If you're confused by the exploding netbook market then fear not. We explain all you need to know about these low-cost, low-power laptops and help you decide which is right for you.

Netbooks have exploded on to the PC market over the past two years. The term, which many claim was coined by Intel, conveys little useful information about this category of machines.

Sure, they all have wireless networking, but so does every other laptop. What the term originally helped to identify was a class of small, ultralightweight, cheap-as-dirt mobile PCs.

Netbooks are tiny - usually between half and two-thirds the size of a standard laptop - and they typically weigh around 1Kg. With their cool, slim designs, they outclass some fancy ultraportables. And best of all, these diminutive laptops start at around £250 (in some cases even less, when purchased as part of a mobile broadband promotional deal).

But that doesn't mean a netbook is for everyone. These are basic computing devices that will meet only basic computing needs. If you're looking to do a little bit of word processing, maybe edit a few simple spreadsheets, and want to surf the web, a netbook will suffice. But if you're looking to edit high-resolution photos or work with video, a netbook isn't for you.

These systems have seriously limited processing power. You can listen to some tunes, but don't expect first-rate sound. And you might be able to watch a few online videos, but you'll be looking at a relatively tiny screen.

In determining what makes a netbook a netbook, and not an ultraportable laptop, we take several factors into consideration. Chief among them: price, size, and the CPU under its hood. But netbooks are constantly evolving, and we're now on the cusp of next-generation models.

Soon, we'll see Atom processors outfitted with a discrete nVidia GPU (the Ion platform). And Intel isn't the only chip maker in the netbook space: AMD is half-stepping into the territory with the Athlon Neo CPU. The distinguishing characteristics are in flux. With that in mind, here's what you need to know when buying a netbook. Also check out our 'Netbooks meet smartphones - the next big thing?' feature to find out what the future has in store for netbooks.

NEXT PAGE: The big picture

  1. Confused about what to choose - we'll help you
  2. Netbooks: the big picture
  3. More key features to pay attention to
  4. Software and wireless connectivity
  5. The specs explained
  6. The specs that are really important
  7. Netbook shopping tips