Hands on: Running Windows 7 on a netbook

Microsoft has said that any version of Windows 7 will run on a netbook. We try it with Windows 7 Ultimate.

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I experienced several difficulties running popular applications on the Dell Mini 9. Windows 7's built-in applications, such as Media Center, felt slow to respond. Other apps behaved sluggishly as well. For example, Microsoft Word 2003 took 27 seconds to launch on the Mini 9; it took only 11 seconds on the HP EliteBook 2530p.

Some problems, such as abrupt slowdowns when trying to run Microsoft Office 2003, Office 2007 and Quicken 2008, were clearly caused by memory problems. There simply wasn't enough RAM to run them effectively. When I tried to run two or more major applications at the same time, the performance dropped from merely miserable to "Is this thing still on?"

In fact, as I continued to work with Windows 7, I came to the conclusion that RAM was the single most important factor in determining performance. While processor speed is important, the difference in performance between 1GB and 2GB of RAM was far more telling. XP, it should be noted, worked well on the Dell Mini 9 with its single GB of RAM.

I'm not sure why some programs failed, however. For example, HandBrake, an open-source video transcoder that I use for converting videos into Apple TV-compatible formats, always ended up hanging before finishing the conversion process. The same version of HandBrake worked without any problems on my Windows 7 desktop system. I strongly suspect it was running out of system resources.

Make mine multimedia ... not

Not unexpectedly, the Dell Mini 9, which uses Intel's mobile 945-class chip set for graphics, just didn't have the horsepower to deal with Windows graphics demands, even without Aero and with an advanced beta of Windows Display Driver Mode 1.1. When I set out to push the limit of the system, I started running into low-resources warnings when I had 12 windows open. XP SP3, on the other hand, was still doing well.

When I tried Windows Media Player 12, the audio played well, but I ran into stuttering with standard videos, and couldn't get HD videos to play at all.

In theory, Windows 7 is better than XP at battery life, but I discovered that this wasn't the case when it came to displaying videos. To test this, I disabled the Wi-Fi and removed all USB devices. I then ran videos I placed on the SSD. Windows 7 was knocked out after not quite two hours of use. XP made it to just over two and a half hours, while Ubuntu was still playing video at the three-hour mark.

Conclusions

If you must have Windows on a netbook, XP Home SP3 is still the better choice over Windows 7 -- at least, for now. And, even though Microsoft is doing its best to kill off XP, it looks like the PC makers aren't going to let Microsoft put XP out to pasture after all.

Under the limited-by-design Windows 7 Starter Edition, I expect you'll see better battery life and you'll be less likely to run into memory problems. After all, you won't be able to run more than three programs. Still, I really dislike crippleware, and, for my money, if you want Windows on a netbook, XP SP3 will continue to be your better choice.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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