Review: MS Thin-PC

This is going to be a tricky review. Microsoft’s Thin PC Community Technology Preview is basically Beta software. It is really intended for Sys-Admin’s to play around with as part of the testing program. It is also aimed squarely at the networked thin-client and kiosk deployment of dozens or hundreds of low-spec machines. Which I have to admit disqualifies me on all counts.

However, this CTP is also a banner-carrier for Windows 8 and Windows Embedded (which it combines). So while I won’t go into remote deployment and imaging, I can pass comment on what Thin PC gives you out of the box…

Expressly intended for older hardware, what we should get is a small footprint install and some kind of guaranteed compatibility. Thin-PC is so thin in it’s 1.2Gb installer image, this is always going to be a challenge.

Test Bed
Our test machine thus far is a 1Ghz AMD Athlon, 1Gb RAM, 80Gb disk and 128Mb Leadtek GeForce 8200Ti-based graphics card. This meets Thin-PC minimum specifications.

We’ve covered the installer elsewhere, so let’s see what we get on boot-up.

Firstly, Thin PC doesn’t have a fast boot time. There’s a lot of work with new libraries loading on old hardware. I’m staring at a black screen for a heck of a while. It’s a long wait looking at nothing til the animated splash screen kicks in. That’s fine if it’s never turned off or just boots once a day (preferrable before the users arrive).

Sadly the graphics won’t hold the specified resolution on my graphics card and monitor between re-boots. I have to reset down to 800*600 then back to 1024*768 then the thing displays properly at that resolution. It’s a good enough picture from then on. Colours are bright and contrasty using the standard setup on my flat panel.

It’s an inviting, colorful desktop; uncluttered, as is the start menu and taskbar. What you expect is a functional desktop to allow a user to get on with basic tasks. We have a web browser – internet Explorer 8 and Windows Media Player 11. Notepad and Wordpad (Windows Write are present but nothing further for office productivity. Well, what else do you expect? The accessories present are using the current ribbon UI (Ms-paint and Wordpad).

This is a largely Windows 7-minus image for Windows Embedded so a lot of libraries and services are missing, but you’d expect a lightweight public hot-desking or kiosk machine to have full security, right? Straight away there are some things to note about compatibility.

  • Some programs won’t install for compatibility – MS Security Essentials for one. It doesn’t install at all.
  • Some programs that won’t install for permissions, it seems a deliberate part of the Thin PC setup. For example, the dot-net framework 3.5 service pack 1 won’t install, you’ll get the error: “your system administrator has turned off some windows features”.
    Hang on, when was dot-net a feature? And if I’m not the system administrator, who is? How the heck do you get this stuff loaded? It seems you have to slip-stream certain apps into the image you deploy, in expectation that you’ll regularly wipe and re-deploy the Thin PC image on every client, perhaps as often as every night. Your sys-admins are expected to be experts in the Microsoft way of slip-streaming.

Otherwise Windows Update is solid in keeping the base system up-to-date.

There are certain Windows 7 basics you expect and can’t find:

  • Programs installed but not menu’d such as ms-paint. If you know the .exe name of the program you can find it and run it…
  • Programs not installed for no discernible reason; the snipping tool is AWOL as far as I can make out.
  • Desktop Search; this is a thin client, you’re not supposed to be storing data on it, so there isn’t one. You get no file-system search capability at all. Not sure how this will work on network storage…
  • Control panel is both slimmed down yet still confusing. Trying to find the settings you know are there, well, it’s just not easy or intuitive (my obsession, I know).
  • Action center (was Security Center) keeps popping alerts that Windows Defender needs updating – but Windows defender isn’t installed and you can’t install it.

Device compatibility is patchy. Certain PCI cards are simply not recognised and no amount of updating through internet works. I know they’re old but isn’t this the point? Extend and recycle?

I know this is a technology preview but it is concerning what’s going on under the hood. I really don’t get some of the exclusions from the base image or why Defender and MS Security Essentials are left incompatible, especially when you get dumped into a web-page by Action Center recommending you install third-party security products! It’s sending mixed messages at best. We’ll see how this develops. AJS

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