On October 22nd, 2009, Microsoft will reboot its operating system to the best Windows client the company has developed since MSDOS. Some might be fooled into thinking that Windows 7 was a less ambitious project than Vista, and only a minor upgrade. I disagree. To put it simply, Windows 7 is a result of realistic strategy, made public only in bite-size chunks with the tactic to underpromise and overdeliver. And make no mistake about it, Steven Sinofsky, now president, Windows and Windows Live Division, together with Jon DeVaan, senior vice president, Windows Core Operating System Division, and the thousands of developers on the Windows team, have indeed overdelivered.
The legacyWindows 7 is so far from the mess that was Vista that it is hard to believe that it is the successor of Windows XP that acted as the foundation of the latest iteration of the Windows client. Vista debuted to a barrage of criticism, some of which originated with the platform’s own testers slapping Microsoft for the release of what they believed to be an OS still far from being finalized. Appearing aimless, bloated and plagued with problems, Vista was only fixed with Service Pack 1, as far as end users are concerned.
But the fact of the matter is that Vista deserves a lot more credit than given. After all, make no mistake about it, dig just a little under the new, shiny Windows 7 surface and you will find Vista. And yet Windows 7 is getting nothing but love and accolades, while Vista got the boot. On numerous occasions I’ve had to sit through anti-Vista diatribes from users who had never used the operating system at all.
But in a sense, Vista also acted as the perfect buffer for Windows 7. Users transformed Vista into a punching bag, and relentlessly took swings at the operating system. Vista simply absorbed a lot of frustration from consumers, albeit it also generated more than its fair share, but it managed to give Microsoft a quasi-clean slate for Windows 7. I don’t care what your perspective on Windows 7 is, but the platform shines when you compare it to Vista, no matter how you look at it.
EditionsJust as Vista, Windows 7 comes in a variety of flavors. However, unlike Vista, Microsoft’s stock keeping unit strategy is more cohesive, comprehensive, and focused mainly on three editions of the operating system. Here are the price tags for the main SKUs of the OS: Windows 7 Home Premium (Upgrade): $119.99; Windows 7 Professional (Upgrade): $199.99; and Windows 7 Ultimate (Upgrade): $219.99 - Windows 7 Home Premium (Full): $199.99; Windows 7 Professional (Full): $299.99; and Windows 7 Ultimate (Full): $319.99.
Customers can pretty much ignore Windows 7 Starter – unless buying cheap, hardware restrained netbooks; Home Basic – unless living in an underdeveloped country; and Enterprise – unless they are a Software Assurance customer looking for Volume Licenses of Windows 7. Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate is where all the heat is, one perfect for home users, one for businesses and the last tailored to technology enthusiasts.
PerformanceEven before Windows 7 was out of the gate it dramatically outperformed Windows Vista. And when I’m saying this I’m not even thinking of Vista RTM, but of Vista SP1 and SP2, by which time Microsoft had fine-tuned XP’s successor. Whether you’re booting or shutting down, copying content, or performing any other of a countless list of mundane tasks, Windows 7 will get the job done faster than Vista. It just looks like Microsoft integrated as much horsepower as possible into the new operating system, almost guaranteeing that customers will be thrilled by the experience provided by the new platform.
But performance is much more than just about sheer speed if you ask me. Sure Windows 7 leaves Windows Vista, and even Windows XP, in the dust effortlessly, but at the same time, performance enhancements go beyond responsiveness. In fact, contributing decisively to the overall feeling that Windows 7 is snappier, completing tasks promptly, less sluggish in the most basic of actions compared to its precursor is the fact that the platform makes better use of the hardware resources available.
Windows 7 will consume less RAM, and in fact it will perform under acceptable parameters with just as low as 1 GB of system memory. At the same time, the OS is better tailored to multicore and multi processor machines and is better positioned than Vista to use in a new era of 64-bit architectures. Not only is Windows 7 superior at administering hardware resources, but it is also better at managing services and background tasks. Because of enhanced management capabilities, Windows 7 boots, resumes and shuts down faster, but also offers increased battery life. Users with low-end machines will also be able to turn to an evolved ReadyBoost feature to add USB devices that act as additional memory cache, up to 256 GB.
