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Netbooks and Windows 7 get off to a rough start

I'm sorry that I can't find a netbook I can solidly endorse. About a year after I tried out five of these cheap, ultralight models and found things to criticize in all of them, in today's column I hand out another "nice try" verdict.

I will give this year's contenders -- an Acer Aspire One D250-1584, a Hewlett-Packard Mini 311 and a Nokia Booklet 3G -- credit for avoiding the worst flaws of older models. None of them had punishingly small 9-inch screens, cruelly distorted keyboard layouts or two-hour battery lives.

But once again, decent hardware was undone by mediocre software.

Part of the blame here goes to the vendors: Acer and HP took the exact same bundle they'd put on a machine with a much larger screen and more memory, while Nokia adopted most of their bad ideas. So once again you have the usual trial version of Microsoft Office coupled with an expiring copy of some bossy security program that begins nagging you to pay up for a subscription the day you first boot up the machine. Acer and HP compound their errors by stuffing each machine's copy of Internet Explorer with two different browser toolbars that rob a non-trivial amount of screen space, then scattering links to name-brand Web sites on the desktop (do these companies really think we don't know how to find eBay or Netflix's sites?).

Microsoft, however, is a bigger part of the problem. Windows Vista was never an option on netbooks, thanks to its ravenous appetite for memory, but Windows 7 is a respectable contender -- and a far better choice than the obsolete Windows XP. Microsoft even took the time to craft a pared-down "Starter Edition" of Win 7 that can work better on netbooks with limited memory and storage and could be licensed to computer manufacturers at a lower price -- an important consideration when the competing open-source Linux operating system costs vendors nothing to install.

But then somebody in marketing must have decided that it was too important to protect Windows 7 Home Premium's higher profit margins and set out to make Win 7 Starter look as unappealing as possible. First Microsoft stripped out features that don't impose any kind of burden on a netbook's hardware, like the ability to change the desktop background. (At least it resisted the temptation to limit Starter to running three applications at once.)

Then it failed to document the differences between Starter and Home Premium. Its list of Windows 7 editions has nothing useful to say on that, leaving a May 29 blog post as its latest, most complete guidance. (And even that blog post leaves out some differences; for instance, it doesn't mention that Starter omits the helpful Snipping Tool screen-capture utility.) Unsurprisingly, Wikipedia provides better guidance on this issue.

Finally, Microsoft imposed conditions on Win 7 Starter's use that almost ensure an unpleasant experience. It won't let manufacturers install this version on anything with a screen bigger than 10.2 inches, more than a gigabyte of memory, any dual-core processor or any single-core chip faster than 2 GHz, or more than either 250 GB of hard-drive space or 64 GB of flash-memory storage. It's as if the company hired Dogbert to market this version.

I've never taken any marketing classes, but maybe somebody who has can explain how this passive-aggressive strategy is supposed to work. Post your best guess in the comments -- or submit it in my Web chat, running from noon to 1 p.m. today.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  December 11, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Computers  
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Comments

I like my Acer Aspire One (9" screen, 1 GB, 160 GB HD). Bought it (cheap) with Linpus Linux, rather than Windows. Linpus was buggy and terribly obsolete. Replaced it with Ubuntu Netbook Remix, now using 9.10. Intuitive and robust. Built-in Open Office. Huge Ubuntu repository of free apps. While I'm not a huge fan of Ubuntu on the Desktop, I think Netbook Remix is great. You can even run try it on a Windows netbook without installing by copying it to a USB pen drive and booting it from there -- http://www.ubuntu.com/GetUbuntu/download-netbook

Bonus: don't need anti-spyware and anti-virus, which makes a huge difference on a netbook.

Posted by: fdzimmerman | December 11, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Rob, you closed today's chat by saying "I'll be back one last time next Friday"... Please tell me that you meant to say, "I'll be back one last time THIS YEAR next Friday"? Or have I missed some horrible news about your chats ending?

Posted by: --sg | December 11, 2009 11:01 PM | Report abuse

The "logic" behind MS' decision: After a few months of dissatisfaction with the netbook, it's hoped that the user would replace it with a real laptop with a full version of Win 7. MS believes that the user would blame the netbook's limitations, not the stripped version of Win 7, for their problems.

In the end it's all about the sale of licenses. If the user is satisfied with the netbook and its starter edition, he/she won't go any further. Sales: 1 license. By getting a real laptop, your stats go up. Sales: 2 licenses (1 starter, 1 full version).

