How To Install Windows 7 On Almost Any NetbookS

Windows 7 is free for now, and works extremely well on netbooks. That said, installing the OS on these tiny laptops—especially low-end models—can be daunting. Here's how to do it, the easy way:

If the Release Candidate is any indication (and it should be), then Windows 7 will be a nice upgrade for any Windows user. The new OS, however, is a huge step up for netbook users. Vista is notoriously poorly suited to netbooks; a buggy resource hog that subjects its users to incessant dialog boxes and requires far too many clicks to perform basic tasks, it's kind of a nightmare to use on a 9-inch laptop with a 1.5-inch trackpad.

Windows XP has been given a boost by netbooks, as its system requirements—more-or-less decided in 2001—are more in line with the specs hardware like the Eee PC and Mini 9. But let's face it: XP is nearly a decade old. Its user experience is trumped by free alternatives like Ubuntu Netbook Remix and Linpus, and it's not at all optimized for solid-state drives—especially cheap ones. This means that on low-end, SSD-based netbooks, it borders on unusable.

Hence, Windows 7. It's noticeably faster than Vista on low-spec machines, properly optimized for netbook hardware, and, most importantly, free (for now). Thing is, installation isn't quite as easy as it is on a regular PC—in fact, it can be a pain in the ass: netbooks don't have DVD drives, which means you've either got to get your hands on an external drive or boot from a USB stick for a clean install. Furthermore, smaller SSDs, like the 8GB units in popular versions of the Dell Mini 9 and Acer Aspire One, make a default installation impossible, or at least impractically tight. Luckily, there are simple methods to deal with both of these problems. Let's get started.

What You'll Need

• A netbook (Minimum 1GB of RAM, 8GB storage space)

• A 4GB or larger USB drive

• A Windows 7 RC Image (details below)

• A Windows XP/Vista PC or a Mac to prepare the flash drive

• For low-end netbooks, lots (and lots) of time

Getting Windows 7

How To Install Windows 7 On Almost Any NetbookS

Downloading Windows 7 is a piece of cake. Just navigate to this page and download the 32-bit version. You'll need to get a free Windows Live ID if you don't already have one, but this takes about two minutes.

Microsoft will then give you your very own Windows 7 License key, valid until June 1st of next year. (Although after March 1st, it'll drive you to the edge of sanity by shutting off every two hours. But that's a different story, and March is a long way off). Microsoft will then offer up your ISO through a nifty little download manager applet, complete with a "resume" function. There are ways to sidestep this, but don't: you'd be surprised how hard it is to keep a single HTTP connection alive for long enough to download a 2.36GB file.

Preparing Your Flash Drive

This is the annoying part, but it's not necessarily that difficult. Here are some guides, by OS (some linked for length):
Windows XP
Windows Vista
• Mac OS X (courtesy of Ubuntu, funnily enough):

1. Open a Terminal (under Utilities)

2. Run diskutil list and determine the device node assigned to your flash media (e.g. /dev/disk2)

3. Run diskutil unmountDisk /dev/diskN (replace N with the disk number from the last command; in the previous example, N would be 2)

4. Execute sudo dd if=/path/to/downloaded.iso of=/dev/diskN bs=1m (replace /path/to/downloaded.iso with the path where the image file is located; for example, ./windows7.iso)

5. Run diskutil eject /dev/diskN and remove your flash media when the command completes (this can take a few hours on slower drives)

As some commenters have pointed out, you can also make a flash drive bootable with utilities like LiveUSB Helper. Once you've done this, you can mount your Windows 7 ISO with a utility like DaemonTools Lite (For Windows) or MountMe (for Mac), and just copy over all the files to your newly-bootable drive.

How To Install Windows 7 On Almost Any NetbookS

Starting Your Install

Ok! Now you've got a bootable flash drive, and you're ready to start installing. It should go without saying, but once you start this process, you'll lose all existing data on your netbook, so you should back up any important files before going through with anything from here forward.

Insert your USB drive and reboot your netbook. As soon as your BIOS screen flashes, you should see instructions for a) changing your netbook's boot order or b) entering its BIOS setup. In the first situation, simply assign the USB drive as the first boot device. In the second, navigate through your BIOS settings until you find a "Default Boot Order" page, and do the same thing there.

From there, you should see the first Windows 7 installation screens. Anyone with a 16GB or larger storage device in their netbook can just follow the instructions until the installation completes, and skip the next step.

If your SSD is smaller than 16GB, or if you just want to save some space, do what they say, but only until the first reboot. After the Windows 7 installer has restarted your computer, you'll need to modify the boot order again. Do not allow installation to continue! Manually change the boot order to prioritize the USB drive again, just as you did at the beginning of the installation.

Compression!

Once the Windows 7 installer has copied most of its system files to your drive, you're going to tighten them up with Windows' trusty old "Compact" command. Here's what you do, as described by Electronic Pulp:

Choose "Repair" at the Windows 7 Setup screen, go to "Command Prompt" and enter the following code:

d: (or whatever drive letter is assigned to your SSD)
cd \windows\system32
compact.exe d:\*.* /c /s /i

And wait. And wait and wait and wait. This can take anywhere from eight hours to two days, so you'll want to set your netbook down in a corner and forget about it for a while. [Note: compressing so many of your system files does have a performance cost, but in day-to-day use, it's negligible]

Once this is done, reboot the netbook again and let it continue the installation as normal. That's it!

All said and done, an 8GB SSD should have nearly 2GB of free space left—not much, but enough to work with. And given that most netbooks come with inbuilt, flush SD expansion slots, and that high-capacity SD cards are extremely affordable, having a small amount of space on your root drive isn't at all prohibitive.

There are other ways to slim down a Windows 7 install—namely by using programs like vLite, which can strip out some of Windows' fat directly from the ISO—but Windows' built-in file compression is the easiest way to squeeze Windows 7 onto your skimpy 8GB SSD.

How To Install Windows 7 On Almost Any NetbookS

Setup and Customization Help
Windows 7 runs fairly well out of the box, but as with any new Windows installation, you're going to need to download some drivers to get things working properly. Vista drivers usually do the trick, but sometimes workarounds are necessary. Thankfully, most popular netbooks have spawned helpful fan forums, many of which have active Windows 7 subforums. Some of the best:

Aspire One
ASUS Eee Pc
Dell Mini
MSI Wind
HP Mini-Note

So there you go! Enjoy your new Windows 7 netbook! Please share your experiences in the comments-your feedback is a huge benefit to our Saturday guides. And of course, have a great weekend!