Microsoft's new lease on life: Windows 7

Posted by Minnaar Pieters 12 May 2009
Windows 7 Screenshot

While Windows 7 is constantly in the news this year, we can finally start making an educated judgement on what significance this product might have. In the last ten years just about any Windows release was plagued by the same problems time and time again. If you want an idea what I am talking about just go take a look at any Apple Get a Mac ad. While they are perhaps oversimplified, they are nonetheless true in some sense. Users are scared of new OS’s with good reason. A new OS will typically run slower, cause incompatibility issues and is normally a hassle to get used to again. Why go through all that hassle if your current OS is fine?

Well there is your first problem – Microsoft two current operating systems, XP and Vista are both perfect examples in how an OS should not be executed. Windows XP was released in 2001, which in the IT industry is a very long time ago. When it was launched it was buggy, very insecure and not a great OS, yet it became much better over time and eventually became a very quick, stable OS because in 8 years all its wrinkles are ironed out and hardware has improved so much. Windows Vista was launched in 2007, after many delays. Windows Vista was criticized for high hardware requirements and irritating User Account Control (which now, two years later is actually a very good thing in hindsight, especially if you see the increase in malware on XP machines).

Windows 7 is confirmed to be launched by the end of this year, and my, what an upgrade. Its biggest advantage over any previous version is that for the first time it runs much faster than the previous version of Windows on the same hardware. In fact, the improvement is so much that if you have a decent machine running Vista, you will be very well served by upgrading to Windows 7. Where in the past the advice might have been to only get a new OS if it is pre-installed on the machine, the same cannot be said for Windows 7. I installed it on every Windows Vista machine I use and I have to say the results are staggering. Every driver installs without a problem, the machines perform faster and in some cases battery life improves on notebooks. The overall feeling of speed and reactivity is what stands out however.
Windows 7’s beta has been available since January and was surprisingly stable and feature complete. Last week Microsoft made the release candidate version available for free download as well (bonus: the RC version will last until March 2010 before giving you notices that it will expire by June). While there has not been many changes, the RC version is very stable, in fact more stable than Vista SP1 in my findings.

The interface is very similiar to Windows Vista and is light years ahead of the XP look. Glass effects provide a lot of eye candy, but the biggest change is found in the taskbar. Instead of Windows 7 Taskbarhaving large buttons for every running application, the OS groups similiar applications to a single button. At first this seams counter intuitive, but in this day and age where we multitask it starts to make sense. The glass effects are also a bit more useful - for example grouped applications all glow in their own colour and its much easier to follow the mouse with all the effects on screen as you move about. Users also "pin" often used application onto the taskbar, much in a similiar fashion to Mac OS X's dock, but a little more intuitive. You can however change to the old type of taskbar buttons if you want.

One very noticeable part of Windows 7 is that none of the normal Microsoft applications we got used to in recent Windows versions are installed – there is no Windows Mail (or Outlook Express), no Calendar, no Photo Gallery etc. While you might see this as a stunted idea, the functionality is still available as a free download. Still, this means the OS is lean and mean, and it gives you choice to download and actually use the applications you want.

The hardware requirements are not too steep either. You need a 1GHz processor, 1 Gig RAM, Directx 9 graphics card and at least 16Gigs free disk space. I would however recommend at least a dual core processor (or hyper threading) and 2 Gig RAM. One bonus feature that is much improved in Windows 7 over Vista is the much criticized Readyboost feature. The basic idea (very simplified) is that Windows can use a flash disk to improve disk read times because of flash memory’s fast random reads. In Windows Vista the user was limited to one flash disk with a maximum of 4 Gig dedicated to Readyboost. Windows 7 removes the one flash disk limit and increases the dedication limit (hard figures are not available yet). Windows Vista did not have great boosts from Readyboost, but with these limitations removed, Windows 7 might actually make Readyboost a worthwhile endeavour. So, if you have a unused flash disk pop it in. (It has to be reasonably quick though).

Another major feature that was recently announced is “XP Mode”. This free download to higher end versions of Windows 7 will enable users (or organizations) who use very specific software that only runs on XP to run inside a virtual machine. This will enable you to run older XP specific software side by side with other windows inside the OS. But in my experience I have not had one application from a XP machine not working inside 7. So I guess this is meant for very niche software releases, which might be made by companies who are either unwilling to make their software Windows 7 compatible or do not exist anymore.

Overall I feel that Windows 7 will be a big success. Every part of the OS feels polished and stable. The development cycle is very quick up to now and is not plagued by delays like Vista, so consumers are actually looking forward to its release. If you are reasonably technical and want to try the latest and greatest, give Windows 7 RC a go. Don’t let the fact that it is not a final version yet put you off. It is every bit as stable as XP or Vista, and more. And for all you "Vista sucks, XP is perfect" users, your day has come.

PS: This is just my take on what I like about Windows 7. Of course there are many improvements that you might want to know about. If you would like an exhaustive review of Windows 7, I would recommend Paul Thurrott's review.
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I am a R&D Analyst in Stellenbosch South Africa who has a immense passion for all things tech related. I embrace technology, open source and web standards, and I participate and contribute to the social web.