Living with the limits of Windows 7 Starter Edition

Living with the limits of Windows 7 Starter Edition

Summary: If you’ve read anything about Windows 7 Starter Edition, your first reaction was probably the same as mine: Is Microsoft nuts? This ultra-cheap edition is intended for use on netbooks, but its biggest restriction sounds like a complete deal-breaker: it only runs three applications at once. I’ve spent the last three weeks running Windows 7 Starter Edition on an ultra-portable PC. Surprisingly, Starter edition works fine, if you're really using your PC as a netbook.


Update: Since I prepared this post, Microsoft has reversed course and announced that it will not impose the three-app limit in Windows 7 Starter.

Note: See an important update at the end of this post. Contrary to some published reports, Internet Explorer does not get special treatment in Windows 7 Starter Edition.

If you’ve read anything about Windows 7 Starter Edition, your first reaction was probably the same as mine: Is Microsoft nuts? This ultra-cheap edition is intended for use on netbooks, but its biggest restriction sounds like a complete deal-breaker: it only runs three applications at once.

But I prefer to form my opinions based on facts, not press releases. So, for the sake of research, I’ve spent the last three weeks running Windows 7 Starter Edition on an ultra-portable Sony notebook. Here’s what I learned.

For starters, that three-app limit isn’t as cut and dried as it sounds. Several people who e-mailed me with questions assumed that the limit means you can only have three windows open at once. Nope. At the moment, in fact, I have 16 separate windows open at once (and multiple tabs within some of those windows as well).

Here’s the proof:

How am I able to get away with this? Well, for starters, you can open as many windows as you want from a single program. So if you want to open 15 tabs in your browser, six images in your photo-editing program, and a couple of instant messenger windows, you can do it. You won't see this warning message until you try to open a fourth program:

In addition, some of the things you’re likely to do every day on a netbook don’t count against the three-app limit at all:

  • Windows Explorer windows don’t count. So you can open as many file folders as you want and even preview the contents of individual files without having any of those processes counted against your limit.
  • Basic Windows tools don’t trigger the limit. You can run a Command Prompt window or open Task Manager even if you already have three programs open.
  • Most Control Panel applets don’t count either. If you need to check your network settings or change to a different power management scheme or install a new Bluetooth device, you can do that anytime, regardless of what else is running.
  • Program installers run without triggering the limit. I just used Internet Explorer to download and install Google Chrome, even with three programs already open. No problem. [Update: Although Microsoft claims installers are exempt from the three-program limit, this appears to be untrue, at least in the beta I looked at. Based on some comments, I just tried to run a dozen or so installers with three programs already open. Each one failed.]
  • Desktop gadgets are free, too. I’ve got the Pandora playback gadget running on the Windows 7 desktop and have no trouble opening three full-featured programs as well.
  • Some system utilities get to bypass the three-app limit. The ClipMate utility, for instance, starts automatically and places itself in the system tray. I was able to pop up its main window and not trigger a too-many-apps warning.
  • Antivirus programs that run as a system service don’t count. I installed Sunbelt Software’s excellent VIPRE antivirus/antispyware suite on this system. The program icon showed up in the system tray and it alerted me several times about potentially suspicious events. I was able to right-click that icon and use its menu to scan the system for viruses and check for updated virus definitions without a problem, even with three programs open. (Trying to open VIPRE’s main program window, however, triggered a warning that I needed to close something else first.)

In short, when I used this system as a netbook, it worked just fine. On a netbook, most of the tasks you’re likely to tackle are going to take place in a browser window anyway. If you use Google Chrome or Firefox or Internet Explorer, you can check your mail using Gmail or Hotmail or Outlook Web Access, build a spreadsheet in Google Docs or Zoho, check Facebook or Windows Live, Twitter to your heart’s content, read your favorite feeds in Google Reader or NewsGator, and Web-surf till you run out of memory. All of those tasks count as only a single program, because they're running within one or more identical processes belonging to your preferred web browser.

If I tried to use this system as a conventional notebook, running multiple Microsoft Office or OpenOffice aps, playing music in iTunes or Windows Media Player, and using third-party IM programs, I would probably be incredibly frustrated with the limitations of Starter Edition. In that scenario I would want to upgrade it to a more powerful version using the Windows 7 Anytime Upgrade feature.

Ultimately, that’s the question that you’ll want to ask before considering Windows 7 Starter Edition as an option: Is this a netbook or a notebook? If the answer is netbook, you might be pleasantly surprised at what this low-powered OS can actually accomplish.

Update 23-Apr: At least two sources have now mistakenly interpreted something in this post to mean that Internet Explorer is exempt from the three-app limit. This is incorrect, as I just confirmed with additional testing. Internet Explorer counts as an application in Windows 7 Starter Edition, in exactly the same way as any other browser. If you have IE8 open, you will be able to open an unlimited number of web pages in IE tabs (just as you can do in Firefox or Chrome), but you will only be able to open two additional applications before you see the error message illustrated above. As I note in this post, you can open Windows Explorer and perform file management tasks without using up one of the three simultaneous applications. But Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer are not the same.

