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!
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 applicationsall 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 XPboth 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.
The new taskbar
Despite being more evolutionary than revolutionary, Windows 7 does bring about one very radical change to the user experience: the new taskbar. After 14 years of maintaining and refining the same concept, Microsoft apparently chose to throw caution to the wind and shake things up.
Now, rather than listing window names, the taskbar shows application icons. If an app only has a single window tied to it, then clicking the icon will switch to that window, just as you’d expect. With more than one window, clicking the app icon will show thumbnails for all windows belonging to the app. Think of it as taskbar grouping on steroids; instead of waiting until the taskbar fills up, Windows defaults to the grouping behavior, and it doesn’t show window titles until you get to the thumbnail part. You can even close a window without switching to it by either middle-clicking on the thumbnail or hitting the little X at the top right.
There’s more. Microsoft has effectively merged the old QuickLaunch area with the main taskbar, so you can now “pin” your application shortcuts on there. When you click on a shortcut, the icon becomes highlighted and starts behaving like a regular window group. You can also re-order pinned shortcuts and window groups as you please. At last! Those of us with mild OCD no longer have to close and re-open apps obsessively to get them in the right order.
I should probably talk about jump lists, too, even though only software included with Windows 7 seems to use them right now. Right-clicking on the icon for, say, Windows Explorer now presents you with a list of “pinned” locations. Other apps might show recent locations and common tasks, sort of like a mystery treasure chest of menu items. Third-party apps will probably start using these sooner or later, but for now, right-clicking an icon will generally present you with only three options: open the app, un-pin it from the taskbar, or close its windows.
Over on the right lies the new system tray. It looks a lot like the old system tray, except third-party icons stay hidden by default. To unhide them, click the little arrow menu and drag them into the taskbar. Clicking “customize” will let you set specific behaviors, like if you want the Bonzai Buddy icon to show up for notifications but hide the rest of the time. This is definitely an interesting solution to the almost grotesque tray-icon overuse in modern Windows applications. Combined with the other taskbar changes, this new behavior will hopefully force developers to make more spartan use of the tray, which should make using a new pre-built PC (or troubleshooting grandma’s computer) a more enjoyable experience.
Until developers change their thinking, though, you may end up with some strange redundancy between the tray and taskbar icons. Let’s take Valve’s Steam as an example. It always shows a tray icon, even with the main window closed. When that window is open, however, your taskbar may present you with two Steam iconsa big one on the left for the Steam window group, and a small one on the right for the application. Awkward. Even more awkward, if you have Steam pinned to your taskbar, closing the main window causes the big icon to lose its highlight. By all rights, you’d think the application was closed. But no, it’s still sitting there in the tray.
The right thing would be to use the big icon for everything, obviously, but I believe the redundancy also showcases a general issue with the new taskbar. You see, Windows has a window-centric user interface by design. The old taskbar reflected that by showing an entry for each window and clearly identifying window clusters. The new taskbar shows application icons, a practice taken straight out of the Mac OS X playbookexcept OS X has more of an application-centric interface, and those icons in the Dock really do represent apps. Windows 7’s taskbar icons represent both app-launching shortcuts and window groups, which sort of melds the two design philosophies in a strange and potentially confusing way.
From a productivity standpoint, the Windows 7 taskbar has its ups and downs. You can now cram way more icons in there, so you shouldn’t run out of space unless you’re some sort of multitasking maniac. However, switching between windowsthe whole point of the taskbarnow involves an extra step in certain cases. The Pidgin instant-messaging client, for instance, shows both a buddy list and a conversation window. Switching from a web browser to the conversation window involves clicking Pidgin’s taskbar icon once (or hovering over it) to bring up the window thumbnails, picking out the thumbnail that corresponds to the conversation window, and clicking on it. That extra step can be frustrating when you need to switch back and forth a lot.
Thankfully, old-school types can disable the new grouping behavior and set the taskbar to display small icons, yielding something similar (but not identical) to the old Vista taskbar. You’ll still get thumbnails if you hover, and grouping still goes on, so new windows don’t always show up at the far right. Also, pinned icons will now show up amidst your windows.
I have mixed feelings about the new taskbar. As one of those folks who used a two-row taskbar in Vista, I can definitely appreciate the grouping. Before, I’d often keep opening windows for the same directory, forgetting I already had one or two open in the background. Windows 7 not only prevents that, but it leaves room for more window groups, and it lets you launch commonly used programs with a single click. I also love the ability to re-order icons, both in the main area and in the tray, and the fact that you can middle-click the taskbar icon to open a new instance or window of an already-running program.
