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Netbook decision: Windows XP or 7 Starter?

Some critics think Microsoft's previous operating system, Windows Home XP, remains a better choice for netbooks than Windows 7 Starter. Both versions are being sold on netbooks.
Image: Acer Aspire One netbook
Netbooks, like the Acer Aspire One, represent between 15 to 20 percent of notebook sales, according to The NPD Group. Many offer consumers the choice of either the Windows XP Home or Windows 7 Starter operating system. Acer

Windows 7, Microsoft's newest operating system, has received positive reviews; Windows 7 Starter, the version for netbooks, not so much.

Some critics think Microsoft's previous operating system, Windows Home XP, remains a better choice for netbooks in terms of overall battery life and some other features. This holiday season, shoppers are seeing netbooks on shelves loaded with XP and others with Windows 7 Starter. The latter is an essentially stripped-down version of Windows 7, released in October. `( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

Windows 7 Starter may be too stripped down, some say. Among its frustrations: The background screen on the computer desktop cannot be personalized or changed from Microsoft's dominant logo, and there is no way to play back a DVD with an external DVD drive attached to the netbook.

"You cannot change the desktop background on any Windows 7 Starter system," wrote Joanna Stern in an article on SlashGear's site recently. "That’s simply ridiculous. I have been changing backgrounds in Windows since my very first desktop that ran Windows 95!

"Can I live with a blue Windows logo on my notebook's desktop? Sure, but why should I? Yes, Windows 7 may be more aesthetically appealing than Windows XP, but who wants to look at a blue shaded Windows logo forever?"

Sales still strong
Netbooks continue to remain a strong part of the laptop market, representing between 15 and 20 percent of sales, said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for The NPD Group research firm.

The little laptops, generally weighing between 2 and 3 pounds and with 7- to 10-inch screens, are considered second computers for many, and provide wireless Web access on the go.

"What we’re seeing this holiday is that XP has been predominantly available on door-buster, lower-cost netbooks, those $300 and less, but the bulk of the netbooks out there are going to come with Windows 7 Starter," he said.

A recent check of's top-10 selling netbooks showed sales evenly divided between netbooks with XP and Windows 7 Starter.

'Solid, basic experience'
Benjamin Rudolph of Microsoft's Windows Business Group said the company extensively tested Windows 7 Starter, with "hundreds of thousands of people testing the product for thousands and thousands of hours," and concluded that for "people looking for that solid, basic experience" of Web surfing and checking e-mail on netbooks, Windows 7 Starter was a good choice.

"There are a couple of the visual elements that the higher versions of Windows 7 has that Windows 7 Starter doesn’t have, including the ability to change the background," he said.

The lack of DVD playback with Windows 7 Starter has also come as a surprise to some, who have gone out and bought USB DVD drives to plug into their netbooks, only to find such drives won't work.

"If you want to engage in more mobile entertainment, you want to be able to play DVDs back, you want the richer media experience, you might want to consider Windows Home Premium. That's why the Windows 'anytime upgrade' is such a good option," letting users decide if or when they want to move to a more robust operating system, said Rudolph.

The cost to upgrade from Windows Starter 7 to Windows 7 Home premium is $79.99. Some consider that a steep price, considering most netbooks themselves are between $300 and $400.

On one of its blogs, "Let's talk about Windows 7 Starter," Microsoft talks about many of the issues that have gotten attention of netbook users.

7 Starter plusses
Alex Spektor, netbook share tracker for Strategy Analytics, said that "part of Microsoft's reasoning for the fixed wallpaper (or background) may have been to limit the consumption of system resources on constrained machines like netbooks."

He believes there are "several key advantages" to using Windows 7 Starter vs. XP Home on netbooks. Among them: "The user interface, while largely a carryover from Windows Vista, holds some significant improvements over Windows XP," especially with improved "Wi-Fi connection management" that is easier than XP's.

The newer operating system, released in October, "displays all available Wi-Fi connections in a pop-up menu on the desktop, allowing for easy lookup of nearby hotspots and quick toggling between routers," Spektor said. "In contrast, Windows XP uses a somewhat cumbersome dialog box, which is somewhat less intuitive."

Support timeline
Because Windows 7 is new, there is also "the benefit of ongoing support from the software giant," he said. "While Microsoft is still supporting Windows XP because of use in netbooks and the general resistance in the PC community to Windows Vista, the operating system is getting quite dated.

"At some point, Microsoft will end support for XP, which might leave users out in the cold with respect to patches or technical support."

That point will be Aug. 4, 2014, when Microsoft ends extended support for XP, according to the company's product "lifecycle" policy.

XP's strengths
Points in favor of XP Home on netbooks are that "Windows 7 is a heavier operating system, consuming more resources than XP," Spektor said.

"While Microsoft has improved 7's power management functionality, early tests have shown that the OS takes a toll on the weak specifications of the typical netbook, affecting important factors like battery life."

Several tech publications — including PC World, Laptop magazine and Liliputing — have done comparison tests of battery life using both versions of Windows, and found that netbooks using XP have anywhere from 10 to 20 percent more battery life than those with Windows 7 Starter.

Battery life on many netbooks can be more than five hours, and so the difference may not be as keenly felt as for those with netbooks that have two or three hours' battery life.

Support issue
Michael Cherry, analyst for Directions on Microsoft, an independent research firm, said while XP is "a well-known and familiar operating system, the downside is simply this: Microsoft will not be supporting it in the future."

In XP's favor, he said, is that it is "so widely used that most problems have been discovered and either repaired or a workaround is well-known.

"In reality, the concern is that a new security vulnerability will be found and Microsoft chooses not to fix it because XP’s architecture differs significantly from the versions of the OS it currently supports, or fixing it would break too many applications. This is the risk of becoming a new user of Windows XP today."

Windows 7 Starter is "less well-known and familiar, but people will not have trouble working with it," he said. "It is currently in mainstream support, so Microsoft is more likely to fix any problems that are uncovered.

"It has been trimmed down so that customers have the ability to download some features from Windows Live if they want them. I run it on a netbook that originally came from the manufacturer with XP, and I am satisfied with the performance."

Rudolph, of Microsoft, said Windows XP  "is a great OS, but for somebody looking for a netbook, Windows 7 is really what they want. It's the best OS we ever made, whether you pick Windows 7 Starter edition or a higher version, like Home Premium, you get to take advantage of all the speed, all the security, all the usability improvements. They’re present to the core in all editions of Windows 7.

"It’s a common misconception that going to Windows 7 Starter is a step down from Windows XP. It’s not; it’s definitely a step up."