I never owned a netbook, but I played with them constantly when I was interning at Maximum PC magazine. I worked there in 2009, during the height of the netbook’s popularity. The idea of a tiny laptop with the basic functionality of my custom desktop PC at home was genuinely enticing to my nerdbrain. Not to mention, it was a laptop that fit in my purse! I had a honker of a 17-inch Gateway laptop, and though it was my workhorse in college, it was too heavy to carry around.
Netbooks were also very cute—something that Windows laptops were decidedly not at the time. The Asus Eee PC wasn’t the same kind of beauty as, say, the Apple iBook G4, but it was darling compared to my plastic gray honker of a daily driver. 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 it was then that I realized the tiny little laptop was the perfect tool for embarking on a journey of self-exploration. It even helped me ease into the fantasy of what would eventually become my reality.
Unfortunately, netbooks weren’t long for this world. They declined in popularity in the early 2010s, eclipsed by increasingly capable tablets and ultra-light laptops. There are plenty of smaller laptops running Windows or Chrome OS, but they’re too underpowered for today’s multitasking beyond homeschooling and video playback. Those same reasons are why netbooks didn’t last. But I still can’t help but feel a nostalgic affinity for the Eee PC I carted around with me for a summer.
My best friend invited me abroad one summer, so I needed to pack efficiently. She was in 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 white Asus Eee PC 900 netbook, one of the more popular models at the time. It had an 8.9-inch display, a 1.6GHz Atom N270 processor, 1GB of RAM, and a measly 4GB of SSD storage. You could choose whether it ran Windows XP or (if you wanted any semblance of battery life) a version of Linux the manufacturer was hawking. I don’t remember which distro that Eee PC was running, but I was familiar enough to have no issues acclimating to the interface.
I didn’t have a smartphone at the time netbooks had reached their height in popularity. Instead, I had a locked feature phone that didn’t function overseas, so the netbook proved essential for staying connected while I was away. The Eee PC had an 802.11 b/g wifi modem, which helped me log on at a little Swedish cafe where I penned a quick email to a love interest back home about my adventures. There was also an Ethernet port, which I utilized after sneaking into a business room at the Copenhagen Airport. I used the wired connection to research activities before hopping over to our destination for the weekend. The display was minuscule compared to other laptops, but with a 1024 x 600 resolution, the screen was crisp enough to watch a couple of movies on the road. I worked my way through every part of the original Star Wars trilogy, plus the Julia Roberts classic My Best Friend’s Wedding, which I watched snuggling up with my best friend on one of the nights we stayed in.
Many of the memories I made on that first trip alone abroad were helped in part by that little netbook I took with me from place to place. It also had its flaws, which became increasingly apparent as my trip neared its end. For one, if I needed to answer any work emails (I was also job hunting at the time), I’d ask my friend to use her full-size 15-inch laptop while she was out. Her keyboard had the same number of keys as mine, but the larger real estate made it easier to type longer paragraphs than the Eee PC’s cramped keyboard.
The Eee PC’s battery was also gnarly, as most software back then wasn’t optimized for mobile use. I was lucky to get through a two-hour movie before the netbook needed a charge, which meant I had to ration that time on the 11-hour plane ride home. The lack of storage space was also an issue, and the movies I watched were all stored on a flash drive.
When I returned home that summer, I promptly gave the netbook back to its original owner. But despite all the concessions I had to make to travel around with the Asus Eee PC in tow, the entire experience left me thirsting for a powerful but portable laptop that I could comfortably carry in my bag.
You can partly thank the great recession of 2008-2009 for boosting the sales of netbooks. At $400, the netbook provided all the internet access and functionality a person needed to get by. But just as analysts expressed optimism that netbooks would eclipse PCs and notebooks in sales, they crashed as hard as they came in. The iPad had stormed onto the scene, bringing about a new style of portability in a tablet format. As Charles Arthur reported in The Guardian at the time, PC makers also realized that netbooks were bad for business, as they didn’t make much profit after accounting for licensing fees. Manufacturers eventually shifted focus to making lighter and more powerful laptops. The final holdouts were Acer and Asus, which ceased making any new models by 2013.
The only other laptop I’ve ever loved as much as that little netbook I had for the summer was the 2012 Ivy Bridge version of the 11-inch MacBook Air. I cashed out unused vacation time to pay for it, and it followed me on the job for about four years. Unfortunately, it suffered similar issues as the netbook that preceded it; it didn’t have the best battery life or storage space for the massive RAW files I needed to process. But, at the same time, it could process those files in the full version of Adobe Photoshop! And because the keyboard was around the same size as the 13-inch MacBook Air, it was comfortable for extended rounds of typing. That machine is still in use; it’s helping my cousin get through her college classes, the same way it helped me file stories and do my research on the road.
I have to thank the netbook for inspiring me to pursue machines that are small and mighty—perhaps that’s why I’ve pivoted to covering mobile phones and other devices that enable me to get away from my desk and out into the world. There are some 11-inch laptops you can purchase from HP, Acer, and Lenovo, that cost less than the $400 price tag of the original netbooks. They have much better specifications, and some of them even swivel backward to become handy tablets. I’d personally hoped for a revival of the netbook to occur within the Chrome OS realm because the platform lends itself so well to the form factor. There are 11-inch Chromebooks that you can buy, but they are configured best for the school-from-home crowd.
I don’t know if any modern laptop will ever recreate the feeling of freedom and capability the tiny Eee PC afforded me. That’s probably because my time with the netbook occurred during a period in my adolescence where I felt not only stifled and inhibited, but unsure. The netbook let me imagine myself, briefly, as a young journalist on the road, penning her thoughts from wherever she could plug into the internet. Damn it, it just felt cool to pre-write a LiveJournal post in the airport. The netbook let me live out the fantasy of what I wanted to pursue after graduating from college. This is why I’ll always have a fondness for the little laptop that tried.