With all of those improvements in mind, the two-time switching behavior (click the icon, click the thumbnail) still bugs me sometimes, and the thumbnails can make switching between similar-looking windows confusing. I really wish Microsoft provided an option to make icons truly represent applications, so you could either click to open all of an app’s windows or right-click to get a thumbnail view and pick a specific one.
Windows Explorer and Libraries
Microsoft’s humble file manager hasn’t gotten a complete top-to-bottom revamp like the taskbar, but it still dons a fresh coat of paint. The side pane no longer contains only “favorite links” above a collapsible tree view, and Windows no longer distinguishes between “exploring” and navigating. What I mean is that, in Vista, opening a folder in a new window involves bringing up the contextual menu and choosing “Explore,” which invariably gives you a window with an open directory tree on the left. In Windows 7, the “Explore” contextual menu item has given way to “Open in new window,” which just opens a new darned window with the same format as the old one. Was that really so hard?
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Microsoft product without at least one little step back. Here, the Windows team has gotten rid of column headers outside of the details view, so changing a directory’s sorting mode will usually involve a trip through the contextual menuno more sorting by date by clicking the column header in icon or tile view. Taking out the headers does save a few vertical pixels, though. Perhaps that’s better for cramped laptop and netbook displays.
Speaking of folder view modes, Windows 7 adds a new one called Contenta bit of a hybrid between the tiles and details views, where you can see small-ish thumbnails on the left and a stack of information about the file, like its creation date, size, dimension (for images), and tags, on the right. A thin horizontal line separates each entry. This view comes in especially handy when you do a search, because it displays excerpts from text files.
Oh, and Microsoft has thrown in a preview pane, which you can toggle on and off with a button in the toolbar. That pane lets you take a quick peek at a text file, image, video clip, or a song’s album art without opening itvery OS X, and very handy if you’re sifting through photos or text files.
I could go on about the new Explorer’s little improvements, but one major new feature deserves our attention: Libraries. Where Vista turned the old My Documents directory into Documents, Windows 7 reinstates My Documents along with My Music, My Pictures, and My Videos. Except you’ll rarely have to deal with those directly.
Rather, Windows Explorer now includes a brand-new Libraries section with links to Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos. Clicking one of those will show you the contents of the matching “My …” directory in your user folder, but you’re free to tie more directories to it or make your own Library from scratch. In this way, Explorer lets you access multiple folders spanning a single category of content in a single location.
These meta-folders are a godsend when you’re dealing with media, because if you’re like me, you have multiple directories filled with music and images scattered all over your hard drives. Best of all, Windows 7’s backup feature safeguards all of your libraries by default, so you almost don’t have to think about where you actually store your files.
I like libraries, but here, too, I have one small complaint. When sorting a regular directory by date in descending order, individual files show up first, chronologically, followed by subdirectories, also chronologically. Windows XP and Windows Vista work in that way, too. But in Libraries, sorting by date in folder view will always display directories firstand as far as I can tell, Microsoft doesn’t provide a way to revert to the more common behavior.
You don’t have to constrain yourself to boring old folder view, of course. With photos, for example, it’s possible to sort a whole library by day or month, which will pool all images together and display them in chronological order. How cool is that? Too bad Windows 7 still has no native support for RAW images, unlike Mac OS X.
The new window-management features
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Aero looks way better than Luna. Sorry, XP fans, but that’s just the way it isI’ll take sleek semi-transparent glass over cartoonish blue widgets any day. In Vista, though, Aero didn’t do much besides looking pretty. Oh, sure, you got live window thumbnails and that semi-pointless Flip 3D feature, but folks running the Basic interface weren’t missing out on much other than eye candy.
Things have changed in Windows 7. The new Aero Peek feature lets you, well, peek at either a single window or the desktop by turning other windows into translucent glass outlinesand you can’t use it unless you have at least Windows 7 Home Premium and reasonably modern graphics hardware. Too bad for netbook users, most of whom will likely end up with Windows 7 Starter.
Remember what I said about taskbar thumbnails for similar-looking windows being hard to tell apart? Aero Peek can help with that, because it skips the middle man and just shows the window in its natural habitat. The same feature kicks into action when you Alt-Tabwait a second or two, and only the window you’ve highlighted becomes visible. For a bizarro version of Exposé, just hit control-alt-tab, take your hand off the keyboard, and skim through your window collection with the mouse.
