        1. My Acer Aspire One 150 runs an external 1080p quite well. Just about everything on it “feels” faster than my Pi 4. Maybe it’s just because it’s x86 and I can run a nice lightweight distro like Bodhi on it. Doesn’t matter; the fact that it’s x86 opens it up to a lot more potential software than a Pinebook.

          That said, the Pinebook is really cool.

          1. The pi 4 is hampered a bit by running off an sd card. The pinebook pro’s emmc, which is no speed demon, is likely what makes it feel faster than a pi 4 for desktop-y things.

            The adapter for nvme is a nice feature too. I’m told those further improve things, but haven’t bothered yet, as it makes a really good little hacking box as is.

            https://store.pine64.org/?product=pinebook-pro-m-2ngff-nvme-ssd-interface-adapter

            Maybe I’m lacking imagination, but I’ve not missed any x86 software on it over the past 6 months. Offhand, no linux software I use is x86 only, other than the odd steam game. And I’m not playing those on a netbook either :)

            Wired ethernet without an adapter would have been nice on one or two occasions.

  6. Got a Acer 10″ with one of the last Intel Atom processors with a partially busted screen for free.

    Turns out it shared the same panel as used in early win7 tablets, so a eBay purchase of a cheap used panel later and it was fixed.

    Did also swap the RAM to highest possible capacity, cheap but decent SSD and wifi card that supports modern standards, battery is even still good.

    Used it as my lightweight laptop for years until I got a x230t for cheap, now it’s my datalogging laptop for car diagnostics and similar scenarios.

  7. I still use an Asus EEE 1000HE netbook fairly frequently. It runs Debian stable with LXDE flawlessly. I put a 60GB SSD in it and installed 2GB of RAM a few years after I bought it and I’ve been using it for 11 years straight as my only mobile machine. I’m still on the original battery! It got me through lots of schooling and I have absolutely nothing bad to say about it. I also still run a 12 year old OC’d e6600 as my daily driver. It doubles as a combination space heater/white noise generator.

  8. If you want a good netbook, one I don’t see mentioned too often. Look into the Lenovo s10 model (early s10, you’ll know it when you see it cause it’s boxy like a thinkpad, the later models started getting more “styled?”) Spec wise this is probably at the top end of the netbook range. It looks and feels like a shrunk down Thinkpad. They shipped with a normal laptop spinning rust 2.5″ sata hdd. Easily upgraded to a more modern sata SSD.

  9. The netbook was enabled by Microsoft. They provided dirt cheap licenses of Windows for the form factor to cut off an attempt by several companies to start selling x86 Linux-based “almost-Windows” products. The almost-Windows Linux opportunity ebbed away and with it the need for Microsoft to cut deals for it. But Microsoft didn’t win the war, as iPads and Android tablets became the market the Linux netbooks could’ve been and that Microsoft priced itself out of (and also failed at providing enabling technologies for).

  10. I had 11″ Aspire One with c60, 2GB RAM and 320GB HDD – later chnged to 120 SSD. Served me for years as travel machine. 6 years later decided to change it due to lack of processing power ( battery was like 95% of its capacity). And I discovered that after 6 years for the same money I can get a machine with less storage, same amount of RAM and CPU that maybe is better but not much. And a battery was still same.
    At the time tech press was pushing theory like:
    – no one wanted netbook because specs were too limited
    – no one wanted Linux on netbook because lack of software
    – chromebooks were fantastic
    Although chromebooks were basically netbooks with more limited softwere that was even more limited without internet press was so adter them because you could write documents in a cloud.
    I really miss that segment – it was killed by marketing despite popularity.

    1. This is a very real observation. The reason for the difference was that instead of a $10 Microsoft tax, you were probably paying $60 or more. Its baked into the price so all you see is less bang for the buck.

  11. Oh god i loved that form factor! tough thos sub10″ where too small for me i liked ones in 10″-12″ range – i worked at computer shop at that time and had access to lots of different computers. I wish i bought one back then it would be more useful at my later jobs that i had to travel a lot around whole EU, 15″ are just too big, and spending piles of money on something that gets thrown a lot in bags, that can be lost at airport or stolen at some bum-fuck-nowhere isnt sensible. So netbooks please get a rebirth! :)

  12. I still use mine regularly. Its a PCWorld clone, which has been upgraded over the years. the best thing about it is that it has a full fat ethernet port and is small enough to carry around. I basically use it for processor programming. I am sure Chromebooks are great, but unless they run all my tools like wireshark they are just glorified internet terminals

  13. My main laptop today is a GPD Pocket 2 Max. 8.9″ 2560*1600 display, 16gb of ram, 512gb of nvme storage, one of the intel core M3 CPU’s and yet still a respectable complement of I/O (1 USB C supporting charge and display, 2 type A’s and a microHDMI).

    Honestly love it and it captures most of what I dug about the netbook formfactor, while bumping up the performance (and sadly the cost) in the process. Even with windoze its fast and responsive, people have managed to use it as a hackintosh and throw macOS on it, and I’ve had a pretty good time experimenting with booting ubuntu on it.

    I’d love to see a return of these systems from known manufacturers, both more premium and cheapo atom. Modern atom isnt so bad anyway

  14. Great article! My preferred strategy is to get a used ultrabook (2014/15 perhaps) from Lenovo or similar brand as they come fairly cheap now, and have great screens, keyboards and cpu.

