Got a four-year-old Mac? Forget the newest version of OS X

Michael Scalisi, PC World | Thursday, June 11, 2009

Apple’s Snow Leopard will only be supported on Intel CPUs. Got a PC from 2001? Windows 7 just might run on it. I tested a below-spec PC with the latest version of Windows and saw surprising results.

If you have a PC and you want the upcoming Microsoft OS, but don’t want to buy a new computer, Microsoft has your back. The minimum specifications listed on the Windows 7 RC download page are a 1 GHz Processor, 1 GB RAM, and 16GB of free hard disk space. This means if you have a computer that is more than a few years old, you can still get some functionality from the latest OS rolling out of Redmond. Intel hit the 1 GHz processor mark on March 8 2000, which means theoretically Windows 7 could run on computers over 9 years old! Since Microsoft is known for understating their hardware requirements, I grabbed an old PC out of retirement and put it to test.

The PC I chose had an Intel P3 933 MHz processor, 768 MB of RAM, and an 80GB hard disk. My test subject was manufactured in 2001.

Installation was not all breezy. My first attempt stalled when the installer could not find a driver for my DVD drive. I resolved the situation by borrowing a DVD drive from a newer computer. Once Windows installed, I realized that I was stuck using the “Standard VGA Graphics Adapter” driver since Windows did not recognize my Nvidia GEForce 2 MX 200 graphics card. Desperate to use my 20-inch monitor’s native 1600 x 1200 resolution, I installed the XP Nvidia driver since one for Vista is not available (Windows 7 is compatible with Vista drivers).

After a few Blue Screens o’ Death, I reverted back to the built in Standard VGA driver. Thankfully, yet oddly, Windows continued to offer a 1600 x 1200 mode. Obviously using Aero was out of the question, which was to be expected. The last issue I had was that Windows 7 didn’t recognize my 3COM 3C905TX network adaptor (really, Microsoft?!). Rather than hunt down a driver that might work, I threw in an Intel NIC that happened to be within arm’s reach.

With all that behind me, I installed Google Chrome and Office 2007 and prepared to get to work. Frankly, at this point, I was shocked to find my circa-2001 computer running a 2009 operating system. I’m not going to lie and say that the performance was great, but it was, well, surprisingly usable. The time between pressing the power button and having a desktop was a respectable 110 seconds. Within five seconds, I launched Chrome, my go-to browser, and started surfing the Web. Watching videos on YouTube was as choppy as you’d expect, but the rest of my Web browsing experience was decent. I started Word, and had to wait 8 seconds until I was able to start entering text.

To mix things up a bit, I launched Outlook 2007 and configured it for my mail server. Despite the fact that downloading my e-mail ate up an annoyingly high percentage of CPU power, the system remained responsive as I tabbed to other applications.

To test things further, I opened up five tabs in Chrome and one in Internet Explorer 8. I launched Windows Media Player and played a song. I switched between applications and found that, although switching from one window to the next took a couple seconds, it didn’t leave me gnashing me teeth. Opening the task manager, I could see that Windows 7 was only using about 600MB of the 768MB I had installed. It was playing nicely and being respectful of the memory it had available.

All in all, the performance I was getting was better than the experiences I had using computers at internet cafés in developing countries. It was perfectly usable as long as your expectations are appropriately low.

If your computer is as old as mine, you might consider saving your cash and installing a lightweight Linux distribution such as Puppy Linux or DSL (Damn Small Linux). However, if you have a computer that is newer and more capable than my worst-case-scenario tester, I recommend doing a little research to make sure drivers are available for your hardware. If all checks out, your computer is ready to run Windows 7

Michael Scalisi is an IT manager based in Alameda, California.