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5/19/2006
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Windows System Hardware Requirements Since 1990: More Power, Less Bucks

For some added perspective on Windows Vista's minimum hardware specs, here's a look at Microsoft's stated requirements, along with hardware prices, for each major Windows release since 1990's Windows 3.0.

The publication Thursday of Windows Vista's minimum hardware specs is only the last in a long series of requirement postings by Microsoft. To show some perspective, TechWeb compiled the Redmond, Wash. developer's stated reqs for each major Windows release since 1990's Windows 3.0.

Caveat: Microsoft is notorious for understating system requirements to pitch Windows to the greatest number, even when that minimum hardware has difficulty actually running the OS. JupiterResearch analyst Joe Wilcox characterized the habit this way on his blog. "You could run Windows on the minimum requirements, but you wouldn't want to."

As an additional comparison, average prices for desktop computer -- monitor included -- and portable PCs have been noted for all releases except Windows 3.0. (Data provided by IDC.)

While these "average" prices don't spec out systems identical to Microsoft's minimum requirements, they are a good indicator of what users paid for machines to run each OS.

It's easy to notice that as Windows' requirements got steeper, prices plummeted. A desktop able to run Windows XP (and probably at least parts of Vista), for example, costs only 42 percent of the price of a computer likely running Windows 95 eleven years ago. (Today's average notebook costs 45 percent of 1995's.) And that's not even factoring in the rate of inflation.

Here are the major releases for Windows, their release dates, and system requirements. Many of the trivia tidbits were gleaned from Wikipedia.

Windows 3.0 // May 1990

286 or faster processor

640K conventional memory (additional 256K extended memory recommended)

Hard disk drive

Hercules, CGA, EGA, VGA, or 8514/A graphics card (EGA or higher resolution recommended)

MS-DOS 3.1 or later

Mouse optional

[Tidbit: First Windows to be pre-installed on PC hard drives, by Zenith Data Systems and Dell.]

Windows 95 // August 1995

386DX or faster processor (486 recommended)

4MB memory (8MB recommended)

35-55MB hard disk space

3.5-inch high-density floppy disk drive

VGA or higher resolution (256-color SVGA recommended)

Average desktop PC price: $1,926

Average notebook price: $2,819

[Tidbits: 3.5-inch floppy version came on 13 disks; Brian Eno composed the Windows 95 start-up sound.]

Windows NT 4.0 // August 1996

Pentium or faster processor

16MB of memory (32 MB recommended)

110MB hard disk space

CD-ROM drive

VGA or higher-resolution display adapter

Microsoft Mouse or compatible pointing device

Average desktop PC price: $1,988

Average notebook price: $2,997

[Tidbit: Holds the record for most service packs -- 6, plus a post-SP "Roll-up" -- delivered for a Windows OS.]

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