Modern personal computing is all about having the largest screen, the most muscular processor, and the biggest hard drive, right?

Not when all you want is an ultraportable way to read your favorite blog or shoot off an email from your local café. And without breaking the bank after all you spent on that widescreen display and dual-core tower for your desktop. Enter the Netbook. Don’t think cheap, tiny, and underpowered—think economical, lightweight, and peppy.

With their smallest screens measuring around 7 inches diagonally, the tiniest netbook is a good 10 inches smaller than desktop-replacement laptops with their 17-inch screens and processors that can heat up the whole basement after a few hours of gaming. Booting one of these up just to check email is like driving an armored tank down to the corner store for a gallon of milk.

If you just need a small machine to check your email, browse the Web, see what people are talking about on Twitter, or feed that Peggle addiction, a netbook is more than big enough. Better still, it probably costs at least a thousand dollars less than that big bruiser of a laptop. Instead of more firepower than you need, a netbook gives you just what you need.

Perhaps you’re considering a netbook because you want an inexpensive traveling companion that’s bigger than a smartphone but smaller than your 15-inch regular laptop. Or maybe you’re considering getting a netbook for the kids to keep them off your work laptop. Or maybe cost is a consideration and you need the computer equivalent of a subcompact car to get you out on the road and on your way.

Whatever your reason, you’re not alone—industry analysts predict netbook sales will reach 22 million in 2009. Welcome to the club. Let Netbooks: The Missing Manual be your membership guide.

Why Netbooks Are Not Notebooks

Why Netbooks Are Not Notebooks

But what specifically makes a laptop a netbook? It’s really a number of factors, including:

  • Size. Netbook screen sizes range from 7 inches to around 12 inches in diagonal width, making them smaller than the smallest typical notebook computer, which usually has a screen size of at least 13 inches. With the smaller screen size, the keyboard dimensions and the overall weight of the netbook are much less than those of regular notebook computers. Netbooks tend to weigh around three or four pounds, making them much less of a hassle to lug around.

  • Processor. Netbooks use efficient processors that focus on saving power rather than having a lot of power. You don’t exactly need a supercomputer to do the most basic computing chores like web browsing to begin with, but the average netbook processor can go far beyond that. You won’t be breaking any speed records, but you can use office applications, organize your digital audio and video, and even play games on most netbooks.

  • Cost. Sporting no-frills hardware (and less of it), netbooks keep their price—as well as their weight—down. On most models, there’s no DVD drive, no backlit keyboard, no video-friendly widescreen. And the majority of netbooks still run inexpensive operating systems like the open-source Linux or the outdated Windows XP. (This situation will change as Windows 7 and other new systems make a run at the netbook market.) All these cost-savings mean you can buy a netbook for anywhere from $250 to $600.


By the way, the cost factor is what disqualifies Apple’s MacBook Air from being a netbook. Starting at $1500, it’s a notebook. A thin, wispy notebook. But Apple enthusiasts haven’t let lack of official Mac hardware stop them from installing their favorite operating system on popular netbook models like the Dell Mini 9 or MSI Wind. If this sort of thing appeals to you, the Hackintosh site has tutorials (

For these reasons and more, netbooks are not notebooks. In June 2009, the market-research firm NPD Group released the results of a survey that found that 60 percent of the people they talked to thought that netbooks and notebooks could do all the same things. Many of these people were disappointed when they found out that this was not the case.

Notebooks are bigger, stronger, faster—and most of them can entertain you with DVD movies on an airplane. True, notebooks are generally heavier and more expensive than netbooks, but they can do more. You need a notebook, not a netbook, if you want to comfortably edit home video, see an entire row of your monster spreadsheet, or make a photo collage.

The Evolving World of Netbooks

The decision to buy a netbook means you have to make a few other choices as well, like what kind of netbook. The playing field here is changing rapidly as Mini-Me PCs become more popular.

A simple decision like which operating system to get isn’t so simple on a netbook. You can go with good old Windows XP or cutting-edge Linux. Complicating things further, Microsoft is gearing up for netbook-compatible editions of its new Windows 7 operating system, due out in October 2009.

And there are even newer operating systems on the horizon, designed just for netbooks and mobile devices like smartphones. For example, Intel (maker of the Atom chip that currently powers a huge percentage of netbooks) is helping to develop the Moblin operating system, a Linux variation designed just for the particular space and processing needs of tiny computers. And Google (developer of the world’s most popular search-engine) is set to unleash its open-source Android operating system (yep, the same one used on mobile phones) on netbooks very soon, too. Both Moblin and Android are expected to be available by late 2009 or early 2010.

