Running Windows 7 on a netbook

Microsoft made headlines recently when The Wall Street Journal reported that the company planned to equip netbooks with the Starter edition of Windows 7, a semi-crippled version that only lets users run up to three applications at a time.

This is puzzling, considering that Microsoft really needs Windows 7 to be on the netbook. Netbooks are the one segment of the PC market that's actually growing, even in the current economy. For now, Microsoft is offering Windows XP on netbooks because Vista simply won't run on a netbook's limited hardware, but it's going to need to move them to Windows 7 once that operating system hits the market.

(It's worth noting that while Microsoft claims any version of Windows 7 will run on current netbooks, Intel is not making such claims. In fact, Anand Chandrasekher, Intel's head of Ultra Mobility, recently said that Intel will be releasing new Atom processors in the second half of 2009 that will support Windows 7 Starter and Basic editions.)

Which brings up the question: Is there anything wrong with running a full version of Windows 7 on a netbook? To test this out, I decided to install the Windows 7 Ultimate beta (because of frequent updates, I worked with builds 7000 to 7077) on a Dell Mini 9 netbook. How well would it run?

What Windows 7 needs

Microsoft states that Windows 7 requires a 1-GHz processor, 1GB of main memory and support for DirectX 9 graphics with 128MB of memory (for the Aero interface). The company recommends that you have at least 16GB of available disk space for the installation; Windows 7 actually takes up about 5GB.

The Dell Mini 9 is powered by an Intel Atom N270 processor running at 1.6 GHz. The test machine had 1GB of RAM and an 8GB SSD. The 8.9-in. display is powered by the processor's built-in 945GSE graphics. The default resolution, which is typical for a netbook, is 1024 by 600. The Mini 9 also has three USB ports, an Ethernet port, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi and an SD card reader.

What it doesn't have, as is the case with almost all netbooks, is an optical drive for the installation disk. To get around this, I used a Sony DRX-710UL external DVD drive.

Smooth installation, slow performance

The installation, from start to finish, took about an hour and there wasn't a single glitch. Once in place, Windows 7 was slow to boot up. Because of a netbook's lowered graphics capacity, you can forget about running the Aero interface, but even Windows 7's low-end non-Aero desktop took a while to load on the Mini 9.

To provide a comparison, I also loaded Windows 7 on an HP EliteBook 2530p, a 3-lb. ultralight notebook that comes with a 1.86-GHz Core 2 Duo processor and 2GB of RAM. I tested both machines using Microsoft's Windows Experience Index, the performance benchmark that's included in both Vista and Windows 7. On a scale running from 1.0 to 7.9, the Dell Mini 9 came in at a 2.0, while the EliteBook showed a 3.1 result. (In contrast, a high-end system with DX10 graphics is expected to score somewhere around 6.0 or higher.)

Performance wasn't the only problem I came across. For example, I was unable to perform two network-related tasks at once. For example, if I copied a file from a network server or watched a YouTube video, life was fine. But if I tried to do both things at once, I ended up with a frozen system.

This may not have been the netbook's fault. I also ran into this same problem, albeit not as often, while testing Windows 7 on my Gateway DX4710 desktop PC with a 2.5-GHz Intel Core 2 Quad processor and 6GB of RAM. Both machines were also unable to locate printers while using Windows Peer-to-Peer Networking. Both systems were, however, able to use network drives and printers, after ordinary network setup tweaking, using the Samba networking protocol and Windows Server Active Directory-based networks.

Downloading via BitTorrent also showed odd results. When I use a Windows XP SP3 system, I usually see download speeds in the 100Kbit/sec. range; on the two Windows 7-equipped portables, the same downloads topped out at 30Kbit/sec.

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.

This story, "Running Windows 7 on a netbook" was originally published by Computerworld.

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