Aspire One: Installing and Running Windows XP

A few weeks ago, I reviewed the Acer Aspire One notebook, the variant which came with an Acer-modified version of Linpus Linux. This version was locked-down and difficult to modify, so not too long after I installed Ubuntu, and was reasonably pleased – despite the amount of tweaking it took to get it working. A few days ago, however, I realised Linux wouldn’t be ideal for me on my netbook. Due to pragmatic reasons, I’m now running Windows XP.

Ubuntu was running fairly fine on the Aspire One, except for the fact that Firefox – as it turns out – is not really good when it comes to solid state drives. The SSD in the Acer is the bottleneck of the device, so any application that frequently does small write operations to the hard disk can seriously bog down the entire operating system. As it turns out, Firefox does a lot of writes, so it frequently hangs and hick-ups.

The reasons I had to switch to Windows XP are twofold. First, the wireless network on my university uses a lot of weird security fluff and certificates and other crazy stuff that doesn’t work on Linux – even on Windows it’s a major pain to set up, but at least Windows is supported and there’s a comprehensive guide. Mac OS X also works, but it also involves a lot of guess work. I need to be able to walk up to the university’s IT department, and show them my laptop whenever the wireless network doesn’t work. I can’t do that if it’s running Linux. A sad state of affairs at the university where MINIX was born (and which is still home to Andy Tanenbaum), but that’s the way it is.

The second reason has to do with 3G networking. One of the uses of the netbook is to order a 3G USB modem with a monthly subscription (very cheap in The Netherlands, no data limit) so I can visit teh internets whenever and wherever I am. The problem is that these 3G modems are generally quite hard to get to work properly on Linux. Windows and Mac OS X are supported, of course, so the choice to go with Windows XP made sense.

Getting Windows XP installed, however, does not. I do not have an external CD/DVD reader (I’m the world’s worst geek, I collect old, outdated computer peripherals, not new ones that would actually be useful), so I needed to install Windows XP using an USB stick. You’d think that in 2008 this would be trivial, but apparently, it’s not, for some mysterious reason. I like to think it’s that same reason that supposedly explains why Vista’s Mobile Device Center doesn’t sync Windows Mobile devices with Vista’s Contacts, Mail, and Calendar applications.

Creating a bootable Windows XP USB stick is tricky, but not impossible. The surge in popularity of netbooks has created a lot of attention on this subject, meaning there are a lot of guides out there. This one worked for me, but your mileage may vary. Once you’ve booted off the USB stick, be wary when you come to the step where you create and format the system partition, because you have to make sure the system partition is the c: one, or else the system will not boot. This may mean that you need to reboot into the text installation after creating the system partition just to be sure it’s mounted as the c: drive. And yes, it’s not you, it’s still 2008. Be sure to format the partition with fat32, as that greatly improves the speed of the system.

Installation takes a while, but not nearly as much as I thought it would. First boot is quick, and installing all the drivers isn’t a problem either seeing Acer has them all together on their ftp site. The problems begin as soon as you start updating Windows XP. A piece of advice? Slipstream everything onto the USB stick. You really don’t want to find out how long it takes to move from Windows XP SP1 to Windows XP SP3, including all the updates in between and after.

The next step is tweaking XP to perform well. The problem isn’t the processor, the RAM or the video card: it’s the SSD. Tweaking is simple: try and make sure that XP does as little hard disk writing as possible. This means disabling paging, prefetch, and write-caching. On top of that, it really pays off to sift through services.msc and disable any service you don’t need. Big gains can be made by disabling things like the indexing service.

The final step for me, apart from installing some of my favourite programs like Miranda, VLC, WinPatrol, and Chrome, is installing an office suite. The best option is to download something called Tiny Office 2003. It’s a version of Office 2003 that’s completely stripped of stuff you don’t need, and comes in a 70MB installation package. The applications it installs literally load instantly (as in, less than a second!), but of course, this is not exactly legal in a lot of jurisdictions. It is legal in mine, and to make everyone happy, I have a legitimate Office 2003 license, so I’m in the clear.

After all this hard work, you are rewarded with a very fast installation of Windows XP, that actually outperforms Ubuntu in day-to-day tasks. Sleep and wake cycle is faster, it boots faster, applications load faster, and it leaves more memory for applications (with no applications running, over 300MB of the 512MB are free). I never could have imagined Windows XP running better than Linux on this netbook. I have really proven myself wrong.

It was a lot more work than installing and tweaking Ubuntu, but now that I’m done, I’m extremely happy that I did. My netbook is more functional, faster, more responsive, and has less hickups and stutters than while running Linux. I know this is something some of you might not like to hear, but it is a fact for me. Of course, as always, your mileage may very, especially on other types of netbooks with different specifications.


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