Last month, Microsoft released a Community Technology Preview (CTP, in essence a public beta) of something called Windows Thin PC. This business-oriented operating system’s given purpose is both to allow older, less-capable PCs take advantage of some of Windows 7’s core features, and to allow cost-conscious organizations the ability to convert existing hardware into thin clients.

Windows Thin PC isn’t actually a new product: it is, more or less, a rebranded version of Windows Embedded Standard 7, an awkwardly named product sold only to OEMs for use in, well, embedded systems: think thin clients, cash registers, and web kiosks, to name a few.

There are two main things that separate Windows Thin PC from Windows Embedded Standard 7: its name (though the Windows Embedded moniker still lingers on in a few places) and its licensing (where Windows Embedded was sold to OEMs only, Windows Thin PC is being made available to Microsoft’s volume licensing customers. Consumers, sadly, can’t get their hands on either OS legally).

While Windows Thin PC isn’t going to be something you deal with unless you work for a thin client-oriented organization heavily invested in Microsoft technology, I wanted to take a close look at the OS to see what techniques it uses to reduce its footprint and resource usage. Windows Thin PC makes a case for a Windows that’s more cloud-friendly and modular than classic fat-client Windows, something that the platform is going to need if Windows needs to run on everything from your monstrous eight-core workstation to your Atom or ARM-powered tablet. 

System Requirements and Features

First, let’s talk about the sort of computer that can run Windows Thin PC. This is no “MinWin”-style OS designed to run using just megabytes, but a very Windows 7-like OS system requirements identical to the standard version of the OS. To wit:

  Windows Thin PC (32-bit) Windows 7 Ultimate (32-bit)
Processor 1 GHz x86 processor 1 GHz x86 processor
RAM 1 GB RAM 1 GB RAM
Hard disk 16 GB available hard disk space 16 GB available hard disk space
Graphics card DirectX 9 card with WDDM 1.0 driver DirectX 9 card with WDDM 1.0 driver

In practice, the OS needs fewer resources than what’s listed here, but you’re still not going to get this running on the Pentium II box stashed in your attic. Windows Thin PC takes up much less hard drive space than Windows 7, as we'll see later, but in terms of CPU and memory usage it's much more similar. This isn't going to somehow make running Windows on an Atom processor any less of a slog.

The benefit to keeping Windows Thin PC so similar to standard Windows is that businesses already heavily invested in a Microsoft backend – Active Directory, local Windows Update servers, Microsoft’s image development and deployment tools, and the like – can use the same technology they already have to setup, lock down, update, and otherwise manage the OS. Thin PC can also take advantage of the full range of Remote Desktop features, up to and including the recent additions made to the client and server in Windows 7/Server 2008 R2 Service Pack 1.

Another Thin PC feature that can help beleaguered system administrators manage their systems is the Enhanced Write Filter (EWF), a technology that can prevent permanent changes from being made to the OS by the end user. Windows Thin PC can, using a RAMdisk and unpartitioned space on the hard disk, store any write operations that the user makes to the drive. So, in essence, if you save a file to the desktop or install a program, it will be written to the EWF volume instead of the main Windows partition. Since records of these extra files are not stored on the main system partition, the user is presented with a clean OS upon rebooting. This keeps the machines easy-to-fix in the event of spyware or virus infection, with the added benefit of discouraging client-end computing and encouraging users to connect to the remote server to get anything done.

Windows Thin PC also offers some business-oriented Windows features included in the higher-end Windows editions, chief among them the Bitlocker Drive Encryption (only otherwise available in the Ultimate and Enterprise editions), the ability to join Active Directory domains, and the ability to both join and host Remote Desktop connections (both features of all editions Professional and higher).

Computers running Windows Thin PC (as opposed to the full version of Windows) don’t require what Microsoft calls a “Virtual Desktop Access” license to access a remote server – this is good news for cash-strapped businesses looking to thin clients to reduce costs, because a VDA license typically costs $100 per device per year.

That’s the OS on paper. Now let’s install it and do some deeper investigation.

