Windows 7: Minimum hardware reality check

Windows 7 has suspiciously low minimum hardware requirements — a 1GHz processor and 1GB of RAM. Would such a lowly PC would be usable? To find out if Microsoft is quoting a realistic minimum for a Windows 7 machine, we installed the latest beta onto a nine-year-old 1GHz PC with 512MB of RAM. Let's see what happens.

The first thing we quickly noticed: This 1GHz Dell Dimension XPS 1000 box, which we thought was phenomenal when it was new back in early 2000, is dog-slow. We also knew from the start that its 32MB Matrox Millenium 400 graphics card wouldn't be able to handle the minimum DirectX 9, resulting in an inability to enjoy that Aero eye candy of Windows 7.

Just how slow is this old dog? Comparing it with a shiny new HP xw8600 workstation with two quad-core Xeon X5492 processors, 16GB of RAM and 64-bit Windows 7, if this 1GHz machine were going any slower, it would be at a halt.

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Check out the unscientific comparisons in the table above, and notice how far computing hardware has come in nine years. To get an idea how your machine stacks up, you can download the free CineBench R10 graphics and processor benchmarks here.

Okay, okay, we get it. This machine is slow. With those strikes against it at the start, we settled back for a long evening of operating system installation. The fresh install took over three hours to accomplish. And even when the OS was securely ensconced in its shabby new home, Windows 7 didn't recognize its old codger graphics card, nor had it ever seen a network card as ancient as that 3Com 90x on board. After a tedious search and installation of legacy drivers for both, the machine was locked and loaded.

So what did it feel like to run Windows 7 on a machine that was even lowlier then the bare minimum? Surprisingly, the battered box browsed web pages in Firefox and Internet Explorer admirably. Even though our RAM was a half-gig below Microsoft's minimum requirement, it could still run a browser without using up all its RAM.

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Take a look at the performance monitor above, and you can see that the machine was keeping up nicely, even when we were browsing websites in Firefox and downloading a Windows 7 update at the same time.

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When that Windows update was downloaded and started to install, it was a different story. We shut down Firefox to let the installation occur unfettered, and then quickly changed our minds, and re-launched Firefox. We could tell we had reached some kind of limit, because Firefox took 82 seconds to launch.

It's not going to break any speed records, but if you're looking to run one or two applications at a time on such a meager machine, and don't mind living without the Aero interface's glassy and shiny edges, or the cool new taskbar previews of Windows 7, Microsoft's 1GHz/1GB requirement is barely realistic.