Will Windows 7 Starter Edition Cripple Future Netbooks?

w7-versionsWhen Microsoft announced its list of Windows 7 versions last week, there was intense debate amongst bloggers about whether Redmond had made things simpler or more complex for consumers. As you may have heard by now, there will be six versions (Windows 7 Enterprise is not pictured at right), ranging from the extremely-limited Windows 7 Starter, to the mainstream Windows 7 Home Premium , to the full-featured Windows 7 Ultimate. Engadget’s Joshua Topolsky criticized the list of 6 different versions as ” worse than you could have possibly imagined.” Meanwhile, Paul Thurrott looks at the same list of features and editions and writes that “unlike with Vista, where Microsoft crowded the market with too many mainstream product editions, Windows 7 will ship in just a handful of common-sense product editions.” So who is right? The answer really depends on how the different versions are marketed to consumers and deployed by OEMs. ZDNet’s Ed Bott says that, of the six versions, there are only three that matter: Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate/Enterprise (which are the same thing, just sold in either single or volume licenses).  If that’s the case, then we’re close to the simplicity of Windows XP’s two main versions. However, we’re concerned about the possibility that Windows 7 Starter, which will not be sold at retail but will be a lower-cost option than Home Premium for OEMs (Basic won’t be sold in developed markets), could find its way into netbooks or even full-fledged notebooks. What’s wrong with Windows 7 Starter? It not only strips out user-interface luxuries like Aero Glass, but also limits the user to running only three simultaneous applications. Could vendors really subject their customers to that kind of limitation?  Will we be seeing Windows 7 Starter edition as a configuration option when we buy a system from Dell, Lenovo, or HP’s online stores? Shockingly, the answer is yes, at least when it comes to HP’s netbooks. Last week, the maker of the Mini-Note series told Computer World that it plans to sell its netboooks with a choice of Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, or (gasp) Starter. Given the low margins and price sensitivity of the netbook market, we wouldn’t be surprised if many other netbook vendors followed and sold their systems with the feature-crippled operating system, even as the only choice. In today’s market, most Vista netbooks (ex: the Dell Inspirion Mini 12) run Vista Basic, but at least with Basic the user is only sacrificing additional visual effects, not the ability to multitask effectively. We were wondering how the three application limit works and whether tray apps like virus shields, firewalls, and pesky QuickTime icons count against the limit so we asked around. Our contact at Microsoft PR tells us that he doesn’t have full technical details but the official word is:

Background “services” in the system tray such as an antivirus service, Bluetooth service, fingerprint reader services, etc., do not count as one of the three programs unless the user opens up the full program to run it.

We also consulted Ed Bott who pointed out that Windows Starter edition has existed in developing countries for XP since 2005, was later released for for Vista, and has always had a three application limit. He pointed us to Paul Thurrott’s detailed review of the original XP Starter Edition circa 2005, where Thurrott describes what happens when you attempt to launch a fourth app:

The system displays a notification window telling you that you can only run three applications. The notification roughly reads as, “With Windows XP Starter Edition, you can run three programs at a time. To open a new program, please save your work, close one open application, and open the new application again.”

Will netbook users be seeing this kind of error message in the near future? It’s quite possible. And lest you think that it’s impossible to run three applications at once on a tiny netbook screen, Lilliputing’s Brad Linder suggests that all you would need to do is run a messaging app like Skype, a Web browser,  a media player, and one more thing (e-mail, photo browser, virus scan actively scanning) and you would surpass the limit. What do you think? Could you live with a three concurrent application limit on your netbook? We couldn’t, but let us know how you feel in the comments section below. Hat Tip: Lilliputing

Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
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  1. Fanfoot Says:

    Yes, I could live with it. First, I want my netbooks to be inexpensive, and if they put a $99+ OS on it then a netbook is going to be more expensive than I’d like. Second, I assume that like Vista you will have the option to upgrade to a more comprehensive version at a later time by paying more if you find that you need to.

