It’s school time again. We know this because stores have boxed up swimwear and pool equipment and replaced them with large boat-sized composition notebooks and pencils strung from the ceiling. Online images of young people enjoying technology were swapped for images showing students leaning over laptops and tablets. The matters of pleasure were replaced by the matters of learning.
Now that my kids are adults, I don’t have to worry about which back-to-school laptop to buy them. You, I suspect, choose between an Intel Core i5 Dell and a sub $400 Chromebook from Lenovo, Asus, Dell and others.
Where it started
It only occurred to me that Chromebooks achieved their dominant status in the classroom and schoolwork by replacing another long-forgotten affordable computing sensation: the netbook.
You can honor Asus by launching the trend 15 years ago – yes, just when the iPhone took off – with its eee PC series of netbooks.
Typically costing well over $300, these portable computers often include Intel’s early attempt at a low-cost, power-efficient, mobile CPU, the disappointing Intel Atom, and ran on Windows 7 or Windows XP (!). They had, if you were lucky, 2 GB of RAM and small hard drives from 20 to 40 GB. Most netbooks had small 7- to 10-inch screens and cramped keyboards.
They were cute the way a Panda is cute: a little bloated, bulky, but also cute.
The name Netbook came from the then new concept that, despite their low performance, 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 mistake at the time was that there weren’t that many great online services. There was no Netflix to stream (you still ordered DVDs from the subscription service), and Microsoft had yet to launch Office 365 and its online suite of productivity apps. Even Google Drive was free for a good five years.
I bought two Asus EeePCs and gave them to my kids. They used them for… well, I can’t remember exactly. As I remember, the netbooks were so small that they couldn’t do much more than surf the web, and then I kept a close eye on that activity.
I think they each had them for a few years. One netbook disappeared (maybe it’s hidden under a bed) and the other, well, my son was on it and the screen didn’t survive.
Where Chromebooks Started
Still, the idea of a netbook has laid the foundation for the system you’re probably considering right now: a Chromebook.
Like netbooks, Google’s Chromebooks, which arrived four years into the netbook craze, were cheap and economical, mostly with an Intel Celeron processor and almost no local storage. Instead of Windows 7 or XP, we got the even lighter Chrome OS.
Those systems were slow, but more true to the Netbook ethos. Everything ran over the web and on the Chrome interface. And instead of small screens and substandard keyboards, you have productivity-friendly full-sized laptops.
I can’t say I loved the first Chromebooks, but Google and the partners that attracted it soon moved away from Netbooks and started building better Chromebooks.
Modern Chromebooks are almost unrecognizable from the plain, 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 closer to $500 (or more) on premium Chromebooks that look just like Windows systems and have plenty of memory and larger (though rarely large) hard drives.
So when you’re shopping for your young college student’s next laptop, think about the Netbook, the small portable computer that probably made Chromebooks possible.
By the way, the best place to start your Back to School Chromebook hunt is right here with our list of the best.