Most netbooks available as of this writing ship with Windows XP. The few models that offer Windows Vista have performed sluggishly in our tests.
Microsoft, however, stresses that Windows 7 will run perfectly fine on netbooks. In fact, Microsoft now gears Windows 7 Starter Edition toward netbooks (Windows Vista Starter was available in only "emerging" markets). Though Windows 7 Starter Edition isn't quite as crippled as its Vista counterpart was--hooray, no more pesky three-application limit!--it still arbitrarily disables certain features. (No ability to change the desktop background? Lame!) If you own a netbook, you might want to consider purchasing a less-hamstrung (translation: more expensive) edition of Windows 7 instead.
On the other hand, you may want to stand pat with Windows XP. For our "Windows 7 Performance Tests" article, we tested Windows XP Home Edition and three editions of Windows 7 (Starter, Home Basic, and Home Premium) on a Lenovo IdeaPad S10-2 netbook with a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, and we discovered that Windows 7 ran slightly slower than XP did. Windows 7 Starter, intended for use on netbooks (or as Microsoft puts it, "low-cost small notebook PCs"), managed to reach a score of 31 in our WorldBench 6 test suite, while the other two Windows 7 editions topped out at a mark of 30. By comparison, Windows XP on the Lenovo earned a score of 33.
A three-point decline in WorldBench 6 score on a normal laptop isn't much of a drop, but on a netbook it represents a difference of roughly 10 percent. So while it looks as though Windows 7 will run on a netbook, you may want to take the OS for a spin on a demo netbook at a store before you decide to upgrade.
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This story, "Windows 7: Can Your Netbook Handle It?" was originally published by PCWorld.