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:
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.