Running Windows 7 on a netbook

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Now that the Windows 7 beta is out and my NDA has lifted, I can finally write about my experiences of installing Windows 7 on a netbook. In a word:


You see, Windows XP works well on one of these little machines but who wants XP? It’s eight years old (an eternity in IT) and, for anyone who’s used to working with anything remotely modern, it’s a bit difficult to step back to (I was recently forced to revert to Windows XP and Office 2003 for a month whilst my main machine was being repaired and it was painful). I could install Vista but even Microsoft doesn’t think its the right OS for a netbook (that’s why they allowed vendors to continue shipping XP). Meanwhile, much has been said about how Windows 7 requires fewer resources and I wanted to find out how it would run on a typical netbook.

My Lenovo S10e arrived in early December and before installing anything I took an image of the hard disk so that I could return it to factory state if required (Lenovo provides a Windows PE-based recovery image but that’s not much good if you’ve accidentally wiped the hard disk using a pre-release operating system). I could have used Windows Deployment Services for this, but it was just as easy to fire up an old copy of Ghost and boot from a floppy drive and universal network boot disk.

With the disk backed up, I set about installing Windows 7 in a dual-boot scenario (I still needed to drop back to XP occasionally for BBC iPlayer downloads – although since then the BBC has made a version of iPlayer available that runs on other platforms). This was where I found James Bannan’s step-by-step guide on installing Vista to dual boot with XP so useful – the process that James describes is not exactly rocket science but it is good to know you’re following a process that has worked for someone else – and it also works for Windows 7.

Following James’ notes I used diskpart to shrink the existing disk partition, create a second partition and install Windows 7 (with no optical drive available, I used a USB hard disk as a boot volume and Windows 7 installed quickly and easily). There were a couple of unrecognised devices (the Broadcom wireless card and the Lenovo power management but I installed the XP drivers (I would have expected Vista drivers to work but not XP) and they seemed to do the trick. Everything else worked as intended.

Next, I downloaded and ran EasyBCD to edit the boot options. The Windows 7 installation wiped the boot loader that Lenovo had supplied, so I have no access to the recovery volume but it was simple enough to put Windows XP back in as a boot time option (actually, it should be simple enough to put in the recovery volume when I get around to it).

With Windows 7 installed, the next items to install were Vodafone Mobile Connect (which installed using the same options as for Vista) and some antivirus software (I used the free version of AVG, although I’ve been having problems whereby the resident shield won’t start automatically and I have to deactivate it, save the changes and then reactivate it.

After a few more apps (Microsoft Live Meeting, Windows Live Writer, Google Chrome – not to use as a browser but to set up application shortcuts for Google Mail and Calendar) and I had the machine configured as I needed for roaming around, checking e-mail, writing the odd blog post, etc.

So, how did it perform? Absolutely fine. This machine has a 160GB hard disk, a 1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU, integrated graphics and just 1GB of RAM. 3D graphics support was great (with really smooth transitions – e.g. Flip 3D) and the Windows System Performance Index showed 2.2, which may not sound high but makes sense when you look at the subscores:

Component What is rated Subscore
Processor Calculations per second 2.9
Memory Memory operations per second 4.4
Graphics Desktop performance for Windows Aero 2.2
Gaming graphics 3D business and gaming graphics performance 3.0
Primary hard disk Disk data transfer rate 5.3

So, fast disk, fast memory, let down by the CPU and the graphics. Not surprising given the class of machine that we’re looking at here.

Task Manager shows that Windows 7 is using 650MB of RAM, which doesn’t leave a huge amount for Office applications but it’s fine for a bit of browsing, e-mail, blogging, and even watching videos. Regardless of the fact that the machine seemed to run well with only a gig of RAM, I decided to see if adding more would make a difference.

First, I tried ReadyBoost to see if it would increase system responsiveness, using an old 1GB SD card, but I have to say that I’m not sure it really made any difference. Then I bought a 2GB SODIMM from , taking the total installed to 2.5GB (for some reason, XP only sees 1.99GB but Windows 7 recognises the whole amount) and measured the stats again. Surprisingly, the score dropped, but only by a fraction as the graphics subscore fell to 2.1 with memory IO slightly up to 4.5 and all other scores unchanged (as might be expected – after all, none of those components had been upgraded).

Windows 7 System Properties on Lenovo S10e after 2GB memory upgrade

So, eight weeks after installation, what’s my verdict? Well that is probably pretty obvious by now – Windows 7 runs nicely on a little netbook. How it will perform on older hardware is anyone’s guess but it also seemed fine on my Compaq Evo D510SFF with a 2.4GHz Pentium 4 CPU and 2GB of RAM (albeit with basic graphics). On that basis, it should be fine for most corporates (although even Vista should also be, with tactical RAM upgrades) and the only barriers to adoption will be cost (of a desktop refresh at a time of economic uncertainty) and application compatibility (as with Vista). It’s also remarkably stable – and I’m still running the pre-beta code (build 6801 with the Blue Badge “tweak”).

There’s plenty written elsewhere about Windows 7 features but those were not the purpose of this post. The one thing I cannot ignore is that Microsoft is yet to make a statement on netbook support for Windows 7 although TechRadar includes the major points in its article explaining Windows 7 netbook system specifications. Microsoft’s problem is that revenues are lower on netbooks (if the hardware is sub-£250, then it’s difficult to sell an operating system at full price without making the Linux alternatives look more attractive) but they also wants to stop shipping XP.

It seems to me that this is purely a marketing issue – from a technology standpoint, Windows 7 (plus Windows Live Essentials) seems to be an ideal netbook operating system.

9 thoughts on “Running Windows 7 on a netbook

  1. Hi Aaron – long time no see!

    That’s interesting because I had heard that there were architectural limitations that prevent access above 2GB on this chipset and I remember other laptops getting a boost to 4GB when the 4th generation Centrino chipset was introduced (codenamed Santa Rosa). Are netbooks like this using an older chipset, or is it a limitation with the Atom processor?

    Cheers, Mark

  2. Hello Mark,

    So, is it easy to upgrade the Lenovo’s RAM with a standard memory?
    Where did you bought it?

    Cheers, Tony

  3. @Tony – very easy – you can’t do anything with the 512MB built onto the motherboard but you can stick a 2GB SODIMM into the other slot, which is easily accessed. I bought mine from Crucial Technology (as I use them for pretty much all of my RAM upgrades these days).

  4. Very interesting, thanks for posting the benchmarks. It will be exciting to see how much the Nvidia Ion netbooks improve the graphics subscore. It’s too bad that Microsoft is again restricting the system specs for Windows 7 to be sold with netbooks. Looks like the upper limit is 1GB. Of course you can always uppgrade it, but most people probably won’t get around to it.

  5. You mentioned dropping back to XP for iPlayer downloads and the fact that the new iPlayer Desktop would run on Windows 7. I just wondered if you’d tried it – the iPlayer Desktop downloaded videos run like a dog for me on my s10e. I’m blaming AIR at the moment as the streaming is fine, as are downloaded wmv files. Any thoughts?

  6. @Kelvin – I’m not running iPlayer on the S10e (not since I rebuilt to use Win7 RTM) but, like you, I’m having no problems with WMVs downloaded from the Beeb. I guess it might be more problematic if you only have a gig of RAM but I suspect AIR is the cause of some issues I’ve been having on another Win7 machine so it might be that it’s just not quite right on Windows 7. With general availability just around the corner, I’m sure Adobe will fix that soon if it is a confirmed issue.

  7. I tried to install windows 7 on my samsung NC10 netbook from an external DVD drive – and it just won’t boot up and install – any ideas?

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