The world of personal computing has changed since the devices were introduced in the 1980s. Back then, a majority of PCs sold were desktops. As technology improved and became miniaturized, laptops and notebooks became the norm. By 2020, laptop sales totaled $140 billion.

Person sitting on floor with laptop, petting a dog

Another option — the notebook

Somewhere between the decrease in desktop usage and the increase of laptops came a third option: the notebook. It ended up being the middle ground between the power of a standard PC and the flexibility of a laptop. Both models are still sold today, although the laptop has some advantages when it comes to power, storage, and visuals.

To help decipher the portable devices, here are the differences between a laptop vs. notebook.

Origins

The histories of laptops and notebooks need to be reviewed to get an idea of what companies considered during their development.

Laptops

There were several attempts to create a portable computer in the 1970s. The first was the Xerox NoteTaker. Developed in 1976, it weighed nearly 50 pounds (34 kg) and featured a monochrome display, 340 kilobytes (KB) disk drive, and a mouse. Only 10 prototypes were created.

The concept for a consumer laptop came closer in 1979 with the introduction of the GRiD Compass. Used primarily for military operations and NASA space shuttle missions, it weighed in at 11 pounds (5 kg). However, for $10,000, it wasn’t feasible for consumer or business use. 

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It wasn’t until 1981 that the first true portable computer was introduced. The Osborne I was developed by the Osborne Computer Corporation and cost US$1,795. Though it doesn’t look like today’s laptops, the 24-pound (11 kg) is considered one as it could be carried between locations. 

The concept of the laptop was refined in the 1980s as different versions were released by computer companies of the time. In 1986, IBM’s PC Convertible became the first laptop to weigh under 15 pounds. A year later, HP released their Vectra Portable CS with the first 3.5-inch floppy disk drive. 

Compaq’s SLT/286, introduced in 1988, included three new concepts. It was the first battery-powered laptop to be sold in the consumer market. Furthermore, the SLT/286 included an internal hard drive and a screen with a video graphic array (VGA) display.

Notebooks 

Meanwhile, as these companies worked to make their laptops more powerful, NEC released what is considered the first notebook computer: the UltraLite. With a weight of fewer than five pounds (2.3 kg), it featured a design now common in today’s machines. 

Back then, the UltraLite featured an early disk operating system (DOS) and two megabytes (2MB) silicon hard drive. Additionally, users could purchase programs on Read-Only Memory (ROM) cards that you plugged in to use. 

Notebook computers became a subset of laptops. As technology improved, they became smaller and lighter than their older siblings. On top of this, they cost much less than laptops. Where the larger and heavier computers started at US$700 or higher, notebooks were US$500 or less. 

Specifics

Since netbooks are a subset of laptops, the differences between the two are few. It comes down to the exterior design of the portable devices. Inside, the computing power is quite similar when you compare a laptop vs. a notebook. 

Weight

As technology has improved, the weight difference between a laptop and a notebook has shrunk. Previously, the latter had the edge when it came to portability. Some of the lightest notebooks to come out in recent years are no more than two pounds.

Conversely, even larger laptops now weigh six pounds or less. This isn’t only due to the materials used in construction. The peripheral component interconnect (PCI) card features smaller and more efficient items that weigh a few ounces. Furthermore, since they don’t generate as much heat, the fan unit is also lighter.

Battery Duration

No matter if it’s a laptop or notebook, battery duration and life is about the same. On average, a fully-charged battery lasts about four hours. This time is reduced if you run programs or videos that take up a good deal of processing power.

Display

A portable computer is considered a laptop when its display is 14 inches or larger. The most popular models have screens that are 16 inches wide. Most of the time, they offer graphics in Full HD 1080p. In other words, it has a width of 1920 pixels and a height of 1080 pixels.

Notebooks also have HD displays, except in smaller sizes. Generally, this is between 10 and 14 inches. Some 2-in-1 notebooks, which permit the user to switch it from a full computer to a tablet, offer displays that are 10 inches or less. 

Touchscreen technology is applied for more expensive laptops and notebooks. This includes the 2-in-1 conversion models. Lower-priced laptops and notebooks tend to not include this option.

Keyboard

Although much smaller, the keyboards of both a laptop and notebook have the functionality of a full-sized peripheral. Nevertheless, some features could be combined into one key. In these situations, a function key (fn) permits access to an alternative key option when pressed.

Larger laptops tend to have full-sized keyboards with separate number pads. Notebooks, on the other hand, do not have features like a number pad due to measurement constraints.

Ports

Here, laptops and notebooks are similar. The reason stems from advances in cloud computing and wireless/Bluetooth technology. These have made the inclusion of some ports obsolete. For example, you could have difficulty finding either model with a VGA port. Modern monitors tend to have HDMI connections.

What you will find on both laptops and notebooks are several USB ports along with space for an HDMI or DVI cable. You need to purchase a docking station for your device if you need to connect more than one monitor or require additional USB ports. 

Networks

Ethernet ports used to be standard items on larger laptops. Yet, they weren’t on the slimmer notebooks due to their construction. Today, both portable computers rely more on wireless than wired connections. Thus, some laptop models have eliminated the ports instead of more USB connections.

