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In a time not so long ago, the only choice to make between computing devices was between a hulking great desktop, or a laptop … which was still fairly huge. The constant miniaturization of technology and need for manufacturers to differentiate their products has now given us a smorgasbord of sizes; each with their own name. Let me show you the differences.

Order of Size

Generally speaking, we can actually give a fairly broad ranking of these names by size, from smallest to largest:

  1. Palmtop
  2. Netbook
  3. Ultrabook
  4. Notebook
  5. Laptop

It may be more accurate to say this is in order of portability – since you can get a bigger screensize on a particular ultrabook than you would on a particular notebook; however, the notebook would be thicker and heavier.

With that out of the way, let’s look at some examples of each and their defining characteristics. All of these devices share one characteristic though: they all feature a clamshell design – that is, they had a screen in the lid, and it opens and closes like a clamshell; we won’t be talking about tablets or touchscreen mobile devices here.


The smallest devices that could give you a full computing experience, most palmtops ran a special low powered version of Windows called Windows CE, but there were later models running that could run regular Windows XP. With the advent of smartphones, the palmtop computer was made obselete and you can’t really buy one today (though you could probably track a few down in second hand shops in Japan). These devices had a screensize of around 6–7 inches. (Pictured: the HP–760LX)

difference between netbook and laptop

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With a screensize of around 9 –10 inches, netbooks were quite popular before the iPad launched. They represented a truly portable full computing platform, with a tactile keyboard (ie, one you can actually push the buttons on rather than simply touch).

Although impractical for daily use, they run Windows so you can use all the applications you’re used to – as opposed to a tablet or mobile phone, which can’t run regular Windows applications.

Their popularity has declined in recent years, but you can certainly still buy them for around $200 – $500. They are suitable for daily computing tasks, but gaming and intensive applications like Photoshop or video editing are not possible. (Pictured: the Asus EEE-pc)

difference between netbook and notebook


These are the new breed of “ultra-portable notebook” – typically weighing less than 1.5kg, and extremely thin. The word was invented by PC manufacturers as a direct response to the Apple Macbook Air, the first true “ultrabook”. Despite the thin profile of ultrabooks (less than 2cm), screen sizes can often rival “normal” notebooks – anywhere from 11 to 15 inches. Most are equipped with SSD How Do Solid-State Drives Work? [MakeUseOf Explains] How Do Solid-State Drives Work? [MakeUseOf Explains] Over the past few decades, there has been a considerable amount of work in the field of computer hardware. While computer technology is constantly improving and evolving, rarely do we experience moments where we simply... Read More hard drives – these are silent, lighter, and much faster than regular HDDs, giving an “instant on” feel that avoids lengthy boot-up times. Although much faster, SSDs are more expensive than HDDs, so you’ll get less GBs for your money – just 128gb wouldn’t be unusual in an ultrabook. Ultrabooks also typically don’t have a DVD-drive, so bear this in mind if you’re shopping for a laptop to play your DVDs on.

Suitable for most computing tasks and lightweight gaming, they will struggle with the higher end 3D games. Ultrabooks can vary in price between around $700 to $1500. (Pictured: the Macbook Air)

difference between netbook and notebook

Notebooks and Laptops

Historically, a laptop was a little larger, designed to be a replacement for a desktop that could still sit in your lap. Notebooks were simply a little smaller than laptops – something you could carry around anywhere, synonymous with a paper “notebook”. Nowadays however, there is no distinction. Manufacturers will use the terms notebook and laptop interchangeably; and it’s rare to see the term laptop used at all now.

Notebook is a bit of a catch-all. Anything that isn’t any of the above, is a notebook, so attempting to define price ranges is impossible; top of of the line notebooks can go as high as $4000. Screen sizes vary between 12 – 18 inches, though 15″ is the average. You can get notebooks with a powerful graphics card too for 3D gaming, though this isn’t true for all notebooks. Notebooks will usually have a DVD-drive and large hard disks; if they didn’t they would probably be termed ultra-books instead. (Pictured: a top-end Alienware notebook, an incredibly powerful machine)

difference between netbook and laptop

I think that should explain the main differences; if you’re looking to buy a portable computer, I’d suggest our free downloadable 2012 notebook buyers guide. If you’d like to learn more about computing, check out the rest of our MakeUseOf Explains series.

  1. Jaybee Goh
    August 3, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    For me,
    Notebook = about 12" screen or keyboard without num pad
    Laptop = at least 15.5"/16" screen above, mostly this screen size might have num pad

    Correct me if I'm wrong, appreciate.

  2. harley bellwood
    February 6, 2013 at 7:47 pm

    You can basically call them all laptops. I like a big screen, but then you have weight. Full size laptops are great if they are stationary but I wouldn't want to lug one around.

  3. Austen Gause
    November 16, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    thanks i really didnt know there was a difference

  4. RayM
    November 12, 2012 at 11:53 am

    It's not true that a tablet computer can't run regular windows applications. I routinely use a Motion Computing LE1700 running WinXP Pro SP3 for teaching and traveling. It runs everything I need, it's light with a long battery life and it has a removeable keyboard. For my purposes, it's the best of all worlds.

  5. Douglas Mutay
    October 31, 2012 at 10:55 am

    Thanks for the tip. It's always confusing...

