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Test drive: Windows 7 on a Netbook

One of the very first items on our to-do list was to install the now widely available Windows 7 beta on a Netbook.

Still semijetlagged from Las Vegas, one of the very first items on our to-do list was to install the now widely available Windows 7 beta on a Netbook.

From off-the-record conversations with PC makers during CES, we heard that Windows 7 played well with systems powered by Intel's Atom CPU--which is something we generally can't say about Vista. (Although it's also worth noting that Vista, while making for a somewhat sluggish user experience, actually performed reasonably well in benchmark testing on Sony's new Vaio Lifestyle PC minilaptop, which combines an Atom with a more appropriate 2GB of RAM.)

We quickly installed the 32-bit version of Windows 7 on a typical Netbook. The installation went smoothly, and the OS seemed to run well at first glance, but our wireless card wasn't detected initially. We eventually got that sorted out, and ran our iTunes benchmark test for a quick speed comparison (our test system had an Intel Atom CPU, 1GB of RAM, and an 80GB 5,400rpm HDD).

As the iTunes test is CPU focused, we weren't totally surprised to find similar scores, with XP completing the test in 743 seconds, and both Vista (with graphics options set for Vista Basic) and the Windows 7 beta hitting 760 seconds. (Note: lower scores indicate better results.)

While our quick benchmark testing did not show a Win 7 advantage, we can say that in anecdotal use, the Windows 7 interface responded quicker and hung less frequently than Vista, where just opening the Start Menu or My Documents folder can be a slog. We're cooking up some additional tests right now, and will report their results shortly.

It remains to be seen if Windows 7 is really a viable candidate for Netbooks (although Microsoft is purportedly working on a Netbook-specific build of the new OS), but if it is, this may finally give Microsoft the excuse it needs to retire the long-serving XP operating system. In the slide show below, you can see some photos of Windows 7 up and running on our test Netbook.