  15. I take the point about usability of tablets for hardware stuff. They’re not designed for that & the Netbooks (with Linux) did that really well. I have a 9″ Dell that I still use periodically (running Lubuntu 19.04) and with a replacement battery bought last year – it still works well. I guess it depends on what people want to do – but I’ve recently found that a tablet (iPad Pro) + external keyboard case + a Raspberry Pi works a a pretty good combo. I can SSH into the Pi & then use the CLI version of PlatformIO tools to do stuff like Arduino / ESP32 / development. I can use vim on the Pi – or (using git to sync – and running Working Copy) can use a native editor on the iPad (Textastic is great). Obviously no good if you need GUI tools and/or Windows – but it’s the best I’ve seen for times when the old Netbook can’t hack it.

  16. I still have a Samsung N150+ netbook, that I use as a 2nd machine. With 2GB RAM and a cheap 250 GB SSD, (after wiping out Windows 7 unusable), it works very well with Linux Manjaro xfce and Anti-X Linux. Still using it regularly.

  17. I am wondering why nobody has a Samsung Netbook NC10. Small Compact Design, Accu around 8 to 10h worktime and ! internal Modem with the SIM Card holder behind the Accu on the back. ( Samsung NC10 BH )

    I already have this NB and using it from time to time with a dual boot system Ubuntu Linux 14.4LTS and WindowsXP. changed HDD to SSD and upgraded RAM to 2GB. The internal Modem is working out of the box with Ubuntu. No hassle with broken usb port when using USBStick for internet access. Fast enough for me, the LCD is 1024×600, but i could also use the VGA on second screen.

  18. Had one eeepc as well. It was a great tool at the time mainly for the 10+ hour battery life. It was an ideal thing for travelling and student work.

    In today’s world .. not so much. Normal laptops got lighter, battery life got longer and outlets got more common and my phone can do so much better. Everyone i know who had one, had it as a secondary device. Today I would use that money to buy a better main computer.

  19. This just reminded me to track down my old eee 701 4G!
    It was my main machine since I was poor and living out of my car. I used it build Mindbuntu and Android for the Clarionmind gps devices.
    I remember back in 2010 mining bitcoin with it and 4 of the clarionminds. I wonder if my wallets are still on those devices.

  20. I’ve got 3 of these at home. One of them runs CentOS and I use it at conferences to take notes when my main laptop battery dies. Another one runs Debian and it’s for the kids to have a laptop with a keyboard that fits their tiny hands. The other is a first gen EEE PC with a super old version of Debian. For it to be worth using for anything, I’d have to replace the (I think) 4GB SSD drive.

  21. I believe there was some agreement between intel, MS, and the netbook nanufacturers possibly, ?? would need to look it up again, to hobble Atom based netbooks by limiting them to 2Gb of RAM. I have two eepcs and a mini ITX motherboard with the same exact processor, the first one seemed reasonably zippy, even with win 7, the second newer eepc version seemed weirdly sluggish, and the mini ITX worked great with 4 G. Without the artificial 2G limit they would be great little machines.

    1. It may have been a consequence of Intel’s policy with it’s chipsets, a long standing thing. X chipset was for low end desktop so would only cache 64MB RAM supporting two DIMM slots, Y chipset was for workstations so while performing exactly the same (unless RAM was an issue) it got to use 512MB supporting 4 DIMM slots…

      There’s some full size notebooks that suffer from this, sold with Pentium and Celeron versions of Core series CPUs, and a crippled version of the chipset, that make sure it can’t use a real i5 or so. Intel has gone freaking crazy with market segment “spam” though the last few years, too many nameplates, too many variations of two different architectures.

  22. It is unfortunate that the atom netbooks had an artificial 2Gb limit. Some agreement between intel and MS? With the exact same ATOM CPU, an eepc I have and a mini ITX board With 4G we’re like nite and day. Weirdly, two eepcs models with the same processor and ram also were very different, the newer on being weirdly sluggish.

  23. I still use an EEE-901 with a replacement SSD to run my 3D printer from the same time period. I think it has Lubuntu 32bit 18.04.
    I was more mobile then and was very glad I had invested in a folding bicycle and the Eee, I was pretty much secretly homeless for ~18 months (fraud against my credit, no money for lawyer, sued, cleaned out bank accounts, and lost good job; is there any way to recover social credibility after admitting something like that among ‘nice’ well-off people you hope can network you a good job?) and the Eee was great for having a script to DL the websites I needed as well as plugging in at work and torrenting the shows and music for later when I was sacked out in my hammock.

  24. I couldn’t resist after reading this piece – I dug my old Netbook (Acer D255E, upgraded ages ago to 2 GB of RAM and a 64 GB SSD) out of a bin, spent $20 on a new battery, and I’m posting from it right now.

    I’m trying Zorin OS Lite, it works surprisingly well. This isn’t going to replace my regular computer for work, but I can see myself throwing this into a bag for a weekend, or doing duty as the workshop screen.

  25. I have been using an EEE 1025c for the last 6 years or so for YouTubing and programming Megasquirt ECU’s. I upgraded it to 4GB of RAM and found a BIOS patch to enable the 64-bit capability of the N2600. I also added an SSD, which helped battery life but didn’t make it run any faster.

    Windows 7 32-bit will run on it, but there are no working video drivers for anything newer. Linux seems to be able handle the GPU, but hardware acceleration is not going to happen. It can do 720p YouTube, as long as it isn’t 60FPS.

    Linux Mint XFCE seems to run the best on it. It may eventually get replaced by a GPD Win 2, but it has a few more years left in it.

  26. I’m all about smaller computers. Still have:
    – EEEPC 701
    – Villiv N5
    – Open Pandora
    – OQO 1

    Mostly these days I use a Cosmo Communicator. Clamshell phone that dual boots android and Linux and a $100 Samsung Chromebook 3.

    I think the statements here are overblown regarding chromebooks. I don’t use web apps, mostly android or Linux programs and it works well. There are some notable issues though Like everything. Still it was $100.

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