Posted by: taskforceken | December 12, 2009 2:30 AM | Report abuse

I have had and enjoyed Asus 701, Asus 901, and HP Mini 1000. Finally, I obtained an Acer 1410, with an 11.6" screen, which suits me better than the three prior netbooks. The first three each came with Linux, which I've learned to prefer to Microsoft OSs.

My 1410 has a solo core 64 bit processor, came loaded with Vista, and ran Photoshop CS4 and Reference Manager. However, for me, photoediting requires a bigger screen, so I've backslid into obtaining a 17 inch HP with 64 bit w7. I'm typing this on my Acer 1410, which now runs excellently on Ubuntu 9.10. I suggest Rob P try an Acer 1410. It's a step above the other netbooks I've owned.

One caveat, the Acer 1410 came with a promise for w7 disks to be sent. They finally arrived yesterday, nearly six weeks after I purchased the computer on Nov 3 or so. Had the w7 disks come sooner, I would have tried w7 on the 1410, but I've some projects that needed doing, so I loaded Ubuntu as the 1410's only OS, and the w7 disks remain in an unopened envelope.

Posted by: TeresaBinstock | December 12, 2009 7:44 AM | Report abuse

I haven't bought a netbook for myself yet, but more than a few of my friend have. So far, their consensus is that the best version of Windows for netbooks is the one called Ubuntu. I believe you can download this free from the Internet, not from Microsoft.com but from http://www.ubuntu.com/

While I do not have a netbook, I have an older Dell Latitude laptop, and I run Ubuntu on it very happily. Very reliable, and lots faster than the XP version of Windows it came with from Dell. It's a great bargain, too. This is the first version of Windows I've ever used that had a whole office software suite built in that can even make slide shows, all for free!

Posted by: roblimo | December 12, 2009 8:08 AM | Report abuse

I've been a Windows user for decades. A year ago I got an iPod Touch and liked it so much that I got a Mac Mini a month later. Apple products are just so much easier to use than MS products. For gaming, I've gone from Windows to Wii and PS3, which are also much easier to use, and fun, than Windows gaming PCs. I will likely not buy a Windows computer again for any purpose. I look forward to an Apple tablet and to Google Chrome OS.

Posted by: AlKube | December 12, 2009 8:32 AM | Report abuse

Rob, you seem to be under the impression these netbooks should serve as a portable desktop. As a 'power' user, you have become 'power' mad! These are cheap, portable machines for those who DON'T WANT or NEED a powerful desktop or laptop, just access to the Internet and a WP program. I hate to burst your bubble, but there are thousands and thousands of people out in the REAL world that DON'T NEED a ton of power to run a dozen resource eating apps! Netbooks are for real 'non-power user" personal users. Netbooks fit their needs.

Posted by: joeblotnik49 | December 12, 2009 8:50 AM | Report abuse

I think Microsoft should let Apple run it for one year. There's a lot of talent and potential there that is seriously lost. I can't see a future for MS .. maybe they become a GE .. barely recognizable from their well known core. But every time I look at the latest MS product, like the newest Word .. I think what if Apple got a hold of this software? I'd bet Word would become intuitive and actually more powerful .. allowing almost anyone to craft even the most complicated documents because of a user friendly interface. Yet, today, decades after introduction, Word is still beset by Styles and Sections and rocket science knowledge needed tools. However, I can pick up any Apple device and in a few minutes, without a manual, am able to use 90 percent of its potential. Starts with attitude and MS's attitude seems in the end to be totally bottom line and little innovation. Maybe they should just hook up with GM and be done with it.

Posted by: tslats | December 12, 2009 8:56 AM | Report abuse

I've had an ASUS 900HA w/160 gig hd for over a year. Added a gig of ram in ten seconds, an Office suite and a pile of photo software. As background I have gone through virtually every generation of laptops and notebooks since the 80s, travel a great deal as part of my work as an editor, researcher and corporate trainer, and need to travel as light as possible due to a slight disability.

I love the ASUS. It slips into a corner of an over the shoulder carry on that also contains photo and other gear I don't want to check. Depending on need, I may pack a small and light bluetooth keyboard in my suitcase that allows fast typing. Bluetooth mouse is great.

Sure the screen is small, but it is sharp. I can easily run multiple programs, watch films on long plane rides (I get about three hours out of a charge), whip it out for wi-fi almost everywhere and do basic photo editing. On a recent trip to rural parts of the UK it snagged wi-fi easily and allowed me to easily do my work and even fix some credit card problems with my bank. When I get home I hook it up to a monitor, printer and external hard drive and it works beautifully on my network as a backup.

