Netbook owners certainly took note during Microsoft President of Windows Steven Sinofsky's Windows 8 unveiling at the BUILD conference. Early on in the presentation, Sinofsky whipped out his three-year old Lenovo netbook, the very same unit he exhibited at the dev conference three years prior, and showed the crowd of eager Microsoft developers his first generation device running Windows 8. He then extolled the virtures of Windows 8's tiny footprint, and reassured developers that the new OS is feature rich, but was not built bulky layer by bulky layer.
For those with fresh memories of an unwieldy Windows Vista clogging underpowered notebooks, news Microsoft was working diligently to leave some memory for applications and programs was a revelation. It's also a savvy business move by Microsoft, considering netbooks sales, while now stagnant, accounted for nearly a quarter of all PC sales as recently as Q2 2010, according to IDC. There are literally millions of netbook owners who would probably love the chance to squeeze a few more years out of their machines rather than jump to an iPad, and Windows 8 just might offer them the chance.
But how well will Windows 8 really work on these machines? Sinofsky claimed his Lenovo netbook only had 1GB of RAM, which obviously can run Windows 8, but can it offer a decent computing experience?
As luck would have it, we have a Lenovo IdeaPad S10-3 on hand, a netbook released in March 2010. This particular unit has 2GB of RAM courtesy of a user upgrade, and is powered by an Intel Atom N450 CPU running at 1.66GHz. It shipped with Windows 7 Starter, and performed well enough for day to day tasks, but was never powerful enough to rely on as a primary production machine.
We downloaded the 2.8GB Windows Developer Preview (32-bit) install file and loaded it up; a process which took about 45 minutes and was entirely self-guided. It was not a clean install, and we were able to retain our user accounts, files, and settings, but we lost all additional programs such as Open Office and Google Chrome.
Windows 8 In Use
From a cold start, it took the netbook 19 seconds to boot up to the login screen. While we never recorded the startup time with Windows 7 Starter, it takes the TechnologyGuide iPad 2 (currently the tablet standard-bearer for quick starts) twenty-two seconds to do the same.
Sinofsky bragged that Windows 8 on his netbook at BUILD was using only 281 megabytes of RAM while running 29 processes. Unfortunately, we could not duplicate those results, though we did come close with only 30 processes, but it was consuming approximately a quarter of the available RAM, or 500MB. That shot up to about 800MB, or 40% of the available memory, with an Open Office document as well as Google Chrome with five tabs open, which mimics our light use with the device.
Anecdotally, Windows 8 runs smoothly on the netbooks and can best be described as snappy. Programs open and close without delay, YouTube works well, though Netflix streaming still stutters, just as it did with Windows 7. Simple word processing works well with Open Office, and in fact, this story is being typed on it.
In two and half days of steady usage, Windows 8 has yet to crash, though it did have trouble closing down on one occasion. Unfortunately, battery performance seems to have taken a hit. What was once rightfully considered an “all day” battery can now best be described as a “half day” power source. We'll have specific numbers for battery performance once we run our lab tests.
Hardware Presents a Problem
Though it's only running the developer preview version of Windows 8, which is still far from complete and not fully-featured (most of the Metro widgets, including Socialite and the app store are not operational) , the Lenovo S10-3 certainly seems capable of handling the operating system. However, the netbooks lack of hardware in a different sense might make me think twice about adopting Windows 8.
Microsoft reps are insistent that Windows 8 is being developed for touch. This new operating system is to be Big Red's best hope of breaking into the tablet market. The same reps are quick to point out that Windows 8 also works well with a mouse and keyboard, though we may decline to agree.
The Metro UI with its large icons and multiple home pages undoubtedly looks nice on the netbook, but it is a pain to navigate with the S10-3's tiny touchpad. Crossing the entire display with the cursor is difficult enough, but maintaining a left click while dragging a menu bar across three or four screens is extremely frustrating, not to mention awkward. The arrow and page up and down keys work much better than the cursor in terms of navigation, but that requires pecking away at the keys like a chicken, which is undignified and clumsy. This user interface was obviously built for finger swipes and taps.
On the other hand, the tablet's 10.1-inch display became too easily cluttered with shortcuts and icons under the old Windows desktop scheme, and the Metro design is a welcome departure, at least aesthetically.
Given the potential for a performance boost, not to mention the desire to prolong the life of the machine, it's hard to dismiss a Windows 8 upgrade for the netbook. Sure, the nav scheme isn't the best for the tiny touchpad, but it's a netbook; and netbook users are used to compromising some elements of the experience for a mobile machine. Microsoft will have to address the potential battery issues, which might be a deal breaker, but so far, things are looking good for Windows 8's future on low cost, low powered, machines.
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