    And yes, I could live without aero glass. I’d rather have the other benefits of Windows 7 than stick with XP for the rest of time.

  2. Carla Says:

    A netbook, thanks to its crippled screen and handicapped processor, has problem even with only 1 open application.

    It is also easy to circumvent the 3 programs limit: just minimize the program you are not using (and you can’t be using 2 program at the same time in a netbook) in the systray.

    Windows Media Player, for example, could be integrated in the taskbar. Outlook can receive email even if it is only in the systray.

    I don’t see the problem.

  3. spundot.com Says:

    @Carla: it doesn’t work that way. Windows Media Player and Outlook are going to be counted as honest to goodness applications against the 3 app limit. The loophole is for background services — those that are running constantly but the user doesn’t interact with directly, aside from clicking on the systray icon. Note that the system tray (the little icons in the bottom right) is different from the taskbar, which shows running applications. Minimizing a standard application to the taskbar does not make it a “background service.”

  4. Rich Says:

    Sounds to me like a plot between Micro$oft, Intel, HP, etc., to limit the popularity of low cost (low margin for Intel and HP) Netbooks (I thought the word “Netbook” was now copyrighted and verboten to use?).

  5. Fanfoot Says:

    @spundot.com: Vista Starter does indeed work that way, and people have used a utility that allows you to launch any program so that it ends up in the tray as a way around the limit. Just google around and you’ll see posts about it. Its possible that Windows 7 Starter will be more sophisticated, but obviously they have to ignore the more of the things that are in the tray…

  6. IC DeaDPiPoL Says:

    Gotta test running a Virtual Machinewith Win 98/2000(VMWare or QEMU) within a starter edition. Hopefully a more powerful netbook comes soon.

  7. Johnnny Says:

    I’m just afraid that I’ll be forced to actually pay for that abomination of an OS, since I wouldn’t use it. I mean, manufacturers, if you want to offer that thing, please leave us a choice not to buy it, but to get at least no os, better linux version. Personaly, I don’t intend to pay someone for pulling my leg.

  8. Tom Says:

    This is just dumb. It will never sell. Enough said.

  9. Charles Says:

    Tom, I think it will sell. It’s not the normal consumer who is going to buy it, It’s the OEM. It has sold on the last two Microsoft OS’es. ->

    “We also consulted Ed Bott who pointed out that Windows Starter edition has existed in developing countries for XP since 2005, was later released for for Vista, and has always had a three application limit.”

  10. Zak Says:

    I could never handle a three app limit (and by the way, does that mean it can only handle three apps, or that you just aren’t allowed to?). However, if it results in a cheaper netbook, it’s fine by me, because the first thing I’m doing after opening the box is installing Linux. I’m not the least bit interested in Microsoft’s latest concoction, I have real work to do. So anything that lets me pay a bit less is welcome.

    I have a feeling though that many will end up buying a netbook with the starter edition without realizing what they’re getting. Those folks will be in for a nasty surprise, which will probably do little good for Windows 7’s reputation, or netbooks in general.

  11. F Murray Rumpelstiltskin Says:

    Three apps at once. Sheesh. Microcr*p.

  12. Mark Says:

    Let’s put it this way; if I buy a netbook, I would rather use Linux (Ubuntu) than stand this atrocious crippled Windows!

  13. Mzzz Says:

    For hitting the netbook price point how about allowing any number of apps, but not running (or even installing) on systems with screens having native resolutions above, say 1024×600 or whatever netbooks typically max out at. I’d go for that, but 3 apps is hopeless.

  14. weg Says:

    Apple’s iPhone only runs one application at a time, and people cope with it.

  15. Michael Says:

    This latest idea from Microsoft is an insult to our intelligence. I sincerely hope they go ahead with it, and that scores of disgruntled users vote with their feet. This could be a nice bit of wood to stoke the Linux fire with, after all!


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