Breathe New Life into Your Old PC — with Windows 7

Linux has long been the preferred operating system for rejuvenating older PCs for three reasons: It's lighter weight than Windows, it's secure enough to let you sidestep CPU-hogging anti-virus programs, and it's free.

Windows 7 may shake up that thinking, being the first version of Windows that, judging from widespread reviews from beta testers, runs faster than the prior one. While the minimum specs Microsoft outlined for Vista were lower than Windows 7's (see breakout box), Vista was so bloated that it ran poorly on many PCs. Think of Windows 7 as Vista after an extended stay at the weight-loss spa -- trim, buffed and Botoxed. Even netbooks can run it.

In the past it usually made little economic sense to reinstall Windows on an older PC, as buying a new retail copy of Windows would often cost more than the PC was worth. But with Windows 7, Microsoft plans to offer a 3-upgrade-license 'family pack' of the Home Premium edition for $150. Based on what Microsoft has already said, users will likely be able to (clean) install Windows 7 on a machine running XP without having to install Vista first.

Also, Windows 7 continues Microsoft's legendary backward compatibility for applications. For instance, I was able to get my 12-year-old copy of Office 97 running on Windows 7 with no hitches.

But just how low can you go with Windows 7? Do you really need a computer with the minimum specs as outlined by Microsoft?

Like lo-fi DJs and classic car enthusiasts, a subculture of Windows fans has sprung up trying to take Windows 7 far lower than Microsoft says it can go. At Windows fan site Neowin.net, testers have claimed success with a 700MHz Pentium III ThinkPad with 256MB of RAM and a 600MHz Pentium III desktop with 512MB of RAM.

At another site, The Windows Club, someone claims to have run Windows 7 on a circa-1997, 266MHz Pentium II with 96MB RAM and a 4MB video card.

While not matching those reports, the following five accounts are from users -- including yours truly -- who have successfully run Windows 7 Ultimate RC on a variety of older and underpowered hardware, from a 7-year-old white-box desktop to a Dell netbook. All the testers weigh in on their Windows 7 experience and provide tips for installing it on low-end systems.

Sprucing Up the Old Work Laptop

Who: Jan Andersen Cornelius, a technology architect in Roskilde, Denmark

What: "Several laptops, including a Dell Latitude D600 and a ThinkPad T60. The oldest was my Asus L3800c that I used [when I was] an independent consultant between June 2002 and April 2004."

Specs (Asus): 1.8GHz Pentium M CPU, 1GB RAM, 160GB hard drive (5,400rpm), ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 on-board graphics

Windows Experience Index (Asus): 1.0

[Note: The Windows Experience Index is a set of 5 scores on a scale of 1.0 (lowest) to 7.9 (highest) that are generated by Windows 7 based on your PC's hardware specs (not how it actually runs). Microsoft bases the overall rating on your hardware's lowest individual score.]

Performance: On the Asus machine, it's "a little bit slower than Windows XP (I'm running both in dual-boot) and Office 2007. It takes a while for everything, including Java, to start up. On my Dell, it is a lot faster than Windows 2000. Same with the ThinkPad when compared to Vista."

Would you recommend Windows 7? "Personally, I would not hesitate to install Windows 7 on any machine built in 2003 and after."

Tip: "Make sure you install the 64-bit version if your hardware supports it. It will be a lot faster."

Resurrecting a 7-Year-Old Desktop

Who: Me

What: Circa-2002 'white-box' desktop bought off Craigslist for $25

Specs: 2.4GHz 'Northwood' Pentium 4 CPU, 1GB PC2100 DRAM, 120GB IDE hard drive (7,200 rpm), ATI Radeon All-in-Wonder 7500 graphics card

Windows Experience Index: 1.0

Performance: Don't be fooled by the CPU's respectable-looking clock speed: This computer is pokier than it looks. There's no hyperthreading to help with running multiple apps, and the secondary memory cache is puny. Its PassMark benchmark score is just 329, barely higher than the Intel Atom N270 CPU (309) used in most netbooks. Also, Windows 7 refused to recognize any of the drivers I tried for my ATI graphics card (I'm using a standard VGA driver instead).

Despite everything going against this machine, high-def YouTube and Hulu videos -- even DVDs -- all played with only a hint of a stutter. Compatibility with XP apps was no problem: My 9-year-old copy of Photoshop 6 and 12-year-old copy of Office 97 both ran great.

Comparison to other OSes: I ran Windows XP Pro on the other partition. Windows 7's performance was nearly as good, even though XP had the big advantage of a working graphics driver. The biggest plus for XP Pro was in startup times: It booted in 1 minute, 25 seconds (1:25), versus 1:52 for Windows 7. But both shut down in about 30 seconds.

