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Windows 10 on an old PC: When it comes to specs, how low can you go?

Want Windows 10 on an old PC? Here's a look at some of the oldest machines that should be able to run Microsoft's latest operating system.

The days of Windows being a system hog are gone.

So modest are the requirements for Windows 10, you may be able to run it on machines that shipped with Windows Vista eight years ago.

But just how low can Windows 10 go when it comes to PC specs? Since Microsoft released the OS for testing last year people have been loading Windows 10 onto hardware dating back to 2003 - eons ago on the PC refresh timescale.

Here are the low-end and long-in-the-tooth machines that proved capable of running Windows 10.

Netbooks

Given the abundance of cheap Intel Atom-based netbooks out there, there's a good deal of interest in whether these budget mini-laptops have the chops to handle Windows 10. Interestingly, they do seem to be in with a good shot.

This forum users reports Windows 10 as being "relatively fast" on a HP Mini 110 netbook with a 32-bit 1.66GHz Intel Atom N280 processor and 1GB of memory - comparing the speed to that of the machine running Windows XP. Their success should bode well for other users, given the Mini's specs are similar to many other popular 10-inch netbooks, including: the ASUS Eee PC 1000HE, the Toshiba Mini NB205 and the Lenovo IdeaPad S10-2.

Minimum specs

  • Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster
  • RAM: 1 gigabyte (GB) (32-bit) or 2 GB (64-bit)
  • Free hard disk space: 16 GB
  • Graphics card: Microsoft DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM driver
  • A Microsoft account and Internet access

Caveats

Beyond the speed of processor, you will also need a 32-bit or 64-bit CPU that supports three different processor features - PAE, SSE2 and NX. Windows 8.1 also requires support for these, so if your machine runs Windows 8.1, chances are it'll run Windows 10.

If you're running Windows 7, you can download the Windows 8/8.1 Upgrade Assistant to see if your hardware is up to spec or use the CPU-Z utility to check if your processor supports these features.

Also, the Windows Insider Programme, which will continue after the OS' official release on July 29th, allows anyone to download a Windows 10 build for free to see how it will run on their machine.

Another top selling netbook reportedly capable of running Windows 10 is the Acer Aspire One - model KAV10, upgraded to 2GB - albeit with lag in some apps.

You should expect slowdown on these machines, however, as even with the recommended RAM for 32-bit systems, the HP Mini 110 reportedly started to chug when switching between running applications using Windows 10's task view.

Drop below the recommended memory, 1GB on a 32-bit system and 2GB on a 64-bit system, and you can expect to struggle. A test of an early build of Windows 10 found that a 64-bit system with 512MB of RAM took more than 18 minutes to boot and was too sluggish to use comfortably.

Another gotcha that seems to have caught some netbook users of Windows 10 is the screen resolution. Some Windows Store apps will refuse to run on the devices with low resolutions - such as the original HP Mini 110's 1024 x 576 display. However Windows 10 does support the 1024 x 600 displays found on many netbooks.

Overall there are indications that netbooks based on the Intel Atom N280 platform work better than those using the slightly slower Atom N270.

Basic tablets

If the Microsoft Surface is too expensive for you, then some of the mass market Windows tablets to come out in recent years, such as the Toshiba Encore and Dell Venue, will also reportedly run Windows 10 well, following a few driver tweaks.

Machines from the Windows XP era

Even 12-year-old hardware that meets the minimum specs can be coaxed into running Windows 10, like a desktop packing a 2003 AMD Athlon 64 3200+ processor, an Asus motherboard with onboard graphics and four DDR 256MB memory modules. But while the machine reportedly could handle smooth cursor movements it wasn't exactly usable, taking 41 seconds to open a folder.

How long will the specs stay this low?

The more modest requirements of Windows 10 compared to its forebears may, in part, stem from Microsoft's efforts to optimise core parts of the OS to run on ARM-based tablets and phones.

But how will Windows 10's minimum specs change over time? Microsoft won't be replacing Windows 10 with Windows 11 but will instead gradually upgrade Windows 10 - adding new features via regular updates.

There has been speculation over how rapidly Windows 10 will become more demanding to run as it accrues new features and how soon those running it on machines close to the minimum specs will be forced to upgrade.

Ian Moulster, Windows product manager, said Microsoft's ambition is for the OS to continue to run on as many machines as possible - pointing to the broad base of older machines that can run Windows 10 today.

"The spec requirements even from Windows 7, which was released six years ago, haven't changed much up to Windows 10, so it's not as if it's been getting significantly bigger [over time]. If you've got a Windows 7 machine now it's very likely that it will run Windows 10, and that's had six years of changes."

Have you tried running Windows 10 on an older machine? Let us know how you got on in the comments.

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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