Microsoft revises ‘netbook’ hardware spec for Windows 7

Netbooks eligible to for the low-cost Windows 7 Starter edition can’t exceed a 10.2 inch screen or 1GB of RAM, although larger drives and faster processors are allowed.
Microsoft wants to cut netbooks down to size – specifically, 10.2 inches. According to documents allegedly leaked from one of the company’s many hardware partners, that’s the biggest display allowed on a device which can qualify for Microsoft’s discounted OEM rate on Windows 7 Starter.

Make a laptop with a larger screen and Microsoft will call it a notebook and strike Windows 7 Starter from the list of OS options and replace it with either Windows 7 Home Basic or Windows 7 Home Premium, both of which are expected to be significantly more expensive.

The 10.2 inch screen size is well under the 12.1 inches allowed for today’s netbook licences of Windows XP and is the clearest sign yet of Microsoft’s eagerness to reign in the growth of netbooks and steer the market back towards laptops which run a higher-margin version of Windows.

It’s not that Microsoft doesn’t like netbooks, which it is these days preferring to call ‘small notebooks’ (similar to how an increasing number of vendors call them mini-notebooks).

The company has made plenty of noise about how well Windows 7 will run on their modest hardware and Windows 7 chief Steven Sinofsky included a netbook in his presentation when Windows 7 made its public debut late last year. But low-cost netbooks demand an equally low-cost OS, and when your competitor (Linux) is free you have no choice but to slash the sticker price and cut your profits.

However, reducing the maximum permissible screen size to 10.1 inches means that larger netbooks such as Dell’s Inspiron Mini 12, Samsung’s NC20 and Acer’s updated Aspire One 751 will all be considered notebooks and hit for a full Windows 7 licence, regardless of the fact in every other respect they’re a netbook.

The maximum amount of RAM that can be factory-fitted into a netbook running Windows 7 will remain pegged at 1GB, although buyers can fit more memory provided the device itself allows for such an upgrade.

In some models there’s no expansion slot and the memory is soldered directly onto the motherboard; in others the chipset itself won’t recognise more than 1GB of RAM. 2GB is however the maximum that the current crop of Atom-based chipsets can support.

The rest of the hardware checklist is more generous than today’s XP-based spec set. Storage was previously pegged at 160GB for a hard drive and 32GB on a solid state drive; in the Windows 7 era those are bumped up to 250GB and 64GB respectively.

Microsoft has also lifted the limitation on the netbook’s graphics (today’s devices can’t go beyond DirectX 9) and will allow touchscreens with a capacitive panel rather than those based on the simpler resistive technology, as capacitive panels allow for multi-touch gestures.

And instead of today’s laundry list of approved processors, which typically range from 1GHz to 1.6GHz, Microsoft has decreed that netbooks can run any CPU up to 2GHz, as long as it has a single core and draws no more than 15 watts.

This leaves a surprising amount of headroom: Intel’s Atom N270 has a peak drain of a mere 2.5 watts, while its latest ultra-low voltage Core 2 Solo chips which are appearing in thin and light notebooks like the Acer Timeline top out at just 5.5 watts.

BY David Flynn

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