When Windows 7 arrives in a few months, it will be accompanied by new hardware that is just now coming into focus. You might find yourself buying more computers than you expect in the next 6-12 months.

Desktop computers will be the least changed. Intel has already released a powerful new generation of processors, the Core i7 series, which will increasingly make its way into mainstream business and home computers. We’ll buy more memory and the 64-bit version of Windows 7 and bigger monitors, but I don’t otherwise see any big events ahead.

Notebooks and netbooks, though, are about to go through a basic generational shift. This year’s models will look old and tired very, very quickly.

High-end laptops will look like they do today, but Intel will release a mobile Core i7 processor at about the time Windows 7 appears, which will offer the same kind of lightning-like performance paired with power-saving features for extended battery life. (The combination of improved hardware and Windows 7 means that every new notebook/netbook will get miraculous battery life compared to current models.)

Netbooks with 10” screens will be running a new and vastly improved processor from Intel, code-named “Pine Trail” Atom. They’ll be dirt cheap and Windows 7 will run smoothly on them, offering up to date features and security. This year’s netbooks – underpowered systems running Windows XP – will immediately be obsolete and unwanted. It will seem like a no-brainer to pick up one or two.

intelultralightBut then you’ll be distracted by the new category that you don’t know about yet – the “ultra-thin” laptop.

Intel has been working hard to create a new breed of notebook computer: less than an inch thick, with a 13” screen, weighing a couple of pounds less than comparable normal-size notebooks, and all in all, looking incredibly sexy. They should be on the market about the time Windows 7 is released.

Intel’s big presentation about ultra-thin laptops was just a few days ago – here’s an article about it. The ultra-thins will be a thousand dollars or so, quite a premium compared to the prices I expect for netbooks, but the ultra-thins will have the power to be full-fledged computers. A lot of marketing power will go into minimizing the netbooks so you don’t expect too much from them.

There’s a business reason that Microsoft will join Intel in distracting you from the cheap netbooks.

Microsoft wants badly to rule the netbook market with Windows 7, but the low price for netbooks is only possible if the license for Windows 7 is really cheap.

Microsoft can’t drop the license price for all of its Windows 7 editions, though – licenses for Windows are an important part of the reason that Microsoft is a very, very profitable company.

So netbooks will be set up with a cheap Microsoft license to run “Windows 7 Starter,” a stripped-down version with a few things removed so no one is fooled into thinking they’ve gotten the same version as the big computers. At one time the plan was to limit Windows 7 Starter to running only three programs at a time. That was going to be implemented in a way that wouldn’t have been a big deal but the early reaction was fiercely negative and Microsoft backed away quickly. But there will be no mistaking the limits of Windows 7 Starter: in addition to some other missing features, it will not be possible to change the wallpaper on a Windows 7 netbook, which seems like a small thing but will drive people nuts. Especially if Verizon or AT&T choose the wallpaper as part of the deal when we buy a subsidized netbook with a data plan. You might be looking at something very ugly indeed.

Microsoft has been forced to come up with pretty arbitrary lines defining a “netbook” to ensure that its cheap licenses do not spread too widely. It has the motivation to fill the market with netbooks, but it’s even more interested in tempting you to set your sights higher on an ultra-thin notebook running the full version of Windows 7 Home Premium or Business.

Look at that picture of the ultra-thin laptop. Whew. I want one.

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