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
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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  • damianrobertjones - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    No, you can remove pretty much most of WIndows 7 until it's a shell. The same thing was also available for Windows XP and was/is NOT intended for standard consumers
  • cjb110 - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    Seems like MS needed to spend more time browsing the vLight and nLight forums to see what a true Thin Win would look like. Esp as it sounds like they could have just provided an instruction page on how to recreate ThinWin yourself!

    Also I hope the other thing they gain from this is more granularity in Win 8. Ok by default install the lot, I understand that's probably easiest for most users. However expand the current 'program features' to include as much as possible so that people *can* save disk space and gain memory by removing stuff they don't want.
  • Andrew.a.cunningham - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    Agreed re: Windows 8. Even when they let you "remove" features in Windows 7 (IE, Windows games, etc.), re-adding them doesn't require the installation disk, so you know the files are still lurking on your hard drive somewhere.

    I understand that this is done in the name of simplicity, and with the understanding that high-capacity mechanical hard drives are cheaper than dirt nowadays. But still - back in the 9x days, you could save quite a bit of space by going with a compact/minimal install. Not so anymore.
  • damianrobertjones - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    ? Windows 7 embedded standard (Which this is) does actually provide you with a full (ish) list of options and what to un-install along the way
  • Visual - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    Um.. maybe I am blind or maybe you really skipped the most important detail, the price.
  • DanNeely - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    That's because it's only available to OEM/volume licensing customers; afaik those prices are never widely published.
  • Andrew.a.cunningham - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    MS's volume licensing is a bit convoluted, unsurprisingly - essentially, the people who will get Windows Thin PC already pay a yearly fee for the ability to install any version of Windows on any computer they own. The drawback is that the computer had to have been purchased with some version of Windows on it in the first place - you could install Windows 7 on a computer that came with Windows 98, if you wanted/could, but you can't (legally) install Windows on a computer that came with Linux preinstalled.

    I'm not a huge fan of this practice, since it means that Microsoft is essentially double-dipping and making you buy two Windows licenses for every computer, but the benefit is that you have access to all new OSes and Office versions (and a few other things besides) as they come out, usually without any additional fees on top of what you've already paid (at least for the client software - server software is a bit more complicated). It also lets you keep putting older OSes like XP on computers even after OEMs stop shipping it (provided you can get drivers).
  • Crazymech - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    I think this was a very fun article, on a bit more unique subject, and it makes me wonder about more uses (like for example overclocking records and such), so huzzah for that.

    Tho I'm gonna be a biit whiny and say at some points in the article it could really use a bit more proof reading. Like on the 2nd page about installed/missing programs where Notepad and Wordpad is special enough to be mentioned twice.

    And there are more places in the article with two paragraphs following each other and more or less saying the exact same thing - that's what I expect my local newspaper to do to just fill the column space, it's not needed online.
  • Andrew.a.cunningham - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the suggestions - this thing was written and rewritten and things got moved around a lot as I organized my observations into a coherent piece, so I'm not surprised that there were a few redundancies that crept in. I cleaned some things up a bit.
  • Spivonious - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    This is not meant to be used as a client OS. Can you do some testing with it and maybe compare it to other thin client systems?

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