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Windows 7: A desktop user's take

New features and attention to detail atone for Vista's mistakes
— 3:07 PM on August 26, 2009

In two short months, Microsoft will release a new operating system, and Vista will fade from pre-built PCs and retail shelves like an unhappy memory. Windows 7 has already gotten an inordinate amount of exposure, with two public test releases and mass coverage in the tech press. When it comes out, it will supplant not just Vista on desktops, notebooks, and media-center PCs, but also Windows XP on netbooks—and, quite possibly, on the machines of enthusiasts who've so far refused to switch.

Since everyone is so excited, we decided to take Windows 7 for a prolonged spin. Specifically, I installed the final, release-to-manufacturing version of the OS on my primary desktop computer and used it for around three weeks, jotting down notes as I went along. What follows is not a complete overview with benchmarks of the new OS, but a look at what features make Windows 7 worth the switch on the desktop in particular and how well they work.

We'll also be looking at the various editions of Windows 7 and giving you pointers on which one to pick up. Let the experiment begin!

Windows 6.1
Microsoft may have settled on the Windows 7 name for this release, but popping open the command prompt or checking the "About Windows" dialog reveals a different version number: 6.1.

Version numbers may have disappeared from Windows product boxes after NT 4, but Microsoft has continued to use them internally. Windows 2000 was almost called Windows NT 5.0, while Windows XP was really version 5.1, and Vista was version 6.0.

I'm pointing this out because it really highlights where Windows 7 stands compared to its predecessor. Despite all of the negative press it garnered, Vista incorporated a slew of major changes, both cosmetic and under the hood. Those included the new Aero interface, User Access Control, instant search, and the sidebar, of course, but Microsoft also introduced the Windows Display Driver Model and DirectX 10, vastly improved I/O prioritization and memory caching (see: SuperFetch), a new networking stack, enhanced power-management functionality, and much, much more.

Paradoxically, Microsoft's decision to take such a leap forward greatly contributed to Vista's cold reception. Many of us remember our first brushes with immature graphics drivers, absent printer drivers, and malfunctioning legacy applications—all direct results of those radical changes. That situation was hard to avoid after a five-year gap between Windows client releases, mind you. Microsoft had a lot of catching up to do, and third-party developers seemed to have gotten a tad complacent.

As evidenced by its actual version number, Windows 7 is nowhere near as big an upgrade. Sure, there's the revamped taskbar, DirectX 11, new additions here and there, and a generous dose of polish, but the underlying foundation hasn't changed very much. Heck, Windows 7 could almost be called Windows Vista SE. Users should therefore enjoy better backward-compatibility with the previous release (for the most part, at least; we'll get into that in a little while) as well as a gentler learning curve.

In a way, the transition from Vista to Windows 7 is a lot like what Mac users have been seeing for the past few years: evolutionary upgrades that come out not too long after one another and improve the user experience without shattering compatibility. What a refreshing change of pace after Vista and XP—both earth-shaking, compatibility-destroying transitions over the client releases that preceded them.

With that out of the way, let's take a look at Windows 7's major new features and see if they live up to the hype.