Issues? Sure. XP Home can take a long time to boot up and there are compromises. But for a little over $300, about what my smart phone cost, I get great flexibility and know that if it drops dead, I haven't lost the family fortune. Sure, Microsoft is dumb as a post, but isn't what have we come to expect from this bloated gas bag of bad marketing? Consider big old laptops the Delta or United Airlines of bad travel. A netbook is the Southwest Airlines that get you there at a fair price.

Posted by: rkgood | December 12, 2009 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Rob, I don't think it's a marketing strategy--that is, a strategy designed to encourage you to buy Win 7 Starter. Rather, it is a price discrimination strategy, like a Saturday night stay requirement on a plane ticket.

The netbooks are cheap. Microsoft realizes it must offer something cheap for the netbook or else the manufacturer will just put Linux on it. But Microsoft does not want to offer Win 7 cheap for ALL computers. That would erode their profit margins.

So, Microsoft intentionally cripples Win 7 Starter so that only the most price sensitive customers--netbook makers and buyers--will buy it. Everyone else who is willing to pay a few hundred dollars more for a computer will also pay more for Windows, thus keeping Microsoft rolling in the money.

Don't ever forget that Microsoft has no interest in promoting things that you might actually want as a user. Microsoft only wants to protect its enormous profit margins.

Posted by: wharfy | December 12, 2009 9:28 AM | Report abuse

It is pretty astounding though that MS would strip out the ability to change the desktop wallpaper. That will make some people pretty irate. They will realize that this is just something that MS stripped out to cripple the software--what is it, two mouse clicks?

Posted by: wharfy | December 12, 2009 9:32 AM | Report abuse

I bought a Samsung NC10 netbook and liked it so much that I bought two more for my brother and niece. As Joeblotnik pointed out, these are not laptops and are not meant to be, but for travel they are perfectly adequate. And what is this about "obsolete XP"? Only because Microsoft has deliberately rendered it so. Pray tell, what does Windows 7 do so much better than XP? Certainly not faster on a netbook, since Microsoft cripples it, and for browsing and wordprocessing there is absolutely no advantage that I can see other than graphics; anyway, I use google docs and open office.

Posted by: ianstuart | December 12, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Rob,

Great take on the netbook and OS piece.

Here I like to define the roles of netbooks. It seems that web and email
and basic word processing forms the core.

What's BS as you correctly pointed out:
bossy security program, toolbars that rob a non-trivial amount of screen space,
then scattering links to name-brand Web sites on the desktop...

Having said that security is a tough issue that still needs to be addressed even if you use a flash drive to store data... but probably leave up to users to take care of if your OS is incapable of ...

What I disagree:
"obsolete Windows XP" is a strong and incorrect statement. Do a poll, you'll find the majority of the Windows users would love it over Vista to start with despite its slow boot-up and many are waiting for win7 to work out its issues before upgrading...

Another thing, for an average user, Linux, probably is a bit over their head.

Thank you.

Posted by: knowledgenotebook | December 12, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for all the comments...

@--sg: I meant one last time for the year, not for all time! The Post will not be rid of me that easily...

@TeresaBinstock: How's the battery life on your 1410?

@roblimo: Somehow, I thought you'd recommend Linux :) FYI, a review of Ubuntu 9.10 is on my to-do list. I'd meant to have that done in time to link to in this review; not accomplishing that is a screw-up on my part.

@joeblotnik49: I think we're in violent agreement here. I disliked these netbooks precisely because the vendors configured them as if they were portable desktops--why would you run Office on something with a screen so small that its toolbar will fill a non-trivial chunk of the display? That said, I don't think running the Web browser and an e-mail client or a music app at the same time should bog down the machine.

@ianstuart @knowledgenotebook: Sorry, I have to use XP every day at the office, and I can assure that it is very much obsolete. Its tools for such everyday tasks as switching among open apps, picking default Internet apps, connecting to wireless networks and navigating among frequently-used folders are all more complicated, less capable or less intuitive than those in Vista and 7. XP is also a lot less secure than Vista and 7, both in terms of its built-in defenses (Vista and 7 resist buffer-overflow attacks better than XP) and as seen in third-party tests. (Microsoft's own reports, unsurprisingly, say the same thing.)

Seriously, I'm sick of seeing that OS around... it was written for a simpler time, and it's no longer up to the job. FWIW, I wouldn't enjoy using Mac OS X 10.1 or 10.2 today either.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | December 12, 2009 12:43 PM | Report abuse

I've found XP to be extremely stable for the kinds of photo editing and scanning work that I do. With the release of SP3 and some other patches, I hope to keep running XP for many more years.

