Windows 7 review: Like Vista, but good

The first thing you’ll notice about Windows 7 is that it looks like Vista. It also works like Vista, in the sense that it has the same plumbing underneath, except for a very welcome graphics upgrade to DX11. However, it works much better than Vista, and most of Vista’s annoyances have either been removed, or (mostly) can be changed so the system works the way you like. It takes personalisation to extremes.

Microsoft has analysed the data from millions of user computing sessions to find out exactly what people do with their computers, then attacked the “pain points” to make Windows 7 quicker and smoother. (About 15-million people used the Windows 7 beta.)

The most obvious difference is that Windows 7 doesn’t keep annoying you with prompts — though it’s also true that the latest version of Vista is much less annoying than the original. In fact, you can set the degree of annoyance on a sliding scale, though reducing it increases the risk of security breaches. However, Windows 7 is vastly more secure than XP and, in any case, the threat landscape has changed since XP was trashed by worms such as Blaster and Slammer. Today, the more important security changes are in the Internet Explorer 8 browser which, uniquely, defends against cross-site scripting.

Another obvious difference is that Windows 7 uses fewer resources.

Where Vista really needed 2GB of memory, Windows 7 will run quite happily in 1GB on a slow dual-core Intel processor, though I’d still recommend 2GB or, for preference, 4GB with the speedy 64-bit version of Windows 7.

The reduced footprint and some optimisation means Windows 7 sleeps and wakes up faster (though it’s still not in the same class as Mac OS X).

And laptop batteries should last longer. I’ve been running Windows 7 on an Asus UL30 laptop with a claimed battery life of around 11 hours with Vista: it now does more than 12 hours.

Any PC that currently runs Vista will be better at running Windows 7 — a first for Microsoft — and it should also run on most PCs that will run XP SP2. (Search YouTube and you will find users showing off by loading it on unsuitable systems, including antiques with Pentium III chips.) The catch is that upgrading a PC running Windows XP requires a clean installation of Windows 7: you can’t do an in-place upgrade. This has been a source of complaints, because it means reinstalling all your applications as well.

However, we’ve known for a dozen years that a clean installation of Windows usually works better, and geeks have generally recommended it.

Indeed, people used to reinstall Windows 95, 98 or Me just to clean up their systems, so it’s silly to get hysterical about it now.

The Windows 7 interface has a few noticeable changes. First, the Vista sidebar has gone, but you can still use the clock and other gadgets, and you can position them wherever you like. Second, the QuickLaunch area and the TaskBar have been replaced by a sort of combo-pack.

Instead of putting applications in the QuickLaunch area, you can now right-click and pin them to the new-style Taskbar, alongside running applications.

As in Vista, hovering over a Taskbar icon shows one or more mini-previews, depending on how many windows you’re using, except now they’re interactive. Hovering over a mini-preview shows it full size on the desktop, while right-clicking provides a Jump List of options.

It makes it dramatically easier to see what you are doing. However, if you an inveterate Alt-Tabber, that shows the same mini-previews. And if you liked Vista’s Flip 3D feature, that’s still an option.

Incidentally, you can now move TaskBar icons around to change the order, like browser tabs. As I always try to keep XP TaskBar items in the same order, I find this useful. It’s a small point, but Windows 7 has lots of small points, and they add up.

There are a few party tricks that Windows 7 users can show their friends, such as Aero Snaps, Aero Peek, and Aero Shake. Aero Snaps lets you put two applications side by side for easy comparison and copy-and-paste. Aero Peek makes open windows temporarily transparent so you can see what’s on your desktop. Aero Shake means that if you shake a window, all the other windows will disappear. All are both useful and fun.

The My Documents section has been reorganised under one heading, Libraries. This includes Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos, with Windows 7 sorting things into these “shell folders”. Each of these has two subfolders, such as My Music and Public Music. This makes it easier to keep stuff you want to share away from stuff you want to keep to yourself.

Sharing is an important part of Windows 7. It has a HomeGroup feature that makes it very easy to set up a home network and share things. It only works with Windows 7 machines, which I expect will sell a few Family Packs of Windows 7 (three copies of Home Premium for $250).

Right click a photo, for example, select Share, and this gives you four options: Nobody; HomeGroup (Read), HomeGroup (Read/Write), and Specific People. “Plays to” lets you display a video, for example, on a different PC.

Support for the consumer electronics industry’s DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) standard should help Windows 7 PCs work with other devices, though I’ve yet to see an example.

There are also some “location awareness” features where Windows 7 figures out where you are — on a home network or an office network, for example — and selects the appropriate printer. There’s a section of the control panel, Location and Other Sensors, where sensors can be installed and controlled. One example is “adaptive brightness”: if your PC has a light sensor, Windows 7 will adjust the screen brightness to match.

Multi-touch is also supported, if you have the hardware to take advantage of it. There is an emerging flood of laptops with multi-touch pads and new all-in-ones with multi-touch screens, but it remains to be seen whether these will be successful.

When it comes to Windows applications, the very old ones have been dramatically improved. Paint and WordPad now have “ribbon interfaces” like Office 2007, and both the Calculator and command shell (PowerShell) are much more powerful than before. Technically, several standard applications have also been removed from the operating system, though I expect most PC manufacturers will install them.

What Microsoft has done is decouple the Windows Live Essentials suite of applications — Mail, Messenger, Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, etc — from the operating system. It means the Live programs can be updated from the web every six or nine months, or whatever, instead of on a three-year operating system development cycle. It also reduces the attack area for anti-trust complaints.

But one thing that’s missing from Windows 7 is the Microsoft Security Essentials anti-virus program, formerly codenamed Morro. You get Windows Defender and an improved firewall, but Microsoft appears to be too scared of the European Commission to do what would be best for users and include anti-virus software as well. As it is, specialist anti-virus companies install trial versions on new PCs, and pay PC manufacturers very handsomely for the distribution. If Microsoft did the right thing and defended users for nothing, it would upset the financial applecart.

All round, then, Windows 7 is generally good, and some Windows fans reckon it’s better than Apple’s Mac OS X. It’s certainly easier to use than Mac OS X if you are already familiar with the Windows way of doing things. Also, Windows 7 — released to companies on August 6 — has so far proved to be a lot less buggy than Apple’s Snow Leopard, which has even lost users’ data.

If you dig into Windows 7 then you will, of course, find numerous relics from the past, going right back through Windows 95 to DOS.

There are lots of inconsistencies that still need cleaning up.

However, Microsoft’s business depends on running millions of programs that stretch back decades, supporting vast numbers of peripherals, and providing a platform for thousands of competing manufacturers who make everything from handhelds and tablet PCs to racks of data-centre mainframes. That’s just the baggage Windows carries.

But with luck you will not see too many of these relics, and on the surface, Windows 7 is impressively smooth.

I’m a full-time Windows XP user who didn’t upgrade to Vista on my two main PCs, but I can’t see a good reason for sticking with XP now that it looks doomed. I’ve bought a cut-price Amazon Windows 7 Pro upgrade for my desktop, and I’m planning to buy a new Windows 7 laptop to replace my very old ThinkPad X31.

Windows 7 is a long way from being perfect, and it’s not an essential upgrade if you’re happy with XP. But nor is there a real reason to avoid it. Windows 7 is simply the best version of Windows you can get. –

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