With Gadgets having migrated from the sidebar to the desktop in Windows 7, you’ll want a way to glance at the desktop quickly without minimizing everything. That’s what the embossed rectangle at the far right of the taskbar does. Leave your cursor hovering over it, and Aero Peek does its thing, turning all open windows to glass. Click the rectangle, and all windows get minimized instantly, like with the old “Show the desktop” Quick Launch shortcut. If you happen to have a second monitor at your right, however, get ready to practice your mousing accuracy, because you’re gonna be missing the little rectangle a lot. Trust me on that.
I like the idea behind Aero Peek, and I’ve already used it a few times to check if any new messages popped into my inbox. More often than not, though, this feature kicks in uninvited. When my mouse ventures too far up north when choosing taskbar thumbnails, for instance, or when I take slightly too long to alt-tab, all my windows disappear in an unsettling way. Well, I probably just need to get used to it.
Windows 7 includes two other new Aero-branded features, Aero Shake and Aero Snap, although neither is exclusive to the Aero interface. In fact, both will work fine even if you decide to take a trip down memory lane and switch to the Windows Classic theme. Ah, good old Windows 2000.
Aero Shake is another play on the old “show desktop” shortcut. Just grab hold of a window, shake it all around, and poof! Other windows behind it vanish. To bring them back up, shake the same window again. As with “show desktop,” however, if you happen to open another window after the first maneuver, then you’ll have to restore minimized windows one by one. I guess Microsoft is being consistent here, at least.
Aero Snap is much cooler. Drag a window to the left or right edge of your screen, and a translucent glass frame spanning half of your desktop will appear. Let go of the mouse button, and your window will adopt that same shape. If you want another window to take up the other half of the screen, just drag it to the opposite edge. Anyone who’s ever had to compare or shuffle data between two documents should understand the appeal here.
You can use a similar procedure to maximize a windowjust drag it to the top of the screen. To restore any snapped or maximized window to its former size, simply drag the title bar away from the edge. Easy.
Finally, to make a window span all available vertical space, simply move your mouse to its top or bottom edge (where your cursor turns into a pair of arrows), then either drag or double-click. Users of dual-monitor setups will probably use this method the most, because the drag-to-the-sides vertical snap only applies to the very edges of the desktop. As far as Windows is concerned, if you’re stretching your workspace across two displays, the display edges in between don’t count.
Oh, and Flip 3D is still pointless. Seriously. It still doesn’t show more than 10 windows in a row, and it still obscures the shape (not to mention most of the surface area) of individual windows, making them harder to identify. Can’t Microsoft stop beating around the bush and clone Exposé already?
Many of us use Windows File Sharing at home, but that’s usually in spite of, rather than thanks to, Windows. Microsoft’s operating systems just seem to have a mind of their own when it comes to file sharing, especially when you’re trying to hook up different PCs running different versions of Windows. Headaches ahoy.
The Windows team aimed to take much of the complexity out of consumer file sharing with HomeGroups, which you could also call “My First Windows File and Printer Sharing,” if you were that kind of person.
Windows 7 prompts you to create a HomeGroup right after the installation, and it offers to share default librariespictures, music, videos, and documentsas well as printers. (Shares are read-only by default, naturally.) The setup wizard then spits out a randomly generated password, which it encourages you to print out. If you lose it, you can go back and view the password anytime through the control panel.
The thinking here is that you can give out the password to other users in your household, and they can join your HomeGroup by simply opening a Windows Explorer window, clicking the HomeGroup link in the left pane, and entering that password. Everyone in the HomeGroup can see each others’ shared libraries by default, and Windows 7 provides a convenient “Share with” contextual menu to restrict certain libraries to certain usersor unshare some libraries and directories altogether.
Another nice touch: Windows Media Player 12 lets you browse and search inside the HomeGroup, so enjoying somebody else’s music or video collections involves hardly any work. In a nutshell, the HomeGroup feature lets you pool together media from your entire householdmuch to the dismay of the MPAA and RIAA, we expect.
Not everything is rosy in HomeGroup land, though. For one, the feature just doesn’t work with older Windows versions or other operating systems. Unless you spring for Windows 7 licenses for the whole family, chances are you’ll need to juggle between HomeGroups and old-fashioned Windows file sharing. And that, my friends, is where things get hairy.
