I have never owned a netbook, but I played with them constantly during my internship at Maximum PC magazine. I worked on it in 2009, at the height of the netbook’s popularity. The idea of a small laptop with the basic functionality of my custom home desktop computer was really appealing to my brain. Not to mention that it was a laptop that fit in my purse! I had a horn from a 17-inch Gateway laptop, and although it was my workhorse in college, it was too heavy to carry.
Netbooks were also very cute, which Windows laptops definitely weren’t back then. The Asus Eee PC was not the same kind of beauty as, say, the Apple iBook G4, but it was darling compared to my everyday driver’s plastic gray horn. My love for netbooks solidified after I borrowed one for the summer from my best friend. I was going abroad to visit my other best friend, and that’s when I realized the tiny little laptop was the perfect tool to embark on a journey of self-exploration. It even helped me relax into the fantasy of what would eventually become my reality.
Unfortunately, netbooks haven’t been long for this world. They lost popularity in the early 2010s, eclipse by increasingly powerful tablets and ultra-light laptops. There are plenty of smaller laptops out there that run Windows or Chrome OS, but they’re too underpowered for today’s multitasking beyond home schooling and video playback. These same reasons explain why netbooks did not last. But I still can’t help but feel a nostalgic affinity for the Eee PC that I carried with me for a summer.
Eee PC for me
My best friend invited me overseas one summer, so I had to pack my bags efficiently. She was at school during the day, so I also had to find a way to pass the time between her classes. I asked another close friend to borrow his blank Asus Eee PC 900 netbook, one of the most popular models at the time. It had an 8.9-inch display, a 1.6GHz Atom N270 processor, 1GB of RAM, and a meager 4GB of SSD storage. You could choose whether it ran Windows XP or (if you wanted some semblance of battery life) a version of Linux that the manufacturer was selling. I don’t remember which distro the Eee PC was running, but I was familiar enough that I had no problem adjusting to the interface.
I didn’t have a smartphone when netbooks were in their prime. Instead, I had a working, locked phone that didn’t work overseas, so the netbook proved essential to staying connected while I was away. The Eee PC had an 802.11 b / g wifi modem, which helped me hook up in a small Swedish cafe where I wrote a quick email to a lover at home about my adventures. There was also an Ethernet port, which I used after sneaking into a business room at Copenhagen Airport. I used the wired connection for research activities before heading to our destination for the weekend. The display was tiny compared to other laptops, but with a resolution of 1024 x 600 the screen was crisp enough to watch a few movies on the go. I went through every part of the original Star wars trilogy, plus the classic Julia Roberts The wedding of my best friend, which I watched snuggle up to my best friend one of the nights we stayed.
Most of the memories I made on that first trip abroad alone were helped in part by this little netbook that I took with me from place to place. It also had its flaws, which became more and more evident as my trip drew to a close. On the one hand, if I needed to answer work emails (I was also looking for a job at the time), I would ask my friend to use her full-size laptop from 15 inches during his absence. Its keyboard had the same number of keys as mine, but the larger space made it easier to enter longer paragraphs than the Eee PC’s cramped keyboard.
The Eee PC’s battery was also knotty, as most software at the time was not optimized for mobile use. I was lucky enough to see a two hour movie before the netbook needed recharging, which meant I had to ration that time on the 11 hour flight home. Lack of storage space was also an issue, and the movies I watched were all stored on a USB drive.
When I got home that summer, I quickly returned the netbook to its original owner. But despite all the concessions I had to make to travel with the Asus Eee PC in tow, the whole experience left me thirsty for a powerful yet portable laptop that I could comfortably carry in my bag.
Who killed the netbook?
In part, you can thank the Great Recession of 2008-2009 for boosting netbook sales. At $ 400, the netbook provided all internet access and all the features a person needed to get by. But just as analysts were voicing optimism that netbooks would eclipse PCs and laptops in sales, they crashed as hard as they entered. The iPad had burst onto the scene, bringing a new style of portability to the tablet format. As Charles Arthur pointed out in The Guardian Back then, PC makers also realized that netbooks were bad for business because they weren’t making much profit after factoring in license fees. Manufacturers eventually focused on making laptops lighter and more powerful. The latest holdouts were Acer and Asus, which stopped making new models in 2013.
My perfect laptop
The only other laptop I ever liked as much as this little netbook I had for the summer was the 2012 Ivy Bridge version of the 11-inch MacBook Air.. I cashed in unused vacation to pay for it, and it followed me at work for about four years. Unfortunately, it suffered from the same problems as the netbook that came before it; it didn’t have the best battery life or storage space for the huge RAW files I had to process. But, at the same time, he could process these files in the full version of Adobe Photoshop! And because the keyboard was roughly the same size as the 13-inch MacBook Air, it was comfortable for long keystrokes. This machine is still in service; it helps my cousin complete her college course, the same way it helped me categorize stories and do my research on the road.
I have to thank the netbook for inspiring me to research small and powerful machines. There are 11-inch laptops you can buy from HP, Acer, and Lenovo, which cost less than the $ 400 price tag of the original netbooks. they have a lot better specs, and some of them even rotate backwards to become handy tablets. I had personally hoped for a netbook revival to happen in the Chrome OS realm, as the platform lends itself so well to the form factor. There are 11-inch Chromebooks you can buy, but they’re best configured for home school students.
I don’t know if a modern laptop will ever recreate the feeling of freedom and capacity that the little Eee PC gave me. This is probably because my time with the netbook occurred during a period of my teenage years where I felt not only stifled and inhibited, but insecure. The netbook allowed me to imagine, briefly, as a young journalist on the road, writing down her thoughts from anywhere she could connect to the internet. Hell, it was just cool pre-writing a LiveJournal article at the airport. The netbook allowed me to live out the fantasy of what I wanted to pursue after graduating from college. That’s why I’ll always have a soft spot for the little laptop that tried.