In July 2009, Google announced it was also working on an operating system aimed squarely at netbooks. If everything goes according to plan, the Chrome OS—a shiny user interface running on top of a humming Linux engine—should show up on netbooks by the end of 2010.

About This Book

You may also be asking yourself, “What exactly can I do on a netbook once I pick one out?” And that’s where Netbooks: The Missing Manual comes in. This book is not a guide to a specific model of netbook or a single operating system. Instead, it’s a guide to the hardware realities, the software possibilities, and the potential of your netbook to be something more than the 21st century version of a Smith Corona portable typewriter.

But if you want to make it a typewriter, there’s nothing stopping you. After all, it’s your netbook. You can use it for composing poetry in the park—or writing a book about netbooks.

About the Outline

This book is divided into four parts that each focus on a particular aspect of netbook living.

  • Part I: Meet Your Netbook. Maybe you’ve been researching your potential netbook purchase for months to make sure you got just the right model for your needs and are this close to getting out the credit card. Or maybe you just bought one on a whim at Best Buy because it just looked so darn cute. No matter where you are in the netbook-purchasing timeline, this section of the book is devoted to helping you find and buy the right model for your mobile-computing needs. It also shows you how to get your new purchase up and running as smoothly as possible. You’ll get a quick tour of the Windows and Linux operating systems, as well as instructions on how to get that netbook working with a printer, scanner, mouse, and other external hardware.

  • Part II: Taking Your Netbook Online. The net in netbook is the Internet. This section of the book explains how to get that computer online in a number of ways, from the airy freedom of a WiFi network to the old-school dial-up connection. And once you get your netbook linked to the Internet, you’ll probably want to do the top two things most people do on computers of any size: web browsing and email. Chapter 6 tells you how to get your netbook doing both—and even how to bring your bookmarks from another browser to the new machine so it feels more like home.

  • Part III: Working on Your Netbook. Contrary to what you may have heard, you can do a whole lot more with a netbook than just send email or browse blogs. This section shows you how you can work (on documents, spreadsheets, and presentations) or play (Minesweeper, Peggle, or Civilization, anyone?) on your netbook—whether you have an Internet connection or not. Games aren’t the only entertainment netbooks offer either: The mini-laptop can also double as an MP3 jukebox, online radio receiver, photo album, and video player. You’ll also see how easy it is to set up video and audio chats with friends online.

  • Part IV: Taking Care of Your Netbook. This final section of the book shows you how to keep your netbook running smoothly, what to do if something does go wrong, and how to help protect yourself from the malicious and destructive software lurching all over the Internet.

Along the way in each chapter, you’ll find tips, tricks, and links to deeper resources for many aspects of netbook computing. Finding the proper netbook and getting it set up according to what you want to use it for is key. And once you get all that squared away, you may find yourself spending more time discovering the things you can do with a netbook, rather than lamenting the things that you can’t.


Throughout this book, and throughout the Missing Manual series, you’ll find sentences like this one: “Open the My Documents→Renovation Project→Contractor Estimates folder.” That’s shorthand for a much longer instruction that directs you to open three nested folders in sequence, like this: “On your hard drive, you’ll find a folder called My Documents. Open that. Inside the My Documents window is a folder called Renovation Project; double-click it to open it. Inside that folder is yet another one called Contractor Estimates. Double-click to open it, too.”

Similarly, this kind of arrow shorthand helps to simplify the business of choosing commands in menus.

About the Missing CD

It’s a multimedia world these days, so you’ll find more to Netbooks: The Missing Manual than just the book you’re holding in your hands. As you wander through the chapters, you’ll notice links to additional documentation, commercial software, inexpensive shareware, open-source programs, how-to videos, and even entire sites devoted to the growing world of netbooks. And since typing in URLs from a book is just so 20th century, you can find all these links rounded up and waiting for you online at

Once you land on the Missing CDs page, scroll down the page to Netbooks: The Missing Manual and click Missing CD-ROM link. Here, you’ll find all the links mentioned in the book, nicely organized by chapter and ready for clicking.

You can also find updates to this book on the Missing CD page by clicking the “View Errata for this book” link at the top of the page.

You’re invited and encouraged to submit corrections and updates for this book, too, by clicking the “Submit your own Errata” link on the Missing CD page. To keep the book as up-to-date and accurate as possible, each time we print more copies, we’ll include any confirmed corrections you’ve suggested. We’ll also note all the changes to the book on the Missing CD page, so you can mark important corrections in your own copy of the book, if you like.

About Missing

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