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What is a NetPC?

By Melanie Smeltzer
Updated May 16, 2024
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A netPC, often referred to as a diskless PC or network PC, is an economical alternative to the traditional personal computer. NetPCs run many common applications; however, they are significantly scaled back in software, hardware, processing speed and memory, but maintain a strong emphasis on networking. For this reason, netPCs are often cheaper to acquire than a traditional personal computer and are most commonly used by large companies.

Some people attribute the start of the network computer to a concept developed during the mid-1990s, the netPC made its larger debut as a cooperative effort by some of the leading names in computer manufacturing and was initially created with businesses in mind. The purpose of the network computer was to help people in a number of industries keep costs down and improve both connectivity and productivity. These machines were generally meant to concentrate on the exchange of data that could be managed locally, or as a standalone computer should the network go down at any time.

Unlike the more common personal computer, the netPC is usually devoid of a CD-ROM drive, floppy disk drive and hardware expansion slots. This design is intended not only to lower the price but to help maintain efficiency and focus by limiting the number of diversions, as well as ensuring the integrity of the device. The external casing for these machines is usually sealed or locked to aid in preventing the reconfiguration of the included computer hardware.

The original incarnation of the netPC did not include and did not require any specific operating system, because it was a non-proprietary platform. As larger-name companies began to develop diskless PCs, specific operating systems and many of their common applications became standard. Most netPCs then became capable of basic functions such as web-browsing and e-mail, as well as more complex functions such as booting in multiple operating systems.

Though it is capable of a number of other functions, the netPC is commonly used as an advanced terminal device. These machines are meant to support a variety of business-related applications but may also include software that makes other machines within the network more accessible, general maintenance easier and more cost-effective; and finally, data more portable. In addition, most diskless PCs contain a hard disk drive that is largely used to store a temporary cache. This feature is meant to replace the storage of permanent data and, thus, will make machine run faster.

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Discussion Comments

By SkyWhisperer — On Jan 20, 2012

@hamje32 - I like today’s mini laptop computers for their small scale and affordability. What I don’t like is the absence of floppy drives and CD ROM drives. I understand why those items have been left off the models but that is a serious oversight in my opinion.

How else can you install software? These computers are capable of running additional software, after all. Further, if the computer crashes and you have a disk failure you will need to reinstall your operating system.

I suppose people are using USB sticks to install software but I still prefer the CD ROM discs.

By hamje32 — On Jan 20, 2012

@everetra - Dummy terminals go way back to the days of mainframe computer systems. I used to be a data entry operator and my computer was nothing more than a dummy terminal with the basic data entry software installed on it.

I really couldn’t do anything else. It was a menu driven application and I think it ran in the Unix environment. It was efficient but you couldn’t really do anything else with it (at least from the end user’s perspective).

By everetra — On Jan 19, 2012

@Mammmood - Today tablets are the ultimate in PC net computing. They have all the functionality most people need in the form of little “apps,” and as you point out, their Internet connectivity make them eminently usable. Also they are intuitive.

There is no need for a keyboard (unless you want to hook one up). Just point and click and you’re good to go. I believe the advances in embedded systems technology have led to these portable marvels of computer engineering.

By Mammmood — On Jan 18, 2012

I remember the appearance of the network computer concept back in the 1990s. If I recall correctly, I believe it was the brainchild of Sun Microsystems. Their slogan was, “The network is the computer.”

The idea at that time was that you don’t really need shrink wrapped software, like rival Microsoft was selling. Instead you could just get a networked computer and through the Internet or whatever you could connect to whatever software you needed.

I think the idea was good, but a little ahead of its time, and so the networked computer never really caught on. Nowadays, of course, it’s been revised in the form of slim line mini notebooks that mainly do Internet stuff and light office applications. The Internet, advances in technology and wireless capabilities have made the network computer a viable concept once again.

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