HomeGroups tie in with Windows File Sharing in odd and slightly schizophrenic ways. For instance, sharing libraries has the effect of making your computer’s entire Users directory accessible through the conventional file-sharing interface. That would be great, except your User directory also contains all of your configuration files, and any knowledgeable user can just dig in and copy your e-mail, browser bookmarks, saved passwords, and so on.
To make matters worse, Microsoft has inexplicably gotten rid of the little “people” icon that identified shared directories, so you can’t even tell which directories are shared unless you click on them and look at the details pane. That pane isn’t even completely reliable, because it doesn’t seem to identify directories shared through the “Advanced Sharing…” interface as actually shared. Worse yet, your user directory always has a little padlock icon on itthe same one as in the “Share with nobody” menu itemeven when it’s actually shared.
As far as I can tell, the only way to get a clear overview of shared directories is to go through the Computer Management console. However, Microsoft hasn’t upgraded that console for HomeGroups, so it won’t show you any shared libraries. Yeah, “slightly schizophrenic” doesn’t even do that justice.
I’ve run into a number of other little snags (like how un-sharing directories on my auxiliary storage drive mysteriously adorns the icon with a padlock), but let me just stop here and give you my advice: if you’re in an all-Windows 7 environment, then by all means, give HomeGroups a shot. You’ll probably like them. Otherwise, just stick with the old-school file-sharing scheme and save yourself the additional headaches.
Windows Media Player 12
If you’re like me, you’ll feel the urge to install an all-purpose video player like VLC or Media Player Classic, QuickTime, and perhaps a codec pack after upgrading to Windows 7. Doing all that made plenty of sense with Vista and XP. Windows Media Player certainly didn’t work with everything, and the user interface was, well, not for everybody.
Windows Media Player 12 is a different animal. It’ll eat up XviD and QuickTime videos without batting an eye, and the new user interface is as simplistic as it gets: a plain window frame, and a set of rudimentary controls that pop up after a mouse sweep. Clearly, Microsoft sought to make WMP12 play as much content as possible while getting in the way as little as possible, and it’s done a pretty fine job of it.
Of course, you might still need to install VLCWMP12 doesn’t jive with funky video container formats (like MKV and OGG) or weird proprietary ones (like RealMedia). Still, there’s something awfully nice about being able to play the latest high-def Rage trailer in all of its hardware-accelerated H.264 glory without having to deal with QuickTime. Too bad the latest WMP video plug-in doesn’t work with Apple’s trailer site. But hey, baby steps.
WMP12 will play your music, too, but I just can’t bring myself to care all that much. Folks with iPods will probably want to use iTunes. Shut-ins like myself will be content with something like foobar2000, which is much more customizable and very lightweight. As for users of Microsoft’s own Zune media players, they’ll still have to use the Zune player software to purchase music and copy it to the device. WMP looks plenty capable, though, and I’m sure it’ll satisfy users who don’t fit into those categories.
I haven’t been able to test this feature fully because none of my cameras, music players, printers, or phones support it yet. We’re admittedly a little ways away from the official Windows 7 release, so that situation may change by October 22. I hope it does, too, because the concept seems pretty snazzy: a central location that regroups all of your external devices, from printers to cell phones, in a single, easily accessible location.
Unlike the Device Manager, which is pretty much guaranteed to confuse grandma, Device Stage is supposed to present you with big, friendly icons as well as lists of common tasks and information for each device. Plugging in a supported music player or camera should make an icon pop up right in the taskbar, and you should even be able to use the jump-lists feature with it.
Also, don’t tell anyone, but while talking with Nvidia a couple months ago, I got the impression that Device Stage profiles for certain handheld media players will let you transcode videos using the GPU via DirectX 11 Compute Shader. Think Badaboom or Avivo Video Converter, except automated, seamless, and not tied to a particular brand of graphics processor.
For the time being, though, Windows 7’s new Devices and Printers control panel serves as little more than a glorified replacement for the Printers control panel from Vista. At least my Canon Pixma iP4200 is now kicking it with “USB RECEIVER,” “HP LP2475w Wide LCD Monitor,” and “VX2025wm.”