Compatibility, stability and reliabilityWindows 7 has been built to share the same software and hardware compatibility level as the latest evolutionary step of Windows Vista. Even before finalization, the promise from Microsoft was that application and device drivers that worked for Vista would also work with Windows 7, less so when it comes down to XP. In fact, when jumping directly from XP to Windows 7 you should prepare for the worst case scenario and expect compatibility issues. The same is valid, although to a much smaller degree, for Vista to Windows 7 upgrades. The truth is that, although Windows 7 delivers impressive compatibility with legacy products, sometimes it’s just out of Microsoft’s hands.
Don’t expect a seven-year-old printer for which support has been discontinued by the manufacturer to work seamlessly with your new 64-bit copy of Windows 7, because it won’t! This is why Microsoft is supplying the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor Beta. Download the tool, scan your system, and find out before jumping to Windows 7 if your current system has compatibility issues with the new OS. The key to ensuring that you have a great user experience is to be prepared.
As far as, stability and reliability are concerned, I have never experienced a system crash (Blue Screen) in approximately three months since I’m running Windows 7 RTM Build 7600. And throughout the Beta and RC development stages I only had to endure a handful of system crashes, but this is understandable considering that the OS was still being built at that time. The way I see it, stability and reliability, just as compatibility and performance, are perpetual examples of works in progress. This week Microsoft has made available for download the first stability and reliability update for Windows 7 RTM, just to make my point.
But ultimately, Microsoft has kicked up a notch the stability and reliability capabilities of Windows 7. Drivers run sandboxed to ensure that device- and driver-related crashes are contained and do not deliver a system-wide impact, the OS brings to the table a fault-tolerant heap, and evolved backup, repair and restore capabilities, now easier to leverage, even by inexperienced users.
GUI, NUI and UX
I believe that only in the coming years, as the world will catch up with Windows 7, will the realization that this was the moment when Natural User Interfaces started to go mainstream will begin to sink in. The new Windows Aero graphical user interface along with the new multitouch capabilities (the natural user interface) provide a unique experience, unmatched by past Windows releases or by rival platforms. The work of Julie Larson-Green, corporate vice president, Windows Experience, is visible throughout the operating system, but fact is that Windows GUI goes much deeper than Windows Aero.
Sure enough, the new Windows Taskbar (Superbar), Thumbnail Previews, JumpLists, Aero Shake, Aero Snap, Aero Peek deliver the bells and whistled for an exceptional and unique UX. But it is the Ribbon/Fluent GUI, set as the preferred user interface for Windows 7-based apps that also boosts UX and ensures that the necessary steps are met for NUIs to become pervasive.
Windows 7 is less closed and more intuitive, less opaque and more transparent, less cluttered and more organized, less rigid and more customizable, less nagging and more relaxed, less inflexible and more streamlined – all aspects contributing to a superior user experience.
Features, default applications, capabilities and functionalityI believe that Windows 7 users will be pleasantly surprised by the level of integration of Internet Explorer 8 into the operating system. The experience compares to nothing other Windows releases offer, with rival browsers still having a long way until they will catch up, but with Mozilla Firefox 3.6 leading the pack. More importantly, Windows 7 provides users with the possibility to turn IE8 off entirely, in the eventuality that they opt to use a different browser altogether.
There are of course additional default apps, such as XPS Viewer and Windows Media Center, but also programs that are traditionally a part of Window, including Paint and Calculator. Across all default apps, Microsoft offers an overhauled user experience that will be exclusively Windows 7-specific.
Obviously the same is valid for the new features introduced by the operating system. Home Group is a Windows 7 innovation that has its roots in the Longhorn project, which preceded Windows Vista. Home Group allows for computers in a household to be seamlessly connected, and for content and devices to be shared effortlessly, and accessible through each machine. Windows 7’s Libraries also contribute to boosting the access model to content on a specific computer, but also across the network, by aggregating materials from various locations.
