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November 16, 2009

Netbooks in Your Business

Netbooks have increasingly become a more viable option, not just for consumers but even for businesses, both large and small. Driven by Atom processors and typically offering only a gig of RAM (News - Alert), they’re certainly not designed for speed. But they’re capable machines for word processing, e-mailing, and surfing the Web. Their light weight and small size can make road warriors happy. And their low cost can make IT people happy.
Until recently, netbooks basically offered you a choice of two operating systems: Windows XP or Linux. While Linux might be a workable choice for IT pros, developers, and tech geeks, it’s still not user friendly enough for the average user. Plus, Linux brings its own complexities when it comes to IT support.
Windows Vista was too power-hungry to be at home on a netbook. So that left Windows XP as the only Microsoft (News - Alert) OS for notebooks designed for end users, at least until now. With the release of Windows 7, leaner and meaner than Vista, the new OS has now become another option to run on netbooks.
A recent survey conducted by research and consulting firm Chadwick Martin Bailey discovered that over the next two years, 51 percent of IT pros questioned plan to standardize on Windows 7 for laptops and desktops and 38 percent will do the same with netbooks.
If you’re thinking of deploying or even just dabbling in netbooks among your user population, there are a few factors to consider:
Performance Expectations – Before you deploy any netbooks to your users, be sure to set their expectations. Surveys have found that many people who buy and use netbooks are disappointed in their slower performance compared with notebooks and desktops. Many people think they’ll get the same speed out of netbooks as they do from their larger, beefier laptop cousins. But of course that’s not the case. Make sure your users know what they can and can’t do with their notebooks. Word processing and Web browsing are in. Heavy graphics editing and video streaming are out.
RAM – Despite their sluggish performance, you can coax a bit more oomph out of a netbook. Most come with only 1GB of RAM, but many can hold 2GB. You’ll want to opt for that extra gig. Every little bit helps.
Windows 7 Version – Be careful which version of Windows 7 comes with the netbooks you bring into your company. By default, many netbooks run Windows 7 Starter Edition, a crippled version of Windows that would almost certainly be useless in most business environments.
Confusion seems to exist over which version of Windows 7 you can and should run on a netbook. A Nov. 5 survey by electronics shopping site Retrevo asked 1,100 consumers if they planned to buy netbooks this year. Among the 21 percent who said yes, 54 percent were unaware of the different flavors of Windows 7, e.g., Starter Edition, Home Premium. Further, 61 percent didn’t know that Starter Edition lacks certain key features, such as Windows XP virtual mode and DVD playback, and 56 percent said they would be dissatisfied running Starter Edition on their new netbook.
For many businesses, Starter Edition also lacks one essential feature, namely the ability to join a domain. So instead, you’ll want to opt for a more robust version of the new Windows OS. Microsoft initially pushed vendors to use Windows 7 Starter Edition on netbooks with a certain screen size, processing power, and RAM. But the company has since done an about-face and now allows OEMs to install any version of Windows 7 they wish on their netbook models.
Microsoft has published the minimum requirements for Windows 7  as a 1 GHz processor, 1 GB RAM, 16 GB of free disk space, and graphics capable of supporting DirectX 9. Those specs should encompass most netbooks.
Whether your company is large or small, you’ll want to go for Windows Professional, Ultimate, or Enterprise on a netbook. Tests indicate that even those higher end versions of Windows 7 should run fine on a netbook, although certain features, such as the Aero interface may slow down performance. But you can always turn off Aero if it’s too much of a drag.
Large organizations with Microsoft enterprise agreements would probably use the Enterprise edition for its high volume discounts; smaller businesses with no software agreements could instead go for Professional or Ultimate.
As with anything you do in IT, you’ll naturally want to test any netbooks that you plan to deploy with Windows 7 to ensure their performance and reliability. But with netbooks delivering acceptable speed and low costs, even with Windows 7, it makes sense to consider them as potential additions to your workforce.

Lance Whitney is a journalist, IT consultant, and Web Developer with almost 20 years of experience in the IT world. To read more of Lance's articles, please visit his columnist page

Edited by Amy Tierney

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