Touchpad

The touchpad, also known as the trackpad, is a substitute for a mouse or keyboard control. The first one was introduced in 1994 on Apple’s Powerbook 500. It replaced a built-in trackball. 

Most laptop and notebook models utilize this technology. How much space it takes depends on the size of the keyboard platform. 

Storage

It took some time for hard drives to fit into laptops and notebooks. Additionally, it took more time to create ones lighter than those of original portable computers. Today, when you compare a laptop vs. a notebook, storage capacity is the same.

On average, hard drives for these devices are 2.5 inches in size. Their capacity ranges from 500 gigabytes (GB) to one terabyte (TB). This is more than enough space for a standard laptop or notebook. Especially since users are encouraged to save their data in the cloud instead of their devices. 

The amount of random access memory (RAM) also tends to be the same between the two portable devices. Lower-priced models could come with 4 GB of memory. Those in the mid-range have 8 GB to 12 GB. 

Audio and Video

Standard laptops and notebooks tend to have higher quality audio and video components than when they were first introduced. A high-definition screen is a basic component along with a speaker system. These components are upgraded to a higher degree in laptops and notebooks used for graphic design and gaming.

CD/DVD Drives

There was a time when comparing a laptop vs. a notebook that the former had the room to hold a CD/DVD player/recorder. Overall, the slimness of the latter did have the capacity. This has changed over the last few years.

The reduced use of CDs and DVDs due to streaming services and stable wireless networks has resulted in the removal of these read-write devices from laptops. If required, owners of newer models must purchase external models with USB connections.

Prices

When notebooks were first introduced into the market in the late 1980s, there was a sizable difference in prices between them and laptops. This line has slowly disappeared as the larger devices have shrunk down to the size of their basic cousins. 

Normally, notebooks with basic functions start around $200. This increases if they have options like touchscreens or built-in security or productivity programs. On the other hand, low-end laptops start at $400. Their prices go up due to added storage, memory, and processing speed.

Nevertheless, these aren’t standard values. Case in point, notebooks that convert to tablets cost as much as a middle-grade laptop. Laptops with top-end processing and graphics are $1000 or more. 

Exceptions

Laptops and notebooks are base models that have spawned additional portable computer models. Some have been around for decades, while others were recently introduced.

MacBooks

Even though Apple created and sold laptops starting in 1989 with their Macintosh Portable, they were their own entity for years. For instance, the first PowerBooks, introduced in 1991, didn’t have a built-in floppy disk drive. Starting in 1995, with the PowerBook 5300 series, the laptop ran off of an IBM processor.

This all changed when Steve Jobs introduced the MacBook Pro at 2006’s MacWorld. It was the first Apple laptop to run on Intel technology. It has become the go-to portable computer for the company since then. 

Netbooks

A year after the MacBook was introduced, ASUS came out with the netbook. It was not only smaller than a notebook but even more basic. It featured a seven-inch screen and didn’t contain an optical drive for CDs and DVDs. However, it contained a battery with four times more life than a notebook. 

Netbooks remained popular for a few years. Especially with schools, since they bought the smaller computers due to their low price. However, with the introduction of the iPad in 2010 and the more powerful MacBook Air a year later, netbook sales declined. 

Ultrabook

The ultrabook is Intel’s answer to Apple’s MacBook Air. Much thinner than a standard laptop, about one inch thick, it also has more processing power thanks to the latest Intel chips. Not only is it capable of handling more work, but its battery also lasts over five hours on one charge. 

Another difference between a laptop and an ultrabook is the price. Where standard models start between $400-$500, the price of a thinner and more powerful portable computer hovers around $2000

Chromebook

A Chromebook is for those portable computer users that work primarily on the internet and store their data within the cloud. Rather than Microsoft Windows or macOS, this model of laptop operates off of Google’s Chrome OS. Chromebooks do contain a small hard drive that holds 128 GB of data. However, this is mostly used for the operating system and other installed applications. 

While versatile, an internet connection is the preferred way to utilize a Chromebook. Without it, you’re limited to the tools available on the computer. Those could be lacking the operations to perform your tasks. 

Laptop vs. Notebook: What to Choose

As computers become more portable with faster and better processors, the laptop vs. notebook debate will become moot. Where there were once considerable differences between weight and functions, the two portable computers have merged into one sector over time. It’s to the point that the terms laptop and notebook are interchangeable. 

Just as laptops reduced the relevancy of desktop computers, these devices could eventually be usurped by tablets and mobile phones. Some of these smart devices already have more power, battery strength, and capabilities than low-end laptops and notebooks. However, they probably won’t go the way of mainframes anytime soon.

One reason is people still rely on laptops and notebooks for their screen size and storage capacity. Others, like writers and other creatives, use them for their keyboard and the space to design. Furthermore, their laptop or notebook is used as a means to watch television shows and movies in a wider environment. 

In the end, laptops and notebooks need to adopt the standard designs of mobile phones and tablets. Touchscreens and app-based operations should be the norm instead of an option. The more consumers get used to the operations of smaller electronics, the sooner they’ll want the same capabilities on their portable computers.

If you would like to further improve your understanding of computers and basic computer skills, take a look at our online courses. In the end, participation in these trainings gives you a better understanding of technological advances. In turn, you make an informed purchase of your new laptop or notebook.

Page Last Updated: December 2021

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