I spent a couple of decades constantly upgrading from one OS to another, contending with new releases of apps, and I don't want to do that any more. It is great to be in a stable environment and concentrate on getting work done rather than feed the software vendors.

Posted by: roscoe911 | December 12, 2009 8:30 PM | Report abuse

Er---MS is a cancer and a blight on the face of the earth and cares about users only to the extent that they can keep them under the control of their illegal monopoly.

Posted by: dan1138 | December 12, 2009 11:10 PM | Report abuse

Does anybody but me think there's something a little odd about people who fixate on the VITAL IMPORTANCE of having a picture posted on the screen at all times? If that's going to be your selection criterion, why not take a snap and glue it to your computer?
Thanx guys
Frank Maunder

Posted by: frankmaunderer | December 13, 2009 1:46 AM | Report abuse

WIN 7 is very disappointing. The only reason I upgraded from XP to WIN7 is that I need a 64bit OS so that I can use bigger memory.

Posted by: drifter1999_99 | December 13, 2009 3:52 AM | Report abuse

For those of you who have no experience with LINUX, Ubuntu is an easy way to get started. The interface is easy to understand, and the OS runs on PCs and laptops/netbooks with much less overhead than any flavor of windows. An old XP PC with 512mb that barely runs anymore will once again come to life with Ubuntu. Before throwing the old PC away, try reinstalling Ubuntu - you'll get a couple more years out of it. The only thing I've found lacking is it's ability to run iTunes, and I hear that iTunes is going to a web based option - problem solved!

Posted by: DontGetIt | December 13, 2009 7:21 AM | Report abuse

Within Microsoft, Bill Gate's absence is getting increasingly obvious on a daily base. Balmer, his successor, appears to be an idiot with a huge -and sick- personal ego. Rather than focus where the company is good, he seems to be engaged in countless useless corporate wars, he cannot win.

Every company runs for a profit. This guy is just running for greed and what 's really worse is he cannot conceal this from the public view.

It was Gates who build this company, as it is Balmer the man who will take it with him.

Posted by: poutsos57 | December 13, 2009 7:44 AM | Report abuse

My Acer 1410 gets appx 4.5 hours of battery life - and that's for my typical activities, which generally include having open Thunderbird, two or three concurrent runs of Firefox (with multiple pages per open-Firefox), plus Adobe Reader (for opening and reading one or several medical articles).

I've loaded Hardy Heron Ubuntu three times (3 diff computers) and Koala three times (3 other computers). From what I've learned on UbuntuForums.org, setting /home to its own partition is a better approach, because all personal data goes into /home and OS upgrades can occur without having to seek and save data in what's still for me Ubuntu's esoteric file system(s). On a person's first or second install of Ubuntu, partitioning that occurs during install is not intuitive and is best research ahead of time.

Regardless, I've come to prefer Ubuntu as an OS, tho' I retain an MS computer for running Photoshop CS4. This past week I took an older tower with two HDs and XP, placed all personal data into the non-OS HD, and installed Ubuntu 9.10 and the tower's only OS. Thus far, everything I've tried on the old tower works.

Last nite I installed 9.10 on a Toshiba laptop which had been XP with some Norton remnants hard to kill. This laptop once again runs well (Ubuntu as only OS), tho' it does have an issue with sound, which affects some computers onto which 9.10 has been installed.

For me, dealing with a challenge in Ubuntu is akin to dealing with a Windows challenge, and I prefer the way my computers run with Ubuntu.

Posted by: TeresaBinstock | December 13, 2009 8:15 AM | Report abuse

Windows 7 Starter? You got to admit these creeps at MS have a sick sense of humor. Windows 7 is already a Yugo, imagine a Yugo without doors and windows, but again the world is a butter place without all these Windows garbages.

Use Ubuntu!!! Linux used to be a geek's OS, but Ubuntu makes it easier and easier for the not-so tech savvy users. It's free, it has a huge free software repository one can download with a simple click, and it's much smaller then Windows and it does a lot more!!!!