Topics: Windows, Hardware, Microsoft, Mobility, Operating Systems, Software

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  • You are a GENIUS! :-)

    Actually going through a process called "testing and evaluation" - with an actual product no less! Genius!! ;-)

    p.s. more should try it.
    Bruce Lang
    • No, he is a M$ SLAVE!

      Just joking! good article.
      • don't make yourself look stupid

        this is not the place
    • Agree!

      One of the reasons I like Ed's posts. I may no like all of his post sometimes, but I Have little doubt he's giving solid information.
    • Minimal Windows

      Now at last there is a version of Window I can use in a VM to run the one
      last app I have that wont work in OS X or Linux.without having to fork
      out $200 to run one free app - MS Communicator. I already have good
      replacements for everything else.
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  • Shareware style limit

    Still baffles me who would want to buy this, it makes MS look cheapskate and lowers the brand. I think a few people are going to buy this and not know about the 3 app limit (yes there are unscrupulous retail salesmen) until further down the line when they want to run more things and are going to be a little bit miffed. It's a given basic function of an OS that it runs multiple applications. Today's netbooks have the power of top notebooks from 5 years ago and good old Moore's law says they are going to get more powerful so people are going to expect more and want to run more. Careful MS you are giving Apple spin doctors a few bullets with this one
    Alan Smithie
    • Not to mention Linux spin doctors

      Linux pushers will also have some good fodder from this one. From what I read on another site Microsoft is selling XP for $15 per license to defend against Linux getting a nice foot hold on netbooks.
      James A Bailey
      • Yep that too

        and no 3 app limit.
        Alan Smithie
      • Agree

        I agree with you on this one. The purpose is price. If anyone's got time including Ed, please feel free to take a look at my opionated article called Why Windows 7 will win the netbook war at Windows7Center.

        It's really a fair game for everyone because of WAU and no one is forcing you to buy or stay on Starter, it's just an option
      • Which would be anti-competitive and illegal.

        Surely MS wouldn't do something like that would they?
        • Why?

          Microsoft offers an OS to OEM's for %15.

          Several alternatives are available for free.

          The OEM's install the $15 OS and sales take off, leaving devices with the free OS on the shelves. Retailers reorder more devices but only with the $15 OS on them because nobody is buying the devices with the free OS.

          What's wrong with this picture?

          Don't confuse competition with anti-competitive behavior. Remember - Microsoft is still under the vigilant gaze of the DOJ - and has actually just agreed to extend this oversight to make sure that it isn't going to be accused of being dishonest.
          • Maybe

            Someone can explian how being smarter is anticompetitive?
          • What's wrong with this picture is..

            People use what they are used to or can get support for.

            I have installed Ubuntu on customer's laptops because the lost the XP disks, and they hate it.

            To much is different from Windows. They had a hard enough time trying to learn enough about Windows and the apps. Now, they have to start all over? And, who supports Ubuntu? Does Geek Squad? They are the number one go to for support at the consumer level.

            It's simply worth a few more bucks for something familiar to them and can get support for.
      • I wouldn't worry about Linux spin doctors

        Lets face it, the argument for any Linux spin doctor is that MS is still making $15 on a 7 year old OS and that 7 year old OS is beating the pants off of free Linux distros in netbook sales. That ought to keep an quiet. BTW, where is Apple's netbook. That's right, they don't have one.
        • hardware=os?

          Perhaps it would be wise to not slam an OS based on whether it sells well on a particular niche market, eh?
          And Linux? No artificial limits. No spin necessary.
          • Artificial Limits Not Necessary

            Linux doesn't need articial limits. It has very effective natural limits. The open-source mantra often appears to be "good enough." Once something works good enough for the geeks to get it to work it's good enough. There is precious little Linux software that can be installed as easily as Windows software.

            There are some awesome open source projects out there that *obviously* don't believe in "good enough" and it's a shame there aren't more of them. But, until a casual novice user can pick a new piece of hardware or a Linux application to meet a need and successfiully install it, without ending up in "dependency hell", Linux will not, and in fact cannot, topple Microsoft.
          • "Precious little Linux software..."

            "There is precious little Linux software that can be installed as easily as Windows software."

            I'm sorry... but would you care to mention what Linux software you're trying to install? The process for installation is as easy as [or easier than] that of Windows. For most distributions the majority of software you'd like to install is simply found under "Add/Remove" in the "Applications" menu. Hundreds of applications nicely categorized, including detailed descriptions, all searchable. If the application you seek is not included there, you can simply do a quick Google search for it. Download the installer, double-click it, click "OK" a time or two, and it's installed.

            Tell me how that's harder than Windows.