I suppose a Windows 7 review like this one ought to include something about DirectX 11, but I’m drawing a blank. Truth is, graphics hardware makers seem to be hyping up DX11 a lot more than Microsoft. Don’t believe me? Try searching for “DirectX 11” on the official Windows 7 site. Yep.
We already know a fair amount about hardware designed for the new programming interface, of course. AMD has shown the new tessellation and general-purpose computing features in action (the latter both inside and outside of games), and we’ve read that DX11 will also make it easier for games tap into multiple processor cores. If developers use it to its full potential, DirectX 11 should give us better-looking 3D models and environments, smarter artificial intelligence, more realistic physics, and so forth.
That said, unlike DirectX 10, this new DirectX release should be backward-compatible with Vista, so you may not even need to change operating systems for it. Some DX11 features will even work happily on current-generation graphics processors. At least, that’s assuming developers harness those features when developing PC versions of their gamescurrent-gen consoles don’t offer the same functionality.
For those reasons, I don’t see DX11 as much of a reason to get excited about Windows 7 in particular. Not yet, anyway. The DirectX Compute Shader stuff is definitely neat, though, especially if it does get integrated with Device Stage as we talked about earlier.
Polish and general improvements
We’re already four pages of words and screenshots in, but one might say we’ve only just scratched the surface. Operating systems are pretty complex animals, and we could probably fill a whole book with some of the more minor or less-obvious improvements Windows 7 brings to the table. We can sum up a few of those in a slightly more concise way, though.
First among Windows 7’s less immediately obvious enhancements, Microsoft touts improved performance and a smaller memory footprint compared to Vista. We may run some benchmarks in the future to put that claim to the test, but from a seat-of-the-pants perspective, I’d say the new OS really does feel snappier. Searches happen quicker, control panels (like “Uninstall or change a program”) load up faster, and digging through large folders feels smoother. Vista isn’t anywhere near as sluggish as some claim, of course, and much of its purportedly excessive memory usage is due to SuperFetch, but Windows 7 still feels like an improvement.
Users with Core i7 systems should see tangible performance improvements, too, thanks to SMT Parking. Microsoft and Intel collaborated on that feature to improve Windows’ behavior with multi-core, multithreaded CPUs. Now, applications should no longer attempt to run two threads on one core when another core is idle.
Users and pundits alike gave Vista grief for its hyperactive User Account Control scheme, as well. I’ve long maintained that the feature does much more good than harm. The overzealous prompts still annoyed me from time to time, though, and I know they’ve led some people to disable UAC altogether.
Instead of a basic on-off switch, Windows 7 lets you choose UAC’s level of zeal with a nice, user-friendly slider spanning four different notches. The top one ought to emulate Vista’s behavior, while the default setting is one notch down, and it’ll tell UAC not to bug you unless a program tries to change your system. Notch number three will do the same minus the screen dimming, and notch number four corresponds to the “off” setting in Vista. The default seems good enough to meeffective, yet discreet enough to stay out of a power user’s way.
Microsoft has gone and cleaned up old nooks and crannies, too, including little bundled apps like WordPad and Paint. Both don fresh new interfaces clearly inspired by Office 2007, and you’ll find them filled with new little improvements. (See the new brush types in Paint above.) Even the Calculator has gotten a makeover, with an updated interface and new-found support for date calculations and unit conversions, not to mention “worksheets” to help you work out fuel efficiency and mortgage payments. Everyone will probably keep using Google for quick conversions, though.
Other improvements and additions are legion. There’s the Windows Disc Image Burner, which will take care of burning ISO files for you. A new Personalization control panel lets you make custom themes with wallpaper slide shows. Microsoft has clearly been working on multi-monitor support; I was quite impressed when, right out of the box, Windows 7 automatically stretched its desktop across my two displays. That same desktop now remembers your icon positions after resolution changesgreat for driver installs and the aftermath of Remote Desktop sessions.
Speaking of Remote Desktop, the taskbar jump lists feature lets you pick hosts quickly, and you can now watch high-definition movies and play games across an RDC session, as well. Many recent 3D titles flat out refused to work for me, but running Trackmania United across Wi-Fi was still a sight to behold (albeit a laggy one). Switching over to wired Ethernet reduced the lag to the point where the game was actually quite playable, although frame rates still weren’t exceptional. My laptop’s GeForce 9400M graphics processor is probably to blame for that, though; RDC seems to forward API calls to the client hardware, so the game wasn’t actually taking advantage of my desktop PC’s faster hardware.
