BOOT CAMP 555 (17/12/08)

Installing XP on Netbook PCs, part 1


Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the Linux family of operating systems and as regular readers will know we have dealt with installing and using Linux, in its many guises, on numerous occasions over the past 10 years of Boot Camp (can it really be that long…?). But I do have my limits and one of them is the somewhat twee distributions supplied with some Netbooks.


Netbooks are the new generation of mini PCs, costing between £180 and £300 that started to appear around this time last year. They’ve been hugely popular and it’s not hard to see why. They are small and light (typically less than 1kg), screen sizes are between 7 and 9-inches and they’re wi-fi enabled, so they make ideal travelling companions. Battery life is generally between 2 and 4 hours sometimes longer and instead of bulky and power-hungry hard disc drives most of them use SSDs or solid state drives to store the operating system, programs and data. Extra storage space is in the form of plug-in SD/MMC memory modules.


Models include the revolutionary Asus Eee PC, which started the whole thing off, the even cuter Acer Aspire One, Apricot’s Pico and the Dell Mini 9, to name just a few. The cheapest versions usually come with Linux installed but because most of them use the Intel Atom processor they are also capable of running Microsoft Windows. A Windows upgrade, which is normally only available on models higher up the range with larger system memories can cost another £75 to £100, putting them into the same price bracket as mini notebooks and budget laptops so not surprisingly many people opt for the cheaper Linux version.


Despite Linux’s somewhat geeky reputation netbook manufacturers have made them really easy to use with highly customised GUIs featuring near idiot-proof desktops and menus. All of the teccy behind the scenes stuff is stripped out or hidden and they come bundled with all of the software that most users are likely to want or need, like capable Windows-compatible word processors and office suites, web browsers and email programs, there may even be a few games. The cutesy menus with their big friendly icons help users to quickly get to grips with their new machines but it all goes horribly wrong when owners discover the many restrictions imposed by this bespoke operating system.


Downloading new software can be difficult and may be limited to just a few select applications specially adapted for that particular version of Linux. This also means that many popular applications that are available for Linux simply will not work on these machines. (Dell is a honourable exception and supplies Ubuntu Linux with the Mini 9 netbook). In short the choices are to live with the supplied OS and its limitations, bone up on Linux and grapple with unsupported tweaks and upgrades, or do what I do, remove Linux and install Windows XP.


There are many advantages, not least the familiarity of a tried and tested operating system and you’ll be able to use most of your existing software. There may also be unexpected bonuses in migrating to XP. Boot up time can be incredibly quick – from switch on to a useable state in under 30 seconds. Performance can be excellent, some applications really fly along, and most surprising of all, on some models battery running times under XP can actually be slightly longer that when using Linux.


Of course there are some drawbacks. Linux is virtually bulletproof and very secure so if you go down the Windows route you will also have to install an anti-virus program and firewall and run regular malware checks. The small screen and low resolution can make some Windows applications difficult and occasionally impossible to use.


Making the change is quite straightforward, and easily reversed using the recovery discs that come with these machines but there is one very big problem. Most of the cheaper netbooks come with just 2 or 4Gb of system memory. A full install of XP, plus Service Packs and updates etc., comes to around 1.5Gb, which on an entry–level 2Gb model doesn’t leave much room for programs or data files.


The trick is to slim down XP and with a little judicious pruning it’s possible to reduce an XP installation from more than a gigabyte to less than 300Mb. If you really want to go to town you can get it under 200Mb – see also this week’s Top Tip. Without the surplus fat XP runs faster and may even be more stable, though the jury is still out on that one. Like all flavours of XP it can be toppled by flaky third-party software and careless handling so this doesn’t mean an end to lockups and the dreaded Blue Screen of Death... Next week we’ll look at how to put XP on a diet and in subsequent episodes we’ll look at creating an installation disc and installing Windows on your little laptop.


Next Week – Installing XP on Netbook PCs, part 2





A complete Linux package containing the main operating software, a ‘shell’ or desktop program plus a selection of popular applications



Graphical User Interface – pronounced ‘gooey’ -- an operating system’s desktop, icons and menus, the parts you interact with



Secure Data/Multi Media Card – family of non-volatile memory modules, about the size of a postage stamp, used to store and move data between digital cameras, MP3 players etc. and PCs




Windows XP is a general-purpose operating system that runs on a huge range of hardware configurations, from high-performance servers and workstations to basic desktops and laptops so there is plenty of redundancy and components that have no relevance to a netbook. There are also plenty of other things that can be whipped out, such as the massive Help files, support for more than 130 foreign language keyboards, superfluous drivers, the increasingly bloated Windows Media Player, games even Internet Explorer and Outlook Express, which can be easily replaced with smaller and more agile programs like Firefox and Thunderbird. 



Don't forget, there's a full archive of previous Boot Camp Top Tips at



© R. Maybury 2008, 1911

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