While installing Microsoft's latest operating system on a netbook may seem like throwing good money after bad, Windows 8 still offers some advantages even on these lowly PCs. Here's a guide to what you can expect to gain--and lose--by using Windows 8 on a netbook.
By way of definition, a netbook is a low-end computer, typically with an single or dual core Atom-level processor running at 1 GHz, 1 GB to 2 GB of RAM, a small 1024 x 600 screen, and a traditional hard drive. Netbooks lack an optical drive and typically run Windows XP or, more recently, Windows 7 Starter.
These machines are designed to be low cost and appealed largely to children and those with very small computing needs. But the advent of the tablet-type PC, which will become common with Windows 8, is expected to kill off the netbook for good.
Because netbooks lack an optical drive, you'll need to install Windows 8 using an external (and separately purchased) DVD drive, a USB device (which you can create using the instructions in my article Windows 8 Consumer Preview: Create Bootable Install Media), or the new Windows 8 web-based installer. That latter method is the preferred way of doing so. For more information, check out Windows 8 Consumer Preview: Set Up Windows 8 with the Web Installer.
Be careful when choosing the OS type. Many netbooks utilize older Atom processors that will only accept a 32-bit version of Windows 8. But even for those netbooks that aren't limited in this fashion, I still recommend using the 32-bit version of Windows 8. These versions will perform better with the constrained hardware offered by any netbook.
Clean install via USB on my single core Atom-based netbook (a Toshiba NB205) took 15 minutes, including typing in the product key and walking through the Out of Box Experience (OOBE) and choosing Express settings. This compares to 10 minutes on my far more powerful, quad core processor-based (Core 2 Quad) desktop. Not bad.
On the other hand, the screen resolution at first boot was just 800 x 600, well under the device's native resolution of 1024 x 600. And there was no way to fix this in the Screen Resolution control panel. Fortunately, an Important Update in Windows Update related to the Intel chipset cleared up this issue.
Note: It's unclear at this time which product versions Microsoft will offer with Windows 8, but hopefully there will be a low-end version, similar to Windows 7 Starter, that costs less because of the lack of Metro-style app compatibility. During the Consumer Preview, only one product version is offered.
Metro: What works, what doesn't
Windows 8 boots into the same beautiful lock screen you see on real PCs, which is great. And as promised, the new Start screen does indeed work on a netbook, offering three rows of tiles. I assume this is only a temporary condition for the Consumer Preview, but the Start screen also offers up the full slate of Metro-style apps. Which is too bad, since most don't work at all.
When you try to run most Metro-style apps, you get a full screen notification indicating that the screen resolution is too low to do so. A Change screen resolution link simply loads the Screen Resolution control panel (on the desktop), which unhelpfully notes that "Your resolution is lower than 1024 x 768. Some items might not fit and apps might not open." But you can't of course fix this without employing a hack. (See below.)
Every single bundled Metro-style app refuses to work, including Windows Store, Xbox LIVE Games, People, Weather, Maps, Internet Explorer, Photos, Calendar, Mail, Music, Video, SkyDrive, Messaging, Finance, Pinball FX2, Solitaire, Camera, Remote Desktop, and Xbox Companion. That means that only two of the 21 tiles on the Start screen--Desktop and Windows Explorer--will do anything other than throw up an error message. How's that for a good experience?
The Metro-style task management utilities all work, however, including Back, Switcher, the Charms, and the new Start experience; right-clicking the Start tip also displays the expected power user context menu.
The Windows desktop
With Metro mostly a bust, netbook users will want to turn to the Windows desktop to see what's new there and decide whether those improvements will be enticement enough to upgrade. And the experience on the desktop is actually pretty excellent: You get the nice (and downtuned) Aero experience, even on the lowliest of netbooks like mine, and if you've been burned by the silly wallpaper limitation in Windows 7 Starter, you'll be pleased to see this works just fine too. (Because, of course, this is a non-Starter version of Windows 8.)
The new Explorer is kind of a mixed bag: You get the new ribbon-based experience, of course, but the ribbon is overkill on screens with low resolution. Metro-style notifications work on the desktop, too, and this includes both the full screen notifications (like the one warning you about the screen resolution) as well as application notification toasts.
The new file copy experience is working fine, and offers concurrent file transfers in a single window as expected.
And, yes, the new Task Manager is presented and accounted for.
I didn't think to perform before-and-after benchmarks on this system, but I can tell you that it boots from a dead stop to the lock screen in less than 20 seconds, which you have to think is fairly spectacular for such a system. Not convinced? The Laptop Magazine review of this netbook notes that the boot time for Windows XP was … wait for it… 1 minute and 25 seconds (!!!). So Windows 8 is booting this machine less than one quarter of the time. That's amazing.
For me, however, real world performance involves the reason I bought this little hunk of junk in the first place: Video playback. And the goal here is to play a full-screen, H.264-based DVD rip without any glitches or hiccups, and to do so with the biggest pig of them all, Apple QuickTime.
So I picked three movies I ripped recently using the latest version of Handbrake, copied them to the netbook, installed QuickTime, and saw how it all worked. I can tell you that under both XP and Windows 7, video playback was non-satisfactory, and I tried a variety of video players on each. The system would bog down, the video would pause or stutter, and I simply stopped traveling with this machine.
With Windows 8, however, it worked fine, with one caveat. There were no performance issues. Speech lined up with characters' lips and stayed there. The caveat? It's QuickTime, the most awful Windows application ever written. It doesn't respect Windows power management, so you'll find yourself swiping the trackpad from time to time to stop the machine from blanking the screen. And in Windows 8, at least, the taskbar is still visible in full screen playback, which is a glitch.
Of course, no self-respecting Windows user would ever really use QuickTime, that was just a worst case scenario test. I also installed the superior VideoLAN VLC Player software, and, voila! Everything works great. It's surprisingly nice, actually.
Secret: Getting Metro-style apps to run on a netbook
I promised earlier that I would provide a hack that will let you run Metro-style apps on a netbook with a lower-than-needed 1024 x 600 screen. As you might expect, there's a (major) caveat: Changing your system in this way will make the desktop environment look a bit skewed, or squished. But if your goal is to enjoy Metro, this will do the trick.
Here's how. Run Regedit (Start, "regedit", no quotes) and search for the term display1_downscalingsupported (using CTRL + F). Find each instance of this entry and change its value from 0 to 1. (Use F3 to repeat the previous search.) Do this until you've found them all, close Regedit, and reboot.
You will now have additional resolution options. On my netbook, these are 1024 x 768 and 1152 x 864. I've found that the former looks better, but your mileage may vary. Voila! Metro apps now work.
Where Windows 8 is a major, revolutionary upgrade for traditional PCs and especially new generation tablet PCs, it's more of an evolutionary update on netbooks. You get the new Start screen, sure, but no Metro-style apps, and a handful of useful but not crucial improvements to the Explorer interface.
That said, you do get some pretty impressive performance improvements, always welcome in such low-end systems. It's not going to turn a netbook into a true computing contender. But the effect here is noticeable.
Is it worth the upgrade? People with netbooks probably aren't big spenders, generally, and anyone trying to stretch the usage of such a device beyond the 2-3 years they've already use it is unlikely to pony up whatever Microsoft will charge for this upgrade. If the Windows 8 netbook upgrade is somehow, magically, in the $29 range that Apple now charges for OS X updates, maybe. Otherwise, I'd recommend saving that money and putting it towards a new PC or device.