My Toshiba M200 running Windows 7Now that the Windows 7 Beta is available for download, consider what you might do with an old laptop or notebook computer you have that's just gathering dust or taking up space in your closet… you might just find a new use for that old system. (Tweeted here.)

I received an article yesterday from Jon on the evolution of small notebook PCsfrom CNET, which noted that the lines continue to blur on what makes up a small notebook PCs and what defines a notebook.

“Except when you look at the bottom line of the companies making them. Though initially thought of as a way to sell cheaper, less powerful companion devices to notebooks, Netbooks are beginning to lose their distinction, as evidenced by the new Netbooks unveiled at CES 2009. While it's good for consumers, the blurring of lines between the two could potentially be destroying the business models of PC manufacturers. Sony's Vaio P is dwarfed by HP's Mini 1000 Netbook.

Over the last year or so, we've seen the market for small notebook PCs grow with offerings from traditional OEMs (Dell, HP and IBM) following the initial offerings of ASUS and MSI. Different people and companies have various definitions. For simplicity sake, small notebook PCs generally have small processors and memory footprints (1GB of RAM with small HDD/ SDDs), small screens (7 to 10 inches), small keyboards and overall small form factors… with an equally small price (between $300 and $500).

Maggie Fox writes in her post Netbooks: mobile social computing laptop killers (January 10th, 2009) that… 

"… netbooks are going to destroy the traditional laptop market. "For those of you unfamiliar with netbooks, they are: Light-weight, low-cost, energy-efficient, highly portable laptops that achieve these parameters by offering fewer features, less processing power and reduced ability to run resource-intensive operating systems (e.g., Windows Vista)."

In reading the CNET article, I tend to agree with HP’s assessment that small notebook PCs and notebooks are very different animals. Given the pricing is so close to traditional laptops and notebook computers as I noted in my post Your questions: What kind of a computer should I buy?, you may find that you're able to afford a no-compromise computer for under $500 at one of the big box office stores…

"… you can find a name-brand notebook with a 15.4-inch screen with (as I concur with many of my associates) a decent 1280x800 resolution, Intel Pentium Dual Core T3200, 120GB HDD, 2GB of memory, six cell battery, Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100, 802.11b/g wireless and a CD/DVD Burner running Microsoft Windows Vista Home Basic (splurge and get Windows Vista Home Premium for a few dollars). 

"Also under $500, consider the crop of netbooks as I posted this week, especially if you are considering a second computer for home use or travel. Rob Pegoraro, the Washington Post's tech guru, noted in his article "Tiny PCs, Full-Size Problems."

"If you consider the trade-offs, there are some very good products available: I opted for the HP 2133 with 1.6GHz proc, 2GB of memory and 120GB HDD with Windows Vista Business for $399 after HP rebate as noted in the post.  And not to be outdone, Dell is offering their Inspiron Mini 9 UMPC for just $99.00 with select PC purchases (regularly $349)."

But I also subscribe to former Seagate CEO William Watkins’ comments in an interview last week where he said that "A netbook is just a low-end notebook."

“That lack of distinction between a Netbook and a notebook will become more clear as soon as Windows 7 arrives on the scene, likely in the next nine to 12 months. Microsoft's new operating system is designed to work on Netbooks and actually may provide a good experience for users on relatively low-powered devices, unlike Vista. "Then consider this quote from Stephen Baker of the NPD Group, who cited Baked in the CNET article noted above, questioning “the value proposition of the Netbook category if the same OS is available on what are supposed to be two different kinds of machines.

"What does that do to our business model? Have we (just) traded $799 sales for $399 sales?" he asked.

How about $0 sales?  (Or solely the cost of an operating system upgrade, say, under $100 when you consider the upgrade packages I’ve seen with Apple and Windows Vista Home.)

What I mean is that you may already own a small notebook PC candidate, or better, a revitalized notebook. 

Let me explain.

We have a couple of older model notebook computers at home, and I have one or two at the office.  In an age of recycling everything from paper to plastic, recycling computers for your own use makes good sense for those PCs that are still viable.  There are machines that are already gathering dust, just like my old Toshiba M200 Tablet PC, replaced by a newer (and heavier!) Toshiba Tablet PC with touch. 

As I noted previously, I've seen several posts from people who have installed the latest Windows 7 beta successfully on small, generally inexpensive notebook PCs and older laptops (nee revitalized notebooks).  I thought that if customers were seeing respectable results (as noted here last fall) with the likes of the Asus Eee PC 1000H, then I should see reasonable performance with my cache of old hardware. 

In fact, I’ll go out on a limb by saying that I am writing this post today from a revitalized notebook – the aforementioned Toshiba M200 – the cross between a small notebook PC and a older laptop PC.  Although it has a smaller hard drive, less memory (upgraded originally to 1GB), it has all the features I need on a portable, low end computer.