There’s Windows XP Mode, too. Should you encounter an application that doesn’t work with Windows 7, you can head to the Windows XP Mode page on Microsoft’s website, download a couple of installers, and enjoy a fully functional, virtualized copy of Windows XP with minimal configuration. Unlike other virtualization software, this tool doesn’t require an XP CD or a license key, and it doesn’t force you to sit through the OS installation process. Better yet, you can run virtualized XP apps right inside your Winodws 7 desktop. I tested out the XP Mode release candidate back in May, and I can’t say I wasn’t impressed, even if the virtual application concept is a tad counter-intuitive. The fact that XP Mode requires a processor with virtualization support may limit its usefulness with older (and not-so-old) systems, too.
Eat your heart out, Time Machine!
Apple has been flaunting OS X’s fancy-looking Time Machine feature for almost two years, and Windows 7 finally offers a worthy alternative. Not only has Microsoft vastly improved upon the old Vista backup interface, but much of the same functionality (with the exception of network backups) is now available in Windows 7 Home Premium, as well.
Windows 7’s Backup and Restore control panel gives you the option to safeguard a copy of your libraries, an image of your system drive, and any other directories you’d care to add. You simply pick these out in a list, after which the configuration wizard presents you with scheduling options: daily, weekly, or monthly, and at what time. You can save backups on external drives, network shares, or DVDs.
We were quite taken with Vista’s backup interface, but it wasn’t anywhere near this straightforward. You had to spring for Vista Business to get backup scheduling functionality in the first place. Then, safeguarding the operating system involved using the Complete PC Backup control panel, whose graphical interface didn’t offer scheduling options. Finally, you could forget about backing up specific directories (let alone entire drives) outside of your user folder.
Windows 7 gets rid of these little snags and, in a surprising move, offers the improved package to home users. You’ll even get alerts in your system tray prompting you to set up automated backups. Suddenly, it seems, Microsoft cares about downtime and data integrity on home PCs. Maybe Steve Ballmer got sick of all that Time Machine hype and threw a chair at someone.
Before we forget, we should note that Windows 7 Home Premium includes Shadow Copy, as wellanother feature formerly exclusive to Business and Ultimate editions. Shadow Copy, now called Previous Versions, keeps track of a file’s state as you modify it, and it allows you to restore previous states easily through the Properties dialog (which, admittedly, isn’t quite as cool as Time Machine). This feature comes enabled right out of the box, and it only seems to take up 3% of your system drive by default. Previous Versions also allows users to restore from copies of files or directories made during Windows backups.
Windows 7 isn’t all sunshine and kittens, naturally. At the beginning of the article, I noted that, by virtue of being a gradual evolutionary step over Vista, this release would have much better backward-compatibility. I’ve found that to be generally truepretty much all my software installed and ran okay, as did my Creative sound card and Nvidia graphics card. Actually, even older drivers intended for Vista installed without much trouble.
With that said, I did run into a handful of little quirks. The latest release of VLC gave me the most trouble: file associations set through the program wouldn’t take, using the controls in full-screen mode made the taskbar show up, and playback was pixelated for some reason. (Other Windows 7 users are complaining about that last problem in the VideoLAN forums.) Skype wouldn’t let me install add-ons directly from the application, either, and in Firefox 3.5, the Adobe Reader plug-in randomly decided to show a blank alert and not render PDFs. Reinstalling the plug-in seemed to fix that, but it starts happening again every so often.
One day, after rebooting, my desktop icons even refused to show up. I rebooted again and spent a little while trying to find an explanation, but apparently, the “Show desktop icons” setting under the “View” contextual menu had spontaneously unticked itself. That’s happened twice so far, and I have no idea why.
I can’t really be mad at Windows 7 for these quirks, because it runs admirably well overall, and I’ve yet to run into any serious stability or compatibility problems. Still, don’t upgrade thinking everything will work flawlessly out of the boxor do; I don’t know. Maybe these issues will be resolved by October 22.
One edition to rule them all
So, that’s Windows 7. Where do you sign up? First of all, we should stress that this operating system isn’t actually coming out until October 22. (We were given access to the complete, release-to-manufacturing version ahead of time.) You can either wait a couple months or pre-order now, but in either case, you’ll be faced with a choice: which edition should you get?
