Will Windows 7 Really Run on a Netbook?

Netbooks, low-cost laptops originally designed for sale in countries with emerging economies, are becoming more popular in developed economies with consumers and business users who tend to use their own computers for work. Although these computers were initially offered with Linux, Windows XP has become an increasingly popular operating system option for netbooks, particularly given the conventional wisdom that they are not powerful enough to run Windows Vista. So what about using Windows 7 on a netbook? After using the beta on a netbook for a few weeks, it appears that Windows 7 is a workable OS for this class of computers.

Microsoft executives, such as Robbie Bach, speaking at the International CTIA Wireless Conference in Las Vegas in April 2009, are going out of their way to demonstrate Windows 7 running on netbooks. Bach was promoting Windows 7 on netbooks at the conference because many netbooks, such as the high-end HP Mini 1000 Vivienne Tam edition, include built-in support for 3G networks. This promotion of the low-cost computers as a platform for Windows 7 raises the question: just how good is the experience of running Windows 7 on a netbook?

Finding an industry standard netbook definition is difficult, so we use a very simple definition: a netbook is a small lightweight laptop computer retailing for US$500 or less. Like ultralight laptops, netbooks may have a small form factor and long battery life, but ultralight laptops are often more powerful, include more high-end hardware components, and use more durable materials, and therefore command a premium price.

Other netbook definitions call out particular processors and most netbooks do use Intel's Atom processor, which is a small, low-power processor. Screen size is a second defining characteristic in which most netbooks have a 7- or 10-inch screen. They will typically have between 512MB and 2GB of RAM, and hard disk storage varies from less than 10GB of solid state storage to a 120GB hard drive. To keep the size and costs down, netbooks typically do not include a CD or DVD drive.

The Netbook Windows 7 Test

I wanted to perform a very simple and admittedly non-scientific analysis of a netbook and Windows 7. I went into a local office supply store and walked out with an Acer Aspire One that cost less than US$300-well within my definition of a netbook. The model I purchased has an Intel Atom N270 (1.60 GHz) processor with 1GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive. It came with Windows XP Home edition preinstalled, so I simply connected the netbook to a USB DVD drive, adjusted the boot order to boot from the DVD, and restarted the netbook from the Windows 7 Home Premium Beta One media. Installation proceeded without problem, and in approximately the same time it took to install Windows 7 on a full-sized laptop, I had a netbook running Windows 7.

I was surprised at how well it actually ran Windows 7, keeping in mind that this is beta code, and could still contain non-optimized debug routines. The Acer took a long time to boot, approximately one minute forty five seconds from power on to being able to log on, and almost another minute to apply user settings before actual useful work can begin. It scored a 2.2 on the Windows Experience Index, which is the same score as a relatively high-end laptop I bought just before Vista shipped.

The Windows Experience Index, a new feature of Windows Vista, assigns a rating number called a "base score" by measuring the capability of your computer's hardware configuration. The scale of the Windows Experience Index ranges from 1.0 to 5.9, and the higher the score, the better your computer will perform comparatively to another, especially when performing more advanced and resource-intensive tasks.

According to Microsoft: a computer with a base score of 1.0 or 2.0 usually has sufficient performance to do most general computing tasks, such as run office productivity applications and search the Internet. However, a computer with this base score is generally not powerful enough to run Windows Aero, or the advanced multimedia experiences that are available with Windows Vista. I found performance to be acceptable, but some operations, such as copying a large number of files across the network, slow the system somewhat.

The netbook with Windows 7 also transitions between working and sleep or hibernate modes better than any of my current Windows computers, and running the PowerCfg report shows the least power management errors and warnings.

Although Windows 7 runs on the netbook, there are still serious issues with attempting to use a netbook as a day-to-day laptop replacement. While the keyboard has a good feel, the keys are closer together than any other computer keyboard I use, which leads to lots of typos as I adapt. The small screen size is also a problem. With Word 2007, scaled at 100%, I can only read 21 lines of a document at a time (versus at least 29 on my usual monitor). It's conceivable that netbooks with Windows 7 may be best suited as lightweight computers for occasional portable use rather than as full-time replacements for a current PC.

What's Next for Netbooks?

Although questions remain about how consumers will look at netbooks going forward. On one hand, they could continue to see them merely as inexpensive computers and buy them based solely on price. This means I may need to modify my definition of a netbook to a compact and light weight laptop computer that sells for less than US $300. If purchasers view them this way, then it is unlikely that they will be willing to invest any more money into the netbook, such as to upgrade from an entry-level edition of Windows 7 like Starter or Home Premium to a more feature-laden and expensive version of Windows such as Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate. Microsoft hasn't released pricing information for the different editions of Windows 7 yet, but based on Vista prices, an upgrade from Starter to Professional (for example) could cost $100-quite an additional investment on $300 computer.

Alternately, customers may still be willing to spend US $500 for a netbook, but know that they will get a more powerful computer with additional RAM, or other features such as 3G network or BlueTooth support. Microsoft appears to be hoping for this scenario to become common again, so that even if people purchase a computer with one of the entry-level editions of Windows 7, they will be willing to invest more money in the computer, and use the Windows Anytime Upgrade feature to upgrade easily to more feature-laden and expensive version of Windows 7.

Windows 7 should be an acceptable OS for netbook computers, and should allow Microsoft to stop offering Windows XP, which is no longer in Mainstream support to manufacturers for netbooks. As netbooks will continue to be a factor in the laptop market, Directions on Microsoft will continue to examine this topic in our Enterprise Software Roadmap, to help people decide what version of Windows they want to use on their computers.

This story, "Will Windows 7 Really Run on a Netbook?" was originally published by CIO.

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