Why Do All Netbooks Have The Same Specs? Microsoft and ULCPC

This post started as a comment over on jkontherun, where James posted a great hands on report of the new HP Mini Note 1000 netbook. It looks really, really nice – as soon as the 6-cell battery version becomes available, this will probably be the one I buy for my family (I have been a fan of and recommending the Eee PC 1000H, which is still a great netbook – a half dozen people I know have bought one on my recommendation, and they love them).

BTW, I’m posting this on my own blog, instead of on the Intel Software Network blog (where I’ve been writing an ongoing series of posts on “The World of Netbooks”) because it could be seen as a little controversial, and it represents my opinion, and my opinion only, with a healthy dash of speculation. I don’t have any inside knowledge of this topic – all I know is from what I’ve read on the web.

Have you ever wondered why pretty much all the netbooks on the market have essentially the same specifications? A 9 or 10 inch LCD screen at 1024×600, 1GB RAM, the Intel Atom processor, etc. I think I know. It has to do with Microsoft, and something called ULCPC – Ultra Low Cost PC.

Microsoft doesn’t want to keep selling Windows XP. They want to kill it, and sell Vista. Makes business sense. But, these little netbooks don’t meet the minimum specs for Vista.

So, MS grudgingly decided to keep selling an “ULCPC” or “ULPC” edition of XP, but only for systems that don’t exceed the specs they set: no larger than 10″ screen, no more than 1GB RAM, etc. If OEMs make netbooks with beefier specs, MS won’t let them sell them with XP.

I suspect that the 1024×600 screen resolution limit is part of those restrictions, but I can’t find anything documenting that as fact. And I’m seeing contradictions about the limits. For instance, the ULCPC specification states a CPU no faster than 1GHz, but exceptions are made for the 1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU we see is almost all netbooks. Same for the 80GB hard drive limitation – many netbooks have 160GB drives. I imagine that the complete ULCPC specs are known only to Microsoft and netbook OEMs. Someone correct me if I’m wrong. I REALLY had hoped that HP would buck the trend, since the old Mini Note 2133 has a 1280×768 screen, but alas, no.

One could argue that Microsoft is doing something “evil” here, or that they’re only practicing good business. Personally, I think they were blindsided by demand for netbooks, and had to scramble to get some strategy in place that would keep them from being shut out of the game altogether. But it’s a frustrating, arbitrary limitation, and one of the big reasons fanboys like me hold out hope that Apple will make a netbook. I mean, I actually like using XP on my netbook, but I’d like better specs in a netbook than what we’re ever going to see as long as MS gets to dictate their terms. Sure, Linux is an alternative, and a good one, but all the programs I love to use run on either Windows XP or Mac OS X. And if Uncle Bill won’t give me what I want, I can only hope that Uncle Steve will. 🙂

Oh, and raise your hand if you think Windows 7 is going to run better than XP on netbooks? That’s what I thought… 😉


4 thoughts on “Why Do All Netbooks Have The Same Specs? Microsoft and ULCPC

  1. Yeah, there are economies of commonality, or whatever you want to call them, at work. Those 1024×600 LCD panels are plentiful from the portable DVD player market, no doubt. But you’d think at least some of the manufacturers would try to differentiate themselves on a spec or two in a market this crowded. I mean, there are SO many netbooks out there, and they’re SO alike, that the most you can say about one over the other is “it’s a little thinner”, or “its case is glossy”, etc. HP in particular, *downgraded* from a 1280×768 screen in the Mini Note 2133 to the same-as-everyone 1024×600 screen in the Mini Note 1000. Sure, a lot of these machines are just rebranded OEM deals (how many versions of the MSI Wind are floating around?). But now that we’re starting to see the “big boys” like Lenovo, Samsung, Dell, and HP dive in, you’d think there would be more differentiation. Something’s at work preventing that.

  2. I think you’re on to something here, Josh. The question I wonder is: what, if anything, should Intel do? My Moblin knowledge is admittedly weak (matter of fact, if you can suggest someone I could learn from, I’d appreciate it), but is it a step in the right direction here? It seems to me that if we had an OS that was faster, easier to use, -and- offered better hardware features, it would blow everything else away. Oh wait–that’s almost Apple, no? Maybe the real question is, how do you more easily make Mac & Win apps workable on Linux? I was a developer once, but I can’t say I know the barriers there too well…

  3. Could this also be why none of the “netbooks” have optical drives? There are a few ultra-portables of similar size that do have DVD drives but all of them run Vista and cost quite a bit more.

    I put Vista Ultimate on my Aspire One and think it runs just fine. It has enough juice to run a web browser, Office, and Visual Studio… just not all at the same time.

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