Can Windows 7 resurrect ancient PCs?

Not quite, but the lab digs up some clunkers and finds performance gains over XP, Vista — and Windows 98

There is whispered talk of a savior for old computers, a shining new operating system that can breathe life into systems that are aging or even already sitting in your decommissioned junk pile. The operating system is Windows 7, and although it’s still in beta, reports are that it’s doing everything from healing the sick to turning water into wine. Naturally, the cynical reviewers in the GCN Lab wanted to get to the bottom of those rumors, so we began a project to see where and how Windows 7 would run.

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The first thing we did was get in touch with the developers at Microsoft to see if they were creating the buzz about the program. If they are responsible, they’re doing a great job of hiding it. The official line is that Windows 7 will follow the same specs as Vista. So for an optimal install version with all the bells and whistles, you will need a multicore system with 4G of memory. The low-end installation will require a Pentium 4 CPU with 512M of memory.

So we thought the rumors were quashed. Then a funny thing happened. After the meeting, we were talking with some unnamed sources at Microsoft, and they told us tales of aging laptop PCs suddenly brought back to life by Windows 7. Could the X at the end of the treasure map still hold gold?

“But that bit about bringing old computers back to life isn’t the official company line is it?” we asked.

The only response was a wink and a smile.

We rushed back to the lab, even more intent on finding the answers to this great mystery and proving or debunking the rumors once and for all.

We began our Windows 7 project by gathering as many systems as we could lay our hands on, no matter how old or decrepit. Our normally high-tech evaluation center was temporarily littered with computers whose primary responsibility seemed to be running dBase applications created during the Reagan administration.

It was quite a motley crew. There was a laptop PC whose battery had exploded during testing several years ago; it now ran only when plugged directly into a power source. There were several desktop PCs with missing drive panels that resembled stereotypical pirates with eye patches. And a few systems didn’t even have cases anymore. They were skeletal computers that needed to be vacuumed because of the dust that had accumulated during years of sitting in the storage closet. Their operating systems ranged from Windows 98 to ME to 2000, with a few of the more modern systems running XP.

We dutifully benchmarked each of them with their existing operating systems. Some of them got pitifully low scores on the PassMark PerformanceTest 6.1, but all of them were healthy in the sense that they booted up and were able to run their installed, if ancient, programs. Their scores ranged from a relatively respectable 245 at the high end to the lowest we have ever seen — 10.7. By comparison, earlier this year, we tested a new Dell OptiPlex 960 desktop PC with a 3.33 GHz Core 2 Duo E8600 processor and 4G of RAM running Windows XP Pro, and it scored 1,151. A single-core Pentium 4 desktop running Windows XP would clock in at about 150.

Next we downloaded the latest version of Windows 7 and began loading it onto the test systems. We ran into problems right away because a lot of the old systems didn’t have DVD drives, and the installation process requires booting from a DVD. We fixed that by using an external DVD drive, which was a pain to get installed on systems invented before DVD technology. But it worked.

Then we ran into actual installation problems. Any system running Windows 98 or ME first had to be converted to Windows XP before it could be moved to Windows 7. In those cases, we benchmarked the system again under XP before moving to Windows 7. Our goal was to see which OS managed system resources best.

However, Windows 7 requires that a computer have 512M of RAM. In fact, it won’t install on a system with less than that. So we were already finding some of those miracle stories questionable because an older system probably won’t have that much RAM. We had to take some RAM from the oldest systems to bring the rest up to spec, which eliminated about half our test bed right from the start.

How did Windows 7 perform on the older systems that we did get working? Surprisingly well.

For a laptop PC running Windows XP with a 900 MHz Pentium M chip and 512M of RAM, the benchmark score was 155. Once we upgraded to Windows 7, that score increased to 184 — a significant improvement. In general, the laptop PC seemed to work more efficiently with Windows 7.

On older systems, the performance increase was even more noticeable. On a Pentium II MMX desktop PC running Windows 98, we piled on memory to get it up to 2G. The first benchmark score was an abysmal 56.8. Upgrading to XP didn’t do much: The next score was 68. However, the jump to Windows 7 increased it to 83, and it wasn’t just an improvement in benchmark numbers — programs opened noticeably faster.

On a Pentium 4 desktop PC with 2G of memory, the benchmark under Windows XP was 245. Changing to Vista dropped it down to 230. But when Windows 7 was installed, the computer leapfrogged past where it had been with XP to a final score of 269.

Several years ago, we did similar tests comparing systems running XP and Vista, but we used more modern machines. For those tests, performance universally decreased when we moved from XP to Vista. In some systems, the drop was 10 percent to 12 percent, particularly on laptop PCs. Vista appeared to sacrifice system performance for a lot of pretty bells and whistles. This time around, Microsoft seems to have figured out that most users don’t want that. We pay for performance and want to squeeze out as much of it as possible.

Windows 7 makes use of a tighter footprint than either XP or Vista, but it has retained some of the visual enhancements of Vista. Those of you holding onto your XP operating systems in hope of skipping over Vista and going right to Windows 7 are probably doing the right thing. That approach will help you avoid the bloat of Vista while moving to a more modern and easy-to-use operating system. Your performance shouldn’t take a hit, and it might even get a slight boost, depending on your configuration.

Windows 7 didn’t heal sick and dying systems, but it did help them limp along once we cannibalized their brothers to bring them up to minimal specifications. It’s a victory that performance didn’t drop from XP, which we still consider one of the best operating systems out there. The fact that Windows 7 increased performance slightly across the board is pretty amazing, so perhaps that’s enough of a miracle for most folks trying to keep their systems running. It’s certainly enough to continue to look toward Windows 7 with an expectant, if not hopeful, gaze.

Microsoft, www.microsoft.com/windows7


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