Recommend Windows 7? Windows XP Pro still responds more crisply when doing things like navigating menus and opening apps. Windows 7's languid pace reminded me of Mac OS X. But like OS X, Windows 7 is also a lot prettier, excels at automatically handling device drivers (except for ATI's, it seems) and includes Vista features like Media Center, BitLocker encryption and disk utilities such as format and partitioning, without the sluggishness. So I do recommend it.

Tips:

  1. Spring for an add-on graphics card if your computer lacks one (as many older business desktops do). You might have better luck with Nvidia drivers than I did with ATI.

  2. Turn off most Visual Effects, Search Indexing and System Restore (especially if you are already backing up your PC to an external drive or Web service). All are in Control Panel --> System --> Advanced. Windows 7 will be nimbler, and still plenty pretty.

  3. Max out your RAM.

Rejuvenating a Low-End Consumer Notebook

Who: Ryan Rea, a.k.a. Windows blogger 'Volvoshine'. Rea, who resides in Hamburg, Penn., wrote the above-mentioned article and video on Neowin.net.

What: "I've installed Windows 7 on about 50 PCs. My friend's 4-year-old Compaq Presario 2200 was the lowest."

Specs (Compaq): 1.4GHz Celeron M CPU, 512MB RAM, 60GB drive (4,200 rpm), Intel Extreme on-board graphics

Windows Experience Index: Not available (Rea returned the notebook to its owner without recording the score)

Performance: "In absolute terms, this is running smoother and more stably than the XP Home it shipped with. I installed it in less than 24 minutes. Boot-up takes 1:14. There are no driver issues. I couldn't run Aero, but YouTube videos ran fine. Windows Media Center was a big test [that strained the system], but it ran fine, too."

Comparison to other OSes: "I've taken 20 PCs from Vista to Windows 7. The difference is night and day. It feels so much lighter."

Recommend Windows 7? "Yes. Everyone I talk to loves it."

Tip: "Don't try to run five apps at a time."

Refreshing a 2-Year-Old Ultramobile PC (UMPC)

Who: Ivan Golubev, Windows and SQL database administrator

What: "Samsung Q1 ultramobile PC (released in May 2007), which I bought a year ago for business trips. I wasn't the first owner."

Specs: 900MHz 'Dothan' Celeron CPU, 512MB PC3200 RAM, 40GB hard drive (4,200 rpm), Intel 915GMS on-board graphics

Performance: "Windows 7 worked wonderfully on it, very smooth and fast. I ran Office 2007, SQL Management Studio and some administrative tools. The boot-up time was about 50 to 60 seconds, mostly because of the slow hard drive, but wake-up from hibernation worked fast (20 to 30 seconds). To my surprise, Aero worked pretty nice without causing slowdowns. No driver problems, no apps that didn't run."

Windows Experience Index: Not available (Golubev sold the Q1 without recording the score)

Comparison to other OSes: "I had Windows XP Tablet edition on it before, and I must say that Windows 7 looked and worked much better, especially with its touch interface. Windows 7 also ran faster than XP."

Recommend Windows 7? "Yes. It's nicer than Vista, faster than XP -- almost a dream OS."

Tip: "Google 'Windows 7 USB installation' and prepare a 4GB or greater flash drive to install on a UMPC."

Running on a Modern but Underpowered Netbook

Who: Christian Puzder, lawyer-turned-product manager for Thomson Reuters in Eagan, Minn.

What: Dell Inspiron Mini 9 netbook, released Sept. 2008

Specs: 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 CPU (hyperthreaded), 2GB RAM, 8GB solid-state drive, Intel 945 Express graphics chip

Windows Experience Index: 3.5

Performance: "The Mini came with XP, which ran like a dog. It was just horrible. I tried Dell's version of Ubuntu, which I didn't like very much. When I installed the Windows 7 beta, it took less than half an hour. It was dead easy. I remember installing Windows 3.11 and having to load 26 floppy disks.

"I mostly use the Mini to browse the Web, e-mail and use Web apps like Windows Live. Everything runs really well. I am amazed at how well Windows 7 scales down to lower hardware. I'm running full Aero with the Intel chipset. I did have to find and install the Vista drivers since the Win7 beta didn't have them. But there's no ghosting on the screen, no latency."

Would you recommend Windows 7? "I already showed it to a bunch of die-hard Mac people at my company. They went out and bought netbooks, some of them to run Windows 7."

Tips:

  1. "Windows 7 took up 7 out of 8 GB on my SSD. I'd get a larger drive."

  2. "The Mini doesn't have a DVD drive [from which to install Windows 7], so I hooked it up via USB to my Xbox 360's external drive. The Mini saw it straight away in BIOS."

Have your own tale to tell of Windows 7 on low-end hardware? Share it in the reader comments.

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