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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  • Brovane - Thursday, April 28, 2011 - link

    Looking on my tech-net subscription and they are not even making it available to tech-net users. I don't see this being real popular. We are already in full planning and testing to roll out Windows 7 where I work so I don't see many small businesses adopting this. Reply
  • merid14 - Thursday, April 28, 2011 - link

    I agree, where I work we are getting ready to roll out windows 7... on very old hardware lol. This would be a great product if it were already out. However it isn't even finished yet... Reply
  • vol7ron - Saturday, April 30, 2011 - link

    Yeah, I thought almost immediately after Win7 came out, someone was able to get it working on a Pentium II with 64MB of RAM (http://www.osnews.com/story/22707/Windows_7_on_a_P... or 96MB of RAM (http://www.tomshardware.com/news/Windows-7-Pentium...

    Or here's one on the Pentium M 1.6GHz w/ 1GB (http://www.geek.com/articles/chips/setting-up-wind...

    -----

    Granted the performance wasn't evaluated, but if you can get it working on a Pentium M or Pentium 2, going up to a C2D will probably operate fine.
    Reply
  • user777 - Tuesday, May 03, 2011 - link

    That is not really a standalone PC client - it is designed as a part of Microsoft Enterprise VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure):
    http://www.microsoft.com/windows/enterprise/soluti...
    The Windows Embedded 7 Thin Client is actually a product from the line of Windows Embedded Compact 7:
    http://www.microsoft.com/windowsembedded/en-us/eva...
    Windows Embedded Compact 7 is the latest version of Windows CE (available from 1997) and was released in February. It was available for download like RC and evalution version long time before from October 2010:
    http://www.microsoft.com/windowsembedded/en-us/eva...

    BTW there is also even Zero-PC-client (embedded in the Monitor) for solutions based on PCoIP display protocol:
    http://www.teradici.com/pcoip/pcoip-products.php
    Reply
  • DigitalFreak - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    That's because it's still in beta. connect.microsoft.com Reply
  • liveonc - Thursday, April 28, 2011 - link

    A private cloud or just pushing Atoms? It's nice if you can be a N00B & use thin clients. But will anyone want to host this for them if you can trust them? Reply
  • clarkn0va - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    19% less RAM usage? Disabled page file? How is this a thin OS, or a corporate OS when it's already using more resources than the OS that most corporations are using currently, Windows xp?

    I work at a small college. If I want to disable the pagefile and hibernation on our desktops I'll do that in SCCM and be done with it. We have 50+ thin clients and not one of them has hard storage in it--they're PXE-booting from Linux (LTSP) then automatically launching a full-screen RDP session, thanks.

    From what I've read here this one should be rebranded "Windows Null PC". Or maybe "Windows Pork Tallow PC: All the fat, none of the flavour".
    Reply
  • 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

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