Windows 8 Is Trying To Kill The Netbook

Whatever Windows 8’s virtues on a touchscreen device or a 17-inch notebook, there’s one clear lesson from the newly-released consumer preview version: there is no point in trying to run it on most of the netbooks on the market. And unless Microsoft outlines some plans to fix that pretty quickly, it is effectively conceding the netbook market to Linux or to oblivion.

Like most geeks worldwide, almost the first thing I did when I got up this morning was to download the Consumer Preview version and check it out. I didn’t want it on my main work machine — my days are too busy to spend time on unexpected bugs — so I was using a spare Eee PC netbook we had sitting around the office. Like most netbooks, this only has a 10.1 inch display, and its maximum display resolution is 1200 by 600 — less than the 1200 by 768 minimum you need to run the Metro apps which are at the heart of Windows 8.

There’s no bait-and-switch here. Microsoft makes this limitation abundantly clear, pointing out the fact in every blog post on the subject it has written in the last few days and popping up a warning when you try to install on a machine which doesn’t have that resolution. You can install Windows 8, but you can’t use Metro. And in practice, that means you can’t use the new app store, or most of the enhanced features. You can’t in fact launch Internet Explorer from the Start screen:

For crying out loud, you can’t even run Solitaire:

By the time you have unpinned every app that doesn’t run from the Start screen, you end up with the slightly sorry looking prospect you can see at the top of this post. This is not a screen I would want to spend much time interacting with, but in the menu-free world of Windows 8, I won’t have much choice.

For my existing productivity netbook — the Windows 7 beat which I take on the road — the solution is clear and obvious: I won’t bother upgrading. While there might be performance benefits from Windows 8’s improved codebase, there’s not much point if half the features that are added don’t work.

And before anyone says “just get a machine with a decent-sized screen”, not all of us want that. The existing netbook size is great for travelling, and works especially well on planes. Newer netbook models may come with denser displays and avoid the problem, but it’s a pity all those existing machines Microsoft worked so hard to bring into the Windows world are suddenly cast away from it again.

I also don’t buy into the “netbooks are irrelevant now that tablets exist” argument. Tablets are undeniably hugely popular, but they solve a different problem. If you want to deal with a lot of text, or manipulate a spreadsheet, or sort files in Dropbox, a netbook is a much better solution. It shouldn’t have to be an either/or decision; both are great for specific needs.

The best I can hope for long term is that Microsoft decides to issue a ‘Starter edition’ of Windows 8, specifically designed for lower-spec netbooks, and perhaps with no Metro features at all — just the basic code and performance improvements and the other changes that Windows 8 brings. That would be in keeping with its past behaviour. On the other hand, it would be condemning netbook users to not use most of the features Microsoft believes are the best things about Windows 8. So I’ll believe it when I see it.

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