It’s back to school time. We know this because stores boxed up swimwear and pool equipment and replaced them with oversized notebooks and boat-sized pencils hanging from the ceiling. Online images depicting young people enjoying technology were swapped for ones showing students hunched over laptops and tablets. The fun business replaced by the learning business.
With my kids grown up, I no longer have to worry about which back-to-school laptop I’m going to buy them. You, I suspect, are deciding between an Intel Core i5 Dell and a sub-$400 Chromebook from Lenovo, Asus, Dell and others.
where did it start
It just occurred to me that Chromebooks achieved their dominant status in the classroom and schoolwork by supplanting another long-forgotten affordable computing sensation: the Netbook.
You can credit Asus with launching the trend 15 years ago – yes, just as the iPhone was taking off – with its eee PC series of Netbooks.
Usually costing well under $300, these tiny laptops often featured Intel’s early attempt at a low-cost, low-power mobile CPU, the disappointing Intel Atom, and ran Windows 7 or Windows XP(!). They had, if you were lucky, 2GB of RAM and small 20-40GB hard drives. Most Netbooks featured tiny 7- to 10-inch screens and cramped keyboards.
They were cute the way a Panda is cute: a little puffy, heavy, but also adorable.
The Netbook name came from the then-new concept that, despite their low-performance power, these small laptops would be perfect for many web-based activities. Instead of computing locally on your desktop, you can log into a growing number of online services. The flaw at the time was that there weren’t that many great online services. There was no Netflix to stream (you were still ordering DVDs from the subscription service) and Microsoft hadn’t yet released Office 365 and its online suite of productivity apps. Even Google Drive was a good five years away.
I bought two Asus EeePCs and gave them to my kids. They used them for…well, I don’t really remember. As I recall, Netbooks were so small that they couldn’t do much other than surf the web, and at that time I monitored this activity very closely.
I think each of them had them for a few years. One Netbook disappeared (maybe it’s hidden under a bed) and the other, well, my son sat on it and the screen didn’t survive.
Where Chromebooks Started
Still, the idea of a Netbook laid the groundwork for the system you’re probably considering right now: a Chromebook.
Like Netbooks, Google’s Chromebooks, which arrived four years after the Netbook craze, were cheap and low-powered, often with an Intel Celeron processor and almost no local storage. Instead of Windows 7 or XP, we have the even lighter Chrome OS.
These systems were slow, but more faithful to the spirit of the Netbook. Everything ran through the web and in the Chrome interface. And instead of tiny screens and tiny keyboards, you have full-sized, productivity-friendly laptops.
I can’t say I loved the early Chromebooks, but Google and the partners it attracted soon moved away from Netbooks and started building better and better Chromebooks.
Modern Chromebooks are barely recognizable from the basic, black, unadorned systems we first saw in 2011, which I believe were built by Asus and Samsung. You can still buy a new Chromebook for $250 (or less), but you can also spend around $500 (or more) on premium Chromebooks that look like Windows systems and feature ample amounts of memory and larger hard drives (though rarely large).
So when you’re shopping for your young student’s next laptop, take a moment to remember the Netbook, the tiny laptop that likely made Chromebooks possible.
By the way, the best place to start your back-to-school Chromebook hunt is here with our list of the best.