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Can Microsoft Really Shoehorn Windows 7 Into Netbooks?

By Walaika Haskins
Nov 6, 2008 3:11 PM PT

More details about Microsoft's upcoming Windows 7 operating system emerged Wednesday.

Can Microsoft Really Shoehorn Windows 7 Into Netbooks?

The OS will have a shorter boot time; offer greater reliability; more efficient memory usage and improved battery life for laptops, according to Microsoft's Jon DeVaan, Steven Sinofsky and Mike Anguilo, who spoke at the Windows Hardware Engineering conference.

Perhaps most significantly, Sinofsky and Anguilo demoed Windows 7 running on a miniature notebook, or netbook, with a 16 GB solid-state drive and 1 GB of random access memory running an Intel Atom dual-core 1.6 GHz processor [*correction].

Today's netbooks often run Windows XP, as the newer Vista OS would generally put too much strain on the system.

"It's running full Windows. So you don't have to go down-level, you don't need anything stripped down. This a full Windows experience on this PC," explained Anguilo, general manager of the Windows Planning and PC Ecosystem Team.

What's Your Footprint?

Minimizing the footprint of Windows 7 would be a significant step for Microsoft. Most computers falling under the increasingly popular category of netbooks offer a minimized version of XP, a seven-year-old product Microsoft wants to move on from.

However, the company's success in this area depends on what one considers a netbook, said Michael Cherry, lead analyst at Directions on Microsoft.

"It appears that there are potentially two definitions. First, it is a low-cost laptop, say sub-(US)$700, designed to be both light and inexpensive. Then there are ultra-light notebooks, which are super thin and lightweight, but may not be inexpensive. So I don't see just saying it will run on a netbook as a particularly useful benchmark," he told TechNewsWorld.

Any improvements the company can make to reduce the hardware requirements and clarify how to determine what a machine has will help, Cherry continued. In particular, it is more a question of what will be the realistic minimum requirements of the OS -- including processor size and speed, amount of RAM memory required, and stats like graphic processor and graphics memory.

"I think for Windows 7 to succeed, they need to be brutally honest and incredibly clear what [a computer] needs. Right now, I am not impressed that it runs on a netbook unless I know all the details of that notebook's hardware," he opined.

Small but Getting Mightier

To run on a netbook, Windows 7 will indeed need to be more modular and have a smaller footprint than its predecessor. However, Windows 7 isn't scheduled for release until 2010. Over time, netbooks themselves will offer improved performance with more powerful and efficient chips, said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates.

"Windows 7 will be a substantial improvement over Vista -- basically the back end of Vista, which is fairly sorted out now, with a new front end and utilities and a better user experience," he told TechNewsWorld.

The Incredible Shrinking OS

That said, memory and storage remain the limiting factors in netbooks today. A scant 512 MB of memory is fairly standard and the typical solid state drive offered in the mini-notebooks is about 8 to 16 GB, noted Gary Chen, principal analyst at McChen Research.

"Vista is not going to run well at all with these specs. Even bumping up the memory to 1 GB, that would give you a bare minimum to run Vista, but not that well. Even accounting for more powerful netbooks over time, Microsoft is going to have to stop the growth, at the least. I'm not convinced that Microsoft can shrink Windows 7 significantly, and it may be by 2010 they won't really have to as long as they can keep a plateau," he told TechNewsWorld.

In its most basic mode, Vista currently would use up about half of a 16 GB drive -- that doesn't leave very much room for applications and data, Chen pointed out.

"I know they are moving some apps to the Live platform, which would free up hard drive space, but I don't think that would add up to that much. I think they could have a separate version for netbooks that would strip out some apps, features, or UI (user interface) to reduce the memory and storage footprint. Or a separate install option that installs a more minimal version," he added.

Microsoft will have to shrink Windows 7 significantly to see a performance boost on a standard PC. If the company can stop the bloat with Windows 7 or shrink it by a moderate amount, then it could be enough for netbooks by 2010, as the hardware platform will become more powerful, Chen concluded.


*ECT News Network editor's note: Following the publication of this article, Kate Blackmore of Waggener Edstrom, a PR firm representing Microsoft, contacted ECT News with the following clarification: "During a demonstration at the WinHec conference last week, Microsoft showed an Asus Eee S101 computer running Windows 7. A speaker misspoke during the presentation that the CPU on this machine was an Intel Atom dual core processor. Microsoft wants to clarify that the CPU was a single core Intel Atom CPU and to clarify the eligibility for Microsoft's Netbook & Nettop program is single core processors only."


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