Posted by: sayNo2MS | December 13, 2009 9:14 AM | Report abuse

Windows 7 stinks! So far, my new HP has had nothing but issues since upgrading from Vista...frankly, I would have preferred XP--it works and is stable. Since upgrading to Windows 7 I have BSODs and lockups which I haven't seen since the Windows 95 days...even XP (for me) has been virtually flawless in terms of compatibility with programs and drivers. I've had to buy a newer video adapter because the built-in video chipset (geforce 9100) apparently isn't even on NVidia's approved Windows 7 list but, of course, HP claims it is fully tested--that's garbage! Generally speaking, I think Microsoft is expecting way too much out of non-technical folks in terms of upgrading to this new version...I am in IT and found it beyond annoying and frustrating even after rebuilding cleanly...either HP or Windows 7 or BOTH (my assumption) are the problems and I suspect other vendors are having similar issues...not sure if this comment was appropriate for this article but I felt the need to comment...Windows 7 is nothing but another upgrade with all the same issues and vulnerabilities with a few superficial features..that's all. Peace

Posted by: michaelaudet | December 13, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

I recently purchased an Acer Aspire One D250-1165, which sounds similar to the one you mentioned, except it came with the smaller battery and Windows XP. I put Ubuntu Netbook Remix 9.10 on it and it works great! The hardware was on sale at Target for only $199. The software was a free download. If you Rockefellers want to pay upwards of $300 for your netbooks, that's your business; I don't see any reason to pay more than $200! :)

Posted by: theaney | December 13, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse

This note isn't meant to be critical to Rob but rather it's my hope that technology reporters will spend some time to check out new/emerging technologies instead of simply endorsing big corporations and/or brand names.

"Acer, Hewlett-Packard, Nokia, eBay, Microsoft, Linux, Wikipedia ..."

Thank you for your time.

Posted by: knowledgenotebook | December 13, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

So here's what you do... buy the netbook you want, don't worry about the license. Then grab a new copy of Win7 off the 'net and install it.

You've already paid your license pound of flesh to MS; and this way you get the netbook you want.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | December 13, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse


I too recently got an HP mini netbook, and I installed the Ubuntu netbook remix on it. The software seems pretty solid - my only complaint is that the keyboard is a little bit on the cramped side.

But we got the thing so that when we travel we don't have to add 5 lbs of laptop to the suitcase. The little netbook is more than enough to check mail and surf various websites.

Unfortunately the bloatedness of Windows 7 is forcing manufacturers to pork up the machines quite a bit, which adds to the cost. I got my netbook for 199$ - some of the newer ones are much more than this.

Posted by: jackrussell252521 | December 13, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

MS should have learned from Detroit's mistakes. GM used to sell stripped down versions of their cars to rental car companies. So the Chevy Cavalier you'd get from Avis would have none of the standard features that the normal consumer Cavalier would get. That destroyed the resale value which didn't recognize the difference, and convinced customers that had rented a Cavalier that they were all garbage.

So MS should have renamed their netbook OS something else, like Windows Netbook. That way they protect the brand.

As for the restrictions on what it can be installed on, that raises the question of whether hardware should drive software development or vice versa.

Finally, I agree that the desktop thing is silly. It's not good when your netbook can't do things that a standard cell phone can do. Nor do I see how that protects MS's profits.

Posted by: Booyah5000 | December 14, 2009 1:08 AM | Report abuse

Rob, I have to agree with some of the other posts that in the netbook environment, an "obsolete" WinXP is preferable to a quadriplegic Win7 Starter. Microsoft will support XP SP3 until at least 2014 -- unless they release SP4 due to disappointing corporate sales of Win7, in which case it will be even longer. Somehow I suspect that WIn7 Starter will be orphanware when the Win7 service packs start arriving.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | December 14, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Taskforceken, theaney and others above are correct. MS doesn't want the catagory to succeed, it doesn't run any of their bloatware well. Either buy a competitively priced Ubuntu NRM 9.10 from SYSTEM76 or ZAREASON, or install it yourself on an Asus, Acer, HP, Dell, etc. Much faster, more elegent, more useful, and less irritating. I have taken both routes with family members and everyone is delighted.

Posted by: bjollie | December 15, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

The question is whether the advent of netbook will help in easing the monopoly pricing by Microsoft? With modest objective of conducting day-to-day activities, now is the chance for Linux to prove itself with the netbooks and help break MS monopoly. Rob, you should help promoting this process rather than criticizing and leaving at that.

Posted by: nvratnam | December 16, 2009 1:16 AM | Report abuse

Rob, I have an Asus EEE 1000HE that I upgraded to 2 GB of memory. I installed Windows 7 Home Premium. Although the process of going from XP to Windows 7 wasn't pretty, the result is quick and usable. For the portability, long battery time (8 hours), and versitility, it is hard to beat.

Posted by: gyrfalcon | December 16, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

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