Windows 7 is coming. Will your PC be ready? InfoWorld's Windows 7 compatibility calculator, a feature in the free Windows Sentinel PC monitoring tool, will tell you. Note that we've based our Windows 7 compatibility calculator on the October 2008 prerelease version of Windows 7.
It seems like a straightforward question. However, in the aftermath of the Vista debacle, where many systems that were certified as "Vista Capable" proved to be anything but, the process of vetting new Windows-compatible hardware has taken on more complexity.
You simply cannot count on Microsoft to provide an honest assessment of Windows system requirements. And as the "Vista Capable" experience has shown us, Microsoft's vendor partners are no better.
[ Find out more about Windows 7's actual performance and capabilities in InfoWorld's special report. ]
Hence InfoWorld's motivation in developing the Windows 7 Compatibility Testing widget: the need for a truly independent tool that can evaluate a PC's suitability to run the next version of Windows.
By taking marketing, politics, and vendor-speak out of the equation, we're hoping to provide you with an honest assessment of your PC's runtime environment, factoring in hardware configuration, current stress levels, and workload composition.
How to get started
Note: As with all Windows Sentinel widgets, you'll first need to register for your free Windows Sentinel account, which my company (Devil Mountain Software) developed based on years of experience benchmarking system performance for Microsoft and Intel.
Once you've registered, download and install the DMS Clarity Tracker Agent from InfoWorld's Windows Sentinel page and allow it to collect data for a few hours during normal usage periods. Then load the widget and find out if you pass or fail (and if the latter, why).
You can learn more about the process by visiting the Windows Sentinel page at InfoWorld.com.
What the Windows 7 compatibility widget looks for
The widget begins with an analysis of your system's hardware; specifically, the type and speed of your CPU and the amount of installed memory.
As a Vista-derived OS, Windows 7 will no doubt levy the same kind of performance "tax" (high overall CPU utilization spread across a massive thread pool) that hobbled its predecessor. Our tests on the first Windows 7 prerelease version that Microsoft made available in late October 2008 confirms that Windows 7 is very much Vista, with similar requirements. Experience has shown that, to get acceptable performance with Vista, you need at least two CPU cores.
Windows 7 will carry forward this baseline overhead while introducing new workloads (such as a touch interface and Web services) that Microsoft is only beginning to describe publicly.
That's why we've erred on the side of caution by labeling any system with less than two cores -- or with multiple cores running at less than 2GHz -- as incapable of supporting a post-Vista Windows platform. Likewise, given Windows Vista's penchant for consuming large quantities of RAM, we're setting 2GB as the minimum memory configuration for Windows 7.
Next up is an analysis of the current system "stress" levels. Here, the widget examines three key areas of system loading: peak CPU saturation, peak memory pressure, and peak I/O contention. By evaluating a series of weighted contributing factors -- for example, the number of ready threads waiting to execute -- it calculates a compound index for each area and takes an average of those indices to see if the system is already heavily burdened.
An overtaxed PC, no matter how powerful, will have a difficult time supporting a similar workload on top of an even more complex OS base. In other words, if Vista makes your quad-core monster sweat up a storm today, Windows 7 will have it crying for mercy tomorrow.
Finally, the widget takes an in-depth look at the composition of your current workload. The makeup of a Windows PC's workload can vary greatly from user to user. In some cases, a limited number of tasks consume the majority of the available resources, while in others the workload is spread out across many discrete tasks, with each task spawning multiple threads.
The granularity of a workload, when factored against the aforementioned stress levels, helps further qualify a given PC's suitability for running Windows 7 by letting the widget quantify what, if any, workload headroom is available for additional OS overhead.
A first look at Windows 7 compatibility
Please note: The Windows 7 Compatibility Testing widget is meant to be a fun, easy way to get a generalized sense of a system's suitability for running a post-Vista Windows OS. It is by no means comprehensive and should not replace the detailed software testing and evaluation processes that are part of any well-rounded enterprise desktop strategy.
After all, Windows 7 won't ship until early 2010, and we won't know until then what its final requirements are. But the October 2008 Windows 7 prerelease is a highly baked prerelease, and we suspect the final vesion's requirements will not change much. Of course, as we learn more, we'll adjust the widget accordingly.
So remember that some systems that the widget flags as incapable of running Windows 7 might, in fact, be capable of supporting it in a limited context. Likewise, systems that we believe will run Windows 7 just fine may prove to be inadequate, depending on how workload requirements change during the intervening months.
As with any generalized analysis tool, your mileage may vary. Still, enjoy!
Randall C. Kennedy is a contributing editor of the InfoWorld Test Center, and he writes the Enterprise Desktop and Windows Sentinel blogs.