Netbooks have become big news despite--or perhaps because of--the small packages they come in. Elsewhere we look at the current cream of the netbook crop (see "Top 5 Netbooks" [a chart] and "Top 5 Netbooks in Photos" [a slide show]), offer advice on what to look for in buying a netbook (see "Netbooks: All About the New Ultraportables"), and preview some of the the newest members of this category (see "Six New and Notable Netbooks" [another slide show]). But these devices didn't spring fully miniaturized out of the head of Zeus. Today’s netbooks are the most recent in a long line of petite but increasingly functional computers. Too small to be laptops and too big to be handhelds, these machines have quietly evolved as vendors sought an identity and a market niche for them. Here are a few of the milestone systems along the way to the modern netbook.
1991 - Psion 3
Closer to an overpowered personal organizer than to a mini-laptop, the Psion 3 ran various programs and included a modem to handle dial-up Internet.
1996 - Toshiba Libretto 20
With a 6.1-inch display, a 486 processor, and Windows 95, the Libretto was cute and impressive for its time--and ten years later it earned an honorable mention in our article "The 25 Greatest PCs of All Time."
1998 - Casio Cassiopeia
Running Windows CE 1.0, the Cassiopeia set new standards for tiny computers, with a 480-by-240 backlit LCD touch screen and a (relatively) usable keyboard.
1999 - Psion netBook
The Psion netBook sported a 7.7-inch VGA touch-screen display, accommodated an optional PC Card modem, and promised 8.5 hours of battery life.
2000 - HP Jornada 720
Like the Psion netBook, the HP Jornada had a StrongARM processor and long battery life, though its design was more svelte.
2004 - OQO Model 01
Not quite a notebook, not quite a tablet, and way more than a PDA, the OQO Model 01 set a new standard for miniaturization while still running full-blown Windows.
2004 - Sony VAIO X505
At the narrow edge of its wedgelike design, the VAIO X505 was actually thinner than today's MacBook Air, and it ran Windows XP at a respectable clip while offering a comfortable keyboard layout.
2007 - Asus Eee PC 701
The current netbook craze began with the Asus Eee PC 701, which shipped with a tiny 7-inch display but could be had for less than $300.
For additional information about netbooks, check out these articles:
"Top 5 Netbooks" [chart]
"Top 5 Netbooks in Photos" [slide show]
"Six New and Notable Netbooks" [slide show]