There are six editions we know of, but if you’re grabbing a retail-boxed copy to upgrade your PC, you’ll only have to choose between Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate. Each one is more expensive and offers more features than the last. To make things more straightforward, we’ve compiled a table with a list of major features, the editions that include them, and pricing:
|Windows 7 Home Premium
||Windows 7 Professional
||Windows 7 Ultimate
|New Aero features||✓||✓||✓|
|Internet Explorer 8||✓||✓||✓|
|Windows Media Center||✓||✓||✓|
|Full-system Backup and Restore||✓||✓||✓|
|Remote Desktop client||✓||✓||✓|
|Backups across network||✓||✓|
|Remote Desktop host||✓||✓|
|Windows XP Mode||✓||✓|
|Interface language switching||✓|
|Full license price||$199.99||$299.99||$319.99|
|Upgrade license price||$119.99||$199.99||$219.99|
|Anytime Upgrade price||→||$89.99||$139.99|
In the Vista days, you typically had to choose between Home Premium if you wanted consumer entertainment features and Business if you wanted tools like full-system backups and Remote Desktop hosting. Only Ultimate combined all of them, but its price tag put it out of the reach of many users.
With Windows 7, several things have changed. Home Premium now includes some of the former Vista Business features like full-system backups and Shadow Copy, as we noted earlier. Meanwhile, Windows 7 Professional has all of the Home Premium features plus the former Vista Business features, along with new additions like Windows XP Mode.
You can see where this is going. Windows 7 Ultimate might have BitLocker disk encryption and miscellaneous enterprise functionality, but nothing that really warrants spending that extra 20 bucks for the vast majority of users. So, really, the choice comes down to Home Premium vs. Professional, and it ought to be very clear-cut if you know what you need. If in doubt, you can always grab Windows 7 Home Premium and step up to one of the other two editions via Windows Anytime Upgrade. Microsoft says you’ll only need to pay $90 to go from Home Premium to Professional, and the switchover process looks pretty painless.
Now, that doesn’t answer the question of whether you should buy Windows 7 as an upgrade license or a full license. Upgrades require a legit version of either Windows XP or Windows Vista, and technically, you’ll need an activated version of one of those OSes on your hard drive for the installation to work. In practice, you may be able to use the same upgrade trick as with VistaMicrosoft might not approve, but if you’re legit, then we believe you ought to be able to upgrade however you please.
On October 22, you might also be able to purchase OEM licenses from online retailers like Newegg. Vista OEM licenses are available at a meaty discount, but they only cover a single type of media32-bit or 64-bitand a single system. That is, you’re technically not allowed to transfer an OEM license to a new PC next time you upgrade, and forget about upgrading from 32-bit to 64-bit if you get more RAM. Microsoft will probably offer Windows 7 OEM licenses in a similar fashion, although we don’t know for sure yet.
Incidentally, this is as good a place as any to point out that Microsoft doesn’t include Windows Mail, Windows Photo Gallery, Windows Movie Maker, or the Windows Calendar in any of the Windows 7 editions. New and slightly different versions of those apps are now available as free downloads from the Windows Live Essentials site. (Calendar functionality now comes as part of Windows Live Mail, too.) Microsoft offers a single installer for all Windows Live apps, although you’ll get Windows Live sync, sign-up, and upload assistants as part of the bargain, too.
Windows 7 has generated a ton of hype these past few months. Some claim this operating system is essentially Windows Vista done righta new OS that draws on Vista’s strengths while stripping away and polishing out its weaknesses. Windows XP users see it as, finally, a worthwhile upgrade. Vista users look forward to the improved performance and polish. Mac and Linux users scoff, convinced of their chosen platform’s superiority.
I love debunking hype as much as the next guy, but I really think Windows 7 deserves it. After using it on my primary PC for three weeks, I’ve come to appreciate all of the little things Microsoft has improved. Sure, not everything works perfectly, and I still have flashbacks involving HomeGroups and Windows File Sharing configuration, but all things considered, Windows 7 is perhaps Microsoft’s finest operating system to date.
Is it better than Mac OS X or Linux? I can’t speak for the latter, but I used both Leopard and Windows 7 to write this article. I can’t honestly say I prefer one over the other. These two operating systems make you work and operate in different ways, and they each have their upsides and downsidesI love window and virtual-desktop management in OS X, for instance, but I’ll take Explorer over the Finder any day. The choice largely comes down to which suits your workflow the best.
As for whether you should make the switch from XP or Vista, well, that should go without saying at this point.