Windows 7 Starter Edition

A while ago Microsoft announced the various different versions of Windows 7 that would be available, including the Starter Edition which would impose a limit of three concurrent applications. At the time I wrote a few words about the number of different editions, and the three application limit.

It appears that Microsoft have seen sense, and removed the three application limit from Windows 7 Starter Edition – largely, it would appear, as a result of pressure from netbook manufacturers. The netbook market has extremely tight margins, so it makes sense that they would want the cheapest version of Windows 7 – but they also didn’t want to sell their customers such an obviously crippled system. As Microsoft is keen to avoid losing this market segment to Linux-based systems, I’m not surprised that they did a U-turn on this particular issue.

So if there’s no longer a limit to the number of concurrent applications, what exactly distinguishes Windows 7 Starter Edition from its siblings? The page I linked to above has the answer: these are the parts of Windows 7 that will be missing if you buy a netbook with the Starter Edition:

  • Aero Glass, meaning you can only use the “Windows Basic” or other opaque themes. It also means you do not get Taskbar Previews or Aero Peek.
  • Personalization features for changing desktop backgrounds, window colors, or sound schemes.
  • The ability to switch between users without having to log off.
  • Multi-monitor support.
  • DVD playback.
  • Windows Media Center for watching recorded TV or other media.
  • Remote Media Streaming for streaming your music, videos, and recorded TV from your home computer.
  • Domain support for business customers.
  • XP Mode for those that want the ability to run older Windows XP programs on Windows 7.


That’s quite a list! Let’s see how that compares to buying a netbook with Linux on instead – something like a Dell Mini with Ubuntu:

  • Aero Glass, meaning you can only use the “Windows Basic” or other opaque themes. It also means you do not get Taskbar Previews or Aero Peek.

Ubuntu includes “compiz fusion” – a technology which enables translucent windows, taskbar previews and a whole lot more. Check out some of the videos on Youtube to see what it’s capable of.


  • Personalization features for changing desktop backgrounds, window colors, or sound schemes.

No such limitation in Ubuntu. In fact the personalisation features go much further than Windows, with a whole host of window decorations and icon sets available for download.


  • The ability to switch between users without having to log off.

I don’t think this is a big deal on a netbook, as it’s not common for such a device to be shared in the same way that the family PC might be. That said, Ubuntu doesn’t impose such a restriction, so you can switch users at will.


  • Multi-monitor support.

This seems an odd omission, given that most netbooks have an external monitor port. I’ve already used my Mini 9 to give a presentation (using OpenOffice.org) via an external projector, rather than lug a larger, heavier notebook to the conference room. Again, not an inherent limitation in Ubuntu.


  • DVD playback.

Netbooks don’t have built-in DVD drives, so this isn’t too big an issue. It is possible to plug an external drive in via USB, though. Most people will probably never notice this omission, but it’s still nice to have the option. It’s not clear whether this just means that Windows Media Player won’t play DVDs, or if there’s some lower-level restriction that will prevent third-party applications from filling this gap.

Ubuntu can play DVDs, but licensing issues prevent it from shipping the necessary support by default. It’s fairly easy to add, and the process is documented on the official Ubuntu documentation site.


  • Windows Media Center for watching recorded TV or other media.

There are various Linux programs that perform a similar task to Windows Media Center – such as XBMC or MythTV. They don’t ship by default with the stock Ubuntu builds, but can easily be added afterwards.


  • Remote Media Streaming for streaming your music, videos, and recorded TV from your home computer.

This is a similar answer to the one above – MythTV, for example, comes in separate back-end and front-end parts, so you can run the back-end on one machine, and access it via the front-end on another. There are also file servers, web servers and remote access tools that can all be used for this sort of purpose.


  • Domain support for business customers.

The stock answer to this is SAMBA – an implementation of various Windows networking and filesharing protocols that runs on a Linux box. It’s not perfect, and often requires some technical skill to set up, but it is available as an option, even on the lowliest netbook.


  • XP Mode for those that want the ability to run older Windows XP programs on Windows 7.

This is actually just a copy of Windows XP running in a virtual machine. With a suitably licensed XP installation, this can be achieved on Ubuntu using VMWare, VirtualBox, Parallels, KVM or XEN (and probably some virtualisation products I haven’t mentioned).

Without a suitable XP license, you could always try running your application under WINE – a bit of software which lets some Windows applications run in a Linux environment.



Okay, so it’s easy to pick at a list of limitations with counterpoints to prove that some alternative product is better. I could just as easily produce a list of Ubuntu’s limitations with counterpoints to show that Windows is better.

The difference is that any limitations in Ubuntu aren’t arbitrary restrictions put in place purely to create a different class of product. There’s no technical reason why Microsoft has to limit the functionality in Windows 7 Starter Edition – it’s purely a commercial choice designed to maximise profits. I’ll stick with my fully functional and un-limited OS, thanks.

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