  6. Lisa Santika Onggrid
    October 7, 2012 at 10:08 am

    Good article. I used to be confused between Laptop and Notebook, though I can differentiate the others pretty easily.

  7. Alex Downs
    October 7, 2012 at 4:53 am

    Palmtop? Never heard of that, says something about the quality of the product lol.

  8. Josiah Brunne
    October 6, 2012 at 7:13 am

    I Love the look of the MacBook Air!

  9. Jim Cowan
    October 5, 2012 at 2:37 am

    I think my next purchase will be a Samsung Desktop replacement with large screen!
    I have been very happy for the last 4 years with my samsung R510 which runs 24 x 7 x365.

  10. Tom Sobieski
    October 5, 2012 at 1:15 am

    To find palmtops you really don't need to go to Japan UsedHandhelds has all you need. Used to be rum by Thaddeus Computing who published Pocket PC Magazine ( Now Smartphone .
    The HP Palmtops used to be in heavy demand.

  11. Vishal Mishra
    October 3, 2012 at 9:14 am

    I was just looking for this type of article, but was not able to find one.It really helped me .

  12. Richard
    October 2, 2012 at 10:46 am

    Actually, a notebook has heating vents on the bottom as well as sides, whereas a laptop has none, and is designed to go directly on the lap.

    • James Bruce
      October 2, 2012 at 10:53 am

      Not true; there is no distinction. Why do you think a fan on your lap is any less effective than a fan on a table?

  13. Macwitty
    October 1, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    Didn't Steve Jobs tried top remove the word "Laptop" as Macbooks was too hot to have on you lap and the fan did not work optimally placed there?

  14. Ed Q
    October 1, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    Testing how points are awarded.

    • James Bruce
      October 2, 2012 at 10:54 am


  15. Imesh Chandrasiri
    October 1, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    I always had this doubt! thanks mate! :)

  16. Grr
    October 1, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    Nice & informative article. Thanks James

  17. Ying Yang
    October 1, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    nicely written :)

  18. Gerald Shimizu
    October 1, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    Good to know.

  19. Freecycle Me
    October 1, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    Personally I am surprised people do not know this, but still, at least we all should know now :)

  20. josemon maliakal
    October 1, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    very useful info ..thanks dude

  21. Boni Oloff
    October 1, 2012 at 11:28 am

    I think MacBook Air can be considered as UltraBook :)

  22. salim benhouhou
    October 1, 2012 at 10:08 am

    now i know the difference between them . thank you James

  23. Schvenn Meister
    October 1, 2012 at 9:31 am

    Actually, I believe that IBM owns the trademark for the term laptop. So, unless you own a true IBM laptop, you own a notebook.

    Also, a company called Psion Teklogix used to own the term netbook, but was convinced, likely due to some fairly large financial sum, to withdraw all of their claims to the term.

    • Benjamin Smith
      October 1, 2012 at 5:34 pm

      ...except IBM doesn't even make latptops anymore...

      • Jim Cowan
        October 5, 2012 at 2:40 am

        Yes now Lenovo makes them!

    • Tom Sobieski
      October 5, 2012 at 1:32 am

      The laptop was invented by Adam Osborne in 1981. It was called 'Osborne 1' and cost $1,795.
      Released in 1981 by the Osborne Computer Corporation, the Osborne 1 is considered to be the first true portable computer - it closes-up for protection, and has a carrying handle. It even has an optional battery pack, so it doesn't have to plugged into the 110VAC outlet for power.

  24. Abhishek Rai
    October 1, 2012 at 7:30 am

    oh! man i have asked the same question a month ago and got satisfactory answers and now a whole article on this what a co-incidence.

  25. Ahmed Khalil
    October 1, 2012 at 7:29 am

    I think so, their is nothing added here as the artical only concentrate on visual differences between them

  26. xbalesx
    October 1, 2012 at 7:13 am

    Great info...TY, Going to share this with my aging parents...

  27. IamAshMcLean
    October 1, 2012 at 2:45 am

    I think Ultrabooks are only Fashion and pretty slow to do some good things. And netbooks should have never exist, that are a pain in the rear. I had to use too much PowerISO in order to install some programs on my computer.

    • Nikhil Gupta
      October 1, 2012 at 12:20 pm

      agree with u ...

    • Douglas Mutay
      October 31, 2012 at 10:56 am

      hahahaha...know what u talking about! such a headache...

  28. Ravi Meena
    October 1, 2012 at 2:36 am

    nothing new here :(

    • Tom Sobieski
      October 5, 2012 at 1:16 am

      Yes, move along

  29. Keith Sheehan
    October 1, 2012 at 1:43 am

    Palmtop - Obsolete and under-powered
    Netbook - See above
    Notebook - Under-powered laptop
    Ultrabook - Maocbook Air wannabes
    Laptops - What most people use to actually get work done

    • Mark
      October 1, 2012 at 3:22 am

      should have read the comments part 1st.
      this actually summarize everything above.
      short and precise

  30. Igor Rizvi?
    October 1, 2012 at 1:01 am

    I have to admit,i didnt know the difference.It has been always justa a "laptop" for me,but now i see there is a big difference between those terms,thanks for sharing the wisdom:)

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