Whilst we dogfood the OS at work – and now with the public beta – I have installed Windows 7 on everything from the old Toshiba Portege M200 I’m composing this post on whilst at my son’s swimming lesson to our lower-end, family room HP Slimline 3020 PC graced with a 2 GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800 with 1 GB of memory.  (Disclaimer: as noted previously, I do keep Windows Vista SP1 around: on one older PC at home for the Touchsmart value-added applications, and another work for certain legacy compatibility and LOB apps.)  More on our old Inspiron M600 below.

In all cases, I’ve been able to run the latest beta of the Windows 7 release with few if no major problems, and compatibility issues ironed out in my migration to Windows Vista (which I did on all machines… though I admit that I originally retired the M200 in favour of a new Tablet PC.)

To paraphrase Garp, there's another benefit in common across of these older laptop and notebook PCs, now with new life as revitalized notebooks: they're pre-disastered.  A few scratches here an there, a couple of dings, each had their own comfortable "lived in" look.  I’m less likely to stress about any more travel damage to the computer than I would say to a new bright and shiny Sony Vaio small notebook PC.  (I must admit, though, that the line of HP Mini PCs is hearty enough and quite road worthy, moreso IMHO than the crop of plastic-cased PCs I’ve seen offered at all variety of stores, including ToysRUs: have you seen how hard kids are on things?) 

And what about the spare Inspiron M600 notebook I mentioned above and posted about previously, the one my wife had recently replaced by a new Sony Vaio notebook and was now hibernating in a desk drawer at home?  A perfect candidate for a transformation, or better (if should I bring back the term we brought to Opcode's Vision software nearly two decades ago) transmogrify into a revitalized notebook: plenty of horsepower in the 1.6GHz processor, 120GB HDD and 1GB of memory. 

Yep, works fine there, too. 

And I found that Dell will even let me extend the warranty on the old Inspiron (which I originally purchased with a four year warranty on sale at the time, just expiring next month), a benefit that paid for itself at least two or three fold now (what with a replaced motherboard, hard drive and power supply).  Sure, it weights a little more than the single kilogram wonders from the far east, but the price is right: free with the beta version of the Windows 7 beta, which has sped up performance and made the computer much more nimble.

So, a note on Windows Vista in this equation. As I noted previously, thanks to the work we've done since the release Windows Vista (particularly for SP1), we have an OS today that supports a huge ecosystem of applications and devices. As noted previously on CNET News, Richard Francis spoke at a press demo session of the Windows 7 beta and said that…

"… companies are "encouraged" to upgrade to Windows Vista after predecessor XP, instead of waiting for Windows 7 to be released.  Francis noted that the device compatibility issues which plagued Vista are not expected to be an issue with Windows 7. "When Vista came out, there were only 22,000 compatible devices with the right drivers. Now there are 78,000, so there is better support from the ecosystem," he said.

Given the ease of upgrading my current computers from Windows Vista to the Windows 7 beta, I believe that customers looking to migrate eventually to Windows 7 consider an upgrade to Vista.  On one Windows XP machine I had, I executed a clean install of Windows 7 which was fairly painless. 

For some reassurance, I made sure that the minimum requirements for Windows 7 were met, and first ran the Vista Upgrade Advisor to find out if my PC was compatible with Windows Vista, and check for any app and hardware driver incompatibilities I didn't see at first glance on the machine. (Or if you have the space on your HDD, you might consider setting up a dual boot system and try the new beta release on your old hardware.)

I expect that we will see an increase in the number of people adding – not necessarily replacing – a small, inexpensive notebook PC to their network of computers at home and at work, to expand their computing experience (just as we have seen originally with laptops in the office and more recently with smartphones). I can imagine that some customers will opt for a new, inexpensive notebook in favour of a traditional notebook. 

Yes, online services such as those we see today in the host of apps and services from Windows Live, Office Live and many others will run just fine on a small notebook PC, but I expect that traditional notebooks and laptops will have a place at the table for many customers. 

Consider though that many applications benefit from more powerful processors and features that comes with a higher price tag (including high resolution screens, larger HDDs, solid state drives, connectivity, extended life batteries, faster and more powerful graphics cards, better keyboards, touch and tablet input.. not to mention durable cases and warranties).  Editing photos, creating videos and graphics, playing some of the latest games is often a much better experience on more powerful computers.  In the end, you may consider the benefit of having both a full fledged notebook computer along with a small notebook PC for travel, note taking, general communications and the like. 

Tags: Microsoft, customer support, Windows Vista, customer experience, Windows 7.

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