Opinion: Windows 7 on Netbooks

Dell Inspiron Mini 1011 Netbook with Windows 7Each time Microsoft upgrades the Windows operating system, there seems to be an accompanying jump in hardware requirements; faster processors, more memory, more storage, better graphics. Moreover, if you recall the launch of Windows Vista, you will remember how the re-architected code rendered a vast swathe of hardware obsolete overnight. Unsurprisingly, not everyone appreciated the technical benefits of Vista when half the kit in their PC’s stopped working. Not all of us had the cash to upgrade to newer, more powerful PC’s.

This time around, Windows 7 was overtaken in development by the emergence of the Netbook, a class of ultra-portable laptops in a budget price-range intended to bring mobile computing to the masses on the move. Windows Vista was a resource hog and wouldn’t run on them, and the cost of the license was prohibitive anyway.

Windows 7 had to be different…

In the $250 to $400 price-range, netbook vendors chose either to fall back to the older Windows XP or skip Windows entirely and install some flavours of Linux instead. Neither was acceptable to Microsoft.

Windows 7 was itself re-architected in the development phase so that it would run on the low-end hardware used in netbooks and cheap media-centre PC’s. Assuming a base-line in hardware for these machines, Microsoft has produced an operating system that will run on just about anything sold after 2009.

Reference Platform
Somehow, the netbook standard settled on a similar hardware specification, built around the low-power consumption dual-core 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor with integrated graphics, with either 512MB or more commonly 1GB of RAM, and an 8- to 10-inch wide-screen display.  Storage was either 2GB up to 8GB flash RAM or a low-end hard drive, even as low as 20GB. These early models were stuck with XP and custom versions of Linux in the majority.

Like motor cars, that specification has increased (along with the price tag) with successive models, so that Microsoft has gained the ‘headroom’ to run Windows 7. Faster Atom chips (including multi-core and 64-bit versions) and those  from rivals such as NVidia have pushed the performance envelope, blurring the lines between netbooks and low-end laptops.

That Windows 7 runs on netbooks shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. This was a make-or-break for Microsoft. If the flagship operating system hadn’t run on modern hardware at every level, leaving a new generation of machines on a ten year old, end-of-life OS, careers would have ended, bonuses cancelled, stock prices crashed. That was never in doubt. The surprise is that Windows 7 runs as well as it does given the constraints of the typical netbook RAM and storage.

It is true most of them run Windows 7 Starter, the low-res, non-Aero interface and is shorn of many default applications and tools supplied in higher editions. For one thing, most of today’s netbooks display a resolution of 1024 × 600, an odd, letterbox resolution, which even Microsoft’s own applications can fail to render well.

Starter Limitations.
Netbooks are mostly bundled with Windows 7 Starter in order to meet the price point. Unusually, the higher editions are seldom offered as an upgrade option for the reasons mentioned, plus netbooks are built on the pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap basis, a low margin line in which vendors don’t want to mess around with either in the factory or the distribution chain.

While Windows 7 does run just fine on netbooks, among the things it won’t do are; play 3D games, edit video, or run intensive applications effectively such as large spreadsheet and database applications. So many of them are used most often for casual web-surfing, email and social media, sometimes it is Windows itself that is the major consumer of system resources.

At least Windows 7 Starter got around the threatened (ridiculous and artificial) limit of only running three applications at a time.

Customisation
The casual user can’t do much more than reduce the size of the taskbar and change the desktop and Explorer icons to smaller versions. A determined hacker can, however, find the instructions and third-party applications to modify the settings of just about anything in 7, so most of these limitations can be circumvented.

Net Result
Unintended pun in the sub-head there. The upshot is that Windows 7 is now ubiquitous. You try finding any alternate operating systems on a new netbook currently and you are unlikely to find many. Outside of the end-of-line and refurbished stock vendors, XP and Linux have all but vanished. After a slow and late start, Windows 7 now sweeps the board. Now that we’re onto second generation Atom chips with better power management and better on-board graphics (but little extra processing power), a choice of larger hard drive or power-efficient Solid State Disk (SSD), the old constraints have lifted and consumers have gotten used to a slightly more expensive netbook with a Windows 7 license thrown in.

There are some very attractive packages out there. All of Microsoft’s free security tools run on the Starter edition, updates are frequent and mostly trivial to install. It will be interesting to see how the nascent tablet market develops, as the physical keyboard is one of the benefits of a netbook for content creation, as opposed to content consumption on a tablet, for whose touchscreens Windows 7 is not particularly suited. For now, if you want a netbook, Windows 7 is the only game in town. AJS

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