Can you live on a netbook? Will Windows 7 run on one? These are two questions that many had been asking as we entered 2009. Well, I’ve been using Windows 7 on an HP Mini 1000, and I’m actually surprised to say that the answer to the first is a strong maybe, and to the second, a very strong yes. Let’s talk about my experiences with Windows 7 on the HP Mini 1000 netbook this week.
Living on a Netbook
The first generation of netbooks consisted of machines that were extremely underpowered. Many ran Linux, which consumers couldn’t figure out, resulting in return rates that often exceeded 30 percent. We are now on the second generation, and most (over 80 percent) are sold with Windows XP, and run Intel’s Atom processor, which provides adequate performance and strong battery life (with some companies claiming over seven hours of battery life).
Price points for these products have crept up a bit along with the performance, but are generally below $600 (most actually start, like this Mini 1000, below $400).This makes them incredibly affordable, and the class now provides similar performance and portability to the MacBook Air, at less than a third of the price. The problem then comes down to size. Ten inches is likely the smallest screen size you could live off of, and previously the smallest product I could use was a 12-incher for day to day use.
This brings me to the “maybe” part, and it may have a lot to do with gender. For me, the Mini’s keyboard, while having a better feel than the MacBook Air, is also smaller and feels just a little cramped for my hands. On the other hand, my wife, who is using the Vivian Tam version of this product, doesn’t have the same problem. This is consistent with prior tests, where women have gravitated to these smaller products much more aggressively than men, and often prefer them. For instance, a few years back at Intel, many of the top women executives gravitated to a similar sized notebook, but virtually none of the men did.
Finally, graphics performance is limited. This means that gaming, even MMO gaming, is probably not going to be a good experience on one of these products today. However Nvidia representatives tell me they have a number of wins with their Ion platform, which, when coupled with Intel’s Atom, improves the performance of this class of product so that it could be used for mid-level gaming. (Apple is expected to use Ion in its new Mini, as well). For MMOs like Warcraft, I’d probably still prefer to plug into a larger screen, but it does work, and I’ve seen folks play first-person shooters on screens smaller than the Mini’s.
So if you can take the smaller keyboard, and can live with casual games (Solitaire plays just fine), you could actually live on this class of product. Microsoft Office and browsing work great, but if you need more performance or size, it’s best wed to a desktop, and that’s how I use it. For me, having a full desktop system at home synced with something like SugarSync is a full solution.
I did something really stupid with this notebook. I tried to put Vista on it. One lesson here is: Don’t try to put Vista on something that doesn’t yet have Vista drivers. I didn’t bother to check for that before trying to upgrade XP to Vista, and the end result was touch pad that stopped working regularly, and an Ethernet port that wouldn’t work at all. So I stripped Vista off and did a clean Windows 7 installation. Everything worked. And not only did it work, I didn’t notice any performance drag, even though this netbook has only one gigabyte of memory.
Boot times are acceptable, it suspends and recovers well, the interface looks very clean, and, so far, I haven’t run into any driver or application compatibility issues. Granted, I’m not running games on it, but I am running them on a Windows 7 desktop, and, so far, I’m not having problems there, either. Some of the compatibility problems that I was still having with Vista SP1 seem to have been eliminated in this Windows 7 beta, too.
Now a word of caution: I did have to strip Windows 7 off of one brand new system because the beta graphics drivers wouldn’t load. And I’ll have to strip all of the Windows 7 machines I’m running and clean load Windows 7 when it goes gold. So, if you want to run this thing, consider that. It is a beta product, after all. But, I’ve run a lot of Windows betas, this has been the cleanest first test I’ve ever run, which speaks well of the final product.
Netbooks are going to get dramatically better in 2009, and the aggressive prices that currently surround them will likely remain aggressive, given the economic situation (and that it generally tough to raise prices, even in a good market). With products like Microsoft Mobile Mesh and Windows 7 coming to market, and the rumor of an Android-based netbook in the works, this category will likely remain one of the hottest in the segment, and some think even Apple will enter it by year’s end.
Windows 7 is looking very strong at the moment, and increasingly is providing the potential for good news in the second half of the year when it shows up. So while I still think netbooks are best when used along with a desktop computer, with Windows 7 you can live on one, and I expect more and more of you will choose to do that over the next couple of years. I’m having a ball with my HP Mini 1000 running Windows 7, and wrote this column on it. (I’m actually getting used to the keyboard size.) So the answer to my second question: Windows 7 screams on a netbook, and more and more of us will move from “maybe” to “yes” on the question of living on a netbook.