Installation and Resource Usage
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  • Bob-o - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    Agreed. I know it wasn't really the focus of the article, but. . . what a pathetic thin client platform. Microsoft, go get some tips from Oracle's Sun Ray. Reply
  • Spivonious - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    Agreed. This seems more like "Windows Lite" than a true thin client OS. We have Wyse thin clients at work and all they do is boot and then connect to a hosted virtual machine. Reply
  • Samus - Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - link

    I don't mean to dig up an old thread, but I wanted to comment on this product AFTER RTM, which was July 2011, 3 months after this article was posted.

    I've installed OSX 10.5.8, 10.6.3, and a variety of Linux distro's on my HP Mini. I decided to give Win7ThinPC a shot. Since the Mini has a pathetic Sandisk uSSD with a 40MB/sec ATA4 (PATA) interface, it is just slightly faster than a Class 10 SDHC card.

    I've run Windows 7 Ultimate 32-bit, which took up ~10GB of the SSD, and it was slow, but usable. Thin PC is faster. Boot times, logon times, suspend/resume, and overall snappyness are improved.

    We're talking an Atom N270 1.6GHz dualcore CPU, which is patheticly slow, around the speed of a Pentium III 800MHz, so web browsing performance is not great, especially with flash content, so Thin PC doesn't help this, but it does reduce SSD access, which is good, because the SSD is slow.

    What I'm getting at, is if you want to run Windows 7 from a MEMORY CARD, this is your best option.

    I successfully embeeded and registered .NET 2.0 and 3.5 into Win7 Thin PC as well in order to run SyncToy and Paint.NET

    Current volume licensing from Provantage and CDW puts this OS at $15/year/PC. Pretty good value if you plan on upgrading in a few years, anyway.
    Reply
  • iwod - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    I am running Windows 7 on my Laptop

    Pentium M, Dothan 1.8Ghz ( That is Single Core )
    1GB DDR Ram
    ATI X600 Gfx

    For 70% of my work load this machine does fine. And i haven't tweaked anything yet. I suspect if it had a super fast SSD plus 4GB memory it would be just as fast as best in class PC in 90% of office situation.
    Reply
  • formulav8 - Saturday, April 30, 2011 - link

    I actually installed Windows 7 - RC1 on a Pentium 3 - 1.13ghz laptop and 512 MB of sdram. Was VERY impressed with how well the response and performance was. Did basic things perfectly fine.

    I've started putting Win 7 Premium on some of the laptops I sell to customers (Mainly Pentium M Banias/Dothan based) and they are working just fine. Some of them can even do Aero (Like the NC6000's which use a Radeon 9600) if I remember corrently. So I am quite impressed overall with Windows 7.

    Jason
    Reply
  • SteelCity1981 - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    Seems like MS is copying RT by doing this. I mean you could make your own stripped down copy of Windows 7 with Se7en Lite. Reply
  • damianrobertjones - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    No, they're not. Windows XP was also available in the samd format. Reply
  • Mugur - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    I can find something usable here. One of my clients is preparing to throw Windows 7 Enterprise/Office 2010 to their old office PCs (1 core Celerons, 1-2 GB RAM, 40-80 GB hdd). They also have POSes currently on XP Pro with the same hardware...

    Also I would like to see this on the netbook crowd, instead of that ugly Starter Edition... But I'm afraid that the price is much higher.

    Some of my coleagues encountered the current or previous Windows Embedded versions and there were quite a few quirks setting it up as a POS... This is probably just the next iteration of it, with a bit of a "cloud/thin PC" marketing flavor. But it has a logic for an App-V/MDV client...
    Reply
  • lwatcdr - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    Windows 7 is actually pretty good at running on old hardware. My wife uses it on her many year old AMD Turon64 powered notebook. I do not remember how old it is but it uses PATA for the hard drive it that tells you anything. If anything you may need more drive space or better yet setup a NAS With roaming profiles. I have even run Windows 7 basic under virtualbox on my macbook with the memory in Virualbox set down to 512m with no problems. It will probably run just fine depending on the clock speed. If they are at least 1Ghz I wouldn't sweat it.
    Of course the idea of a 1+ghz gigabyte of ram system being used for a POS system is really just getting into the level of the surreal.
    Reply
  • haplo602 - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    So basicaly the system is not different from a lightly tuned Win7 ? Ok the missing fonts are maybe the largest problem, but one can still install them later right ?

    I thought it would be a bare windows with terminal services and minimal desktop features. So far for MS effort to generate new revenue from the same box with different label.
    Reply

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