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The Windows 7 Netbook Experience

On a recent business trip to Seattle, I picked up my third Toshiba mini NB205. I had previously purchased one each for my two kids and I've been impressed with the battery life on these little machines. The versions my kids have include a less-than-desirable "island"-style keyboard, which I quickly realized wasn't suitable for my gorilla hands. But the version I bought at Frys near Seattle has a more traditional keyboard with larger keys that seem to address some of the issues of my kids' machines (like the curiously undersized Tab key). So I snagged one for about $350.

[ Read more about the Toshiba NB200-series netbook in my Quick Take article. ]

The rationale behind this purchase was that I needed a digital video player with a big screen. I've been using an iPod touch (see my review) and, more recently, Microsoft's Zune HD (see my review) for this purpose, but these devices, while wonderful, are a tad on the small size. The thing is, a decent Archos-type player will set you back $300 to $600, depending on which model you get. All feature smaller screens, worse battery life, and less overall utility than a good netbook, like the NB205. And unlike with Windows 7, Archos requires you to purchase codec packs for popular video formats like H.264. A netbook just makes more sense.

Plus there was the admittedly remote possibility that I could actually use this thing as a real computer, possibly even travel only with this tiny and light device, foregoing the bigger and heavier machines I'm usually forced to use. We can dream.

To this end, I also grabbed a RAM upgrade, 2 GB, for about $40, and 16 GB Secure Digital (SD), also about $40, which I'm using for Windows ReadyBoost purposes. I also purchase a retail copy of Windows Anytime Upgrade (Starter to Home Premium) for about $80. Windows 7 Starter just isn't acceptable.

Here's what I found.

Toshiba's customized Windows 7 experience

Most of us have gotten a new PC that's been overloaded with excessive amounts of crapware. This Toshiba lands firmly in the middle: It's not crapware free, as many would prefer, but it's also not the steaming cesspool of, say, your average Sony VAIO of several years ago. That said, the Windows 7-based NB205 actually came with more crapware than did the XP-based predecessors my kids got. This time around, there were some terrible Wild Tangent games, a useless version of Norton Internet Security 2009 with a one-month subscription (one month??), Java (grr...), some Adobe utilities, QuickBooks, Skype, and a trial version of Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007.

Of slightly more interest to me are the Toshiba utilities. Toshiba loads up the NB205 with an astonishing array of custom utilities, two of which are pre-pinned to the taskbar. These are My Toshiba, which is a useful front-end to registration, the user's guide, support, and the various preinstalled utilities, and a trial version of Toshiba Online Backup ($50 a year for 25 GB of storage).

As for the other Toshiba utilities--and there are many--a few stand out, some for positive reasons. ConfigFree overrides the default networking functionality in Windows, which I feel is unnecessary. But there's a useful HDD protection utility, which parks the drive head in the event of motion in order to protect it from accidental damage. A PC health monitor provides a dashboard-like look to the machine's battery and power consumption, temperature, and hard drive. And a USB sleep and charge utility configures how the USB sleep and charge feature works; this allows one USB port to continually charge plugged in devices, even when the PC is turned off.

The result is a loaded-up notification area, though of course the related icons are all hidden in Windows 7 by default. That's not real progress, in my opinion, and of course the machine's already sluggish startup time is negatively impacted as a result.

Upgrading the hardware

While 1 GB of RAM is actually enough to run Windows 7, even on netbook-class hardware, I'm not exactly an average user, and I am of course hoping to actually use this machine on the road. So I updated the machine to the maximum of 2 GB. This involved unscrewing a single screw on the bottom of the device, popping out the single 1 GB RAM DIMM and replacing it with the 2 GB version. On a difficulty scale, this is the type of upgrade anyone can handle, and if your netbook supports a similarly simple way to access the RAM, I strongly recommend it.

The Windows 7 Netbook Experience
Adding RAM to a netbook is usually as easy as popping open a lid and replacing the DIMM that's already there.

Note: While virtually all netbooks ship with just 1 GB of RAM, the Atom processor supports up to 2 GB of RAM. So most netbooks can in fact be upgraded to 2 GB, which could dramatically improve the overall user experience.

Also, like most netbooks, the NB205 includes an integrated SD slot, so I inserted the 16 GB SD card there and configured it to use 4 GB of space for ReadyBoost.

Hint: You will want a recent, fast SD card if you intend to use it for Windows ReadyBoost. The one I purchased was a "Class 6" unit, which is currently the fastest version.

Windows Anytime Upgrade

I've written about Windows Anytime Upgrade (WAU) before (refer to my WAU Feature Focus article for more information), but now that Windows 7 is broadly available, more and more people will start discovering this unique upgrade option. It's of particular interest to those that purchase a low-cost netbook computer that comes with the undesirable Windows 7 Starter edition. And since tens of millions of people will find themselves hampered by this odd combination of hardware and software, it may be worth a refresher. Plus, this is a great chance to discover what the new PC experience is like with Windows 7.

Windows Anytime Upgrade is available via a utility that's built into Windows 7. And since the code for all Windows 7 product versions is actually built-into every Windows 7 install, you don't even need a Setup disc to make it happen.

Despite this, Microsoft also makes retail versions of Windows Anytime Upgrade available for those who, perhaps, wish to give the upgrade as a gift or simply want to feel like they're buying "something." The Windows Anytime Upgrade packages are, however, not recommended otherwise: You have to be careful to buy the exact right one, for starters. (A version for upgrading from Windows 7 Home Premium to Professional will not do if you need the Starter to Home Premium upgrade, for example)

The Windows 7 Netbook Experience
WAU retail packaging resembles a small version of the full Windows 7 retail packaging.

Note: That said, I could imagine retailers--especially electronic retailers like having sales in which the price of the retail versions of WAU are cheaper than those for the purely electronic version. So if you're ready to perform this upgrade, it may pay to shop around just in case.

In any event, the WAU retail packages don't contain a disc, as one is not needed. What you're buying, basically, is a product key, in a package that looks like, but is smaller than, the traditional Windows 7 retail boxes.

The Windows 7 Netbook Experience
Inside the WAU is a card with your Upgrade key.

Windows Anytime Upgrade should take 10 to 20 minutes to install, but it could take longer if you have pending Windows Update-based updates, as I did. These need to be installed first, and WAU will ensure that that happens before proceeding. The machine will reboot a couple of times and then you'll be up and running with the new product edition.

The Windows 7 Netbook Experience
Before: Windows 7 Starter.

The Windows 7 Netbook Experience
After: Windows 7 Home Premium, with glass support.

What I was left with was a perfectly-running system with Windows 7 Home Premium, complete with Aero glass (automatically enabled, too) and all of the features and functionality that make this Windows 7 version the most desirable.

Final thoughts

I doubt that I'll ever really be able to use any netbook as my primary travel computer, but I suspect that this type of hardware would work just fine for most people. Even a stock netbook is decent. But when upgraded to 2 GB of RAM and given a Windows 7 Home Premium injection, even a lowly netbook turns into something special. I'm curious to see how (and how often) I use this machine.

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