Users will be able to take advantage of new networking capabilities, which simplify the way Windows 7 connects to a network, be it wireless or PPPoE. Gamers will also be able to enjoy new experiences with the introduction of DirectX 11, which Microsoft has promised will be backported to Windows Vista, but not to Windows XP. Obviously, Windows 7 has very much to offer both under the hood and on the surface, too much so for a single review, but I attempted to mention at least some of my favorite parts of the new OS. However, there are additional heavyweight features such as DirectAccess, BranchCache, Windows XP Mode, MUI support, BitLocker, which I already covered in separate articles on Softpedia. Please feel free to use the comments section in order to share your own perspective over Windows 7.
SecurityIt’s too early to tell whether the new performance improvements introduced in Windows 7 will stand the test of time or not. Microsoft has enhanced User Account Control, introduced the Action Center, boosted IE8 security features and is even providing Microsoft Security Essentials 1.0, a free but basic security solution to protect users running genuine copies of Windows.
It is important to note, that, although a product of the Security Development Lifecycle, Windows 7 does not come close to the breath of security mitigations introduced in its precursor. It was in Vista that Microsoft built in UAC for example, and it was with Vista that the Redmond giant put its foot down and demanded hardware manufacturers to sign all drivers, and didn’t nudge when it was pressured to undo Kernel Patch Protection (PatchGuard). Windows 7 simply builds upon the great security mitigations already available including Address Space Layout Randomization, Stack Randomization, Heap Randomization and Heap Corruption Detection.
But it is important to note, that, just as Windows Vista, Windows 7 features only security mitigations, and no security barriers. This means that, although work has been done to bulletproof Windows 7 even more than its precursors, the operating system in itself is not a panacea for the threat environment. However, recent statistics from Microsoft indicate that out of all the machines Microsoft Security Essentials was installed on just 17% had been infected with malware, compared to 52% of XP and 32% of Vista computers.
The way I planned the final thoughts initially was to offer an answer to “Should I buy Windows 7?” After all, the scope of every good review is to make it clear whether a product is worth your money. If it’s worth a computer upgrade or buying a new machine. If it’s worth your time and trouble. If it’s better than its precursor.
Well, let me start with the last question. As I’ve said at the start of this piece, Windows 7 is a reboot for the Windows client. A reboot that introduces customers to the evolution of Microsoft’s proprietary operating system. Projects from Microsoft Research such as Midori, Singularity and Barrelfish will feed the imagination of geeks everywhere, but Windows 7 is already palpable and almost here.
This time around there are no more excuses for waiting for Windows Next, which as far as codenames go is Windows 8. Windows 7 is hands down better than Windows Vista, and I have no hesitation in saying this, despite the Windows 6.0 to Windows 6.1 evolution. And while incomparably superior to Vista, Windows 7 makes Windows XP feel old and obsolete, just like an OS released in 2001 should feel.
This time around there aren’t any excuses for waiting around for Windows 7 SP1. Think of Vista SP1 and SP2 as all the service packs Windows 7 has ever needed. And while perfecting the operating system is a path Microsoft has embarked on already, Windows 7 is also ready for prime time and mainstream adoption from the get go.
Despite the fact that Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer has been reserved when proclaiming the commercial success of Windows 7, millions more customers will adopt the new operating system starting with the coming week. Estimating Windows 7 sales figures that will surpass Vista’s is nowhere near ‘going out on a limb’ on my behalf. Counting all the licenses shipped into the channel, Microsoft indicated that Vista had sold 20 million copies in the first 30 days. My forecast is that Windows 7 will beat this figure, perhaps not dwarf it, but definitely enjoy more commercial success than its predecessor.
For me, Windows 7 was more than worth the trouble of what must be approximately 100 upgrades and clean installs. Windows 7 was also worth the money I paid recently for a new laptop. I have already run Windows 7 for the most part of 2009 and when using Vista or XP I find myself searching for the Show Desktop shortcut in the bottom right hand side corner, trying to arrange windows side by side with Aero Snap, right-clicking icons while searching for JumpLists. For me it’s clear, I’m never going back to Vista or XP, as Windows 7 offered me a superior experience to both, and to any Linux distribution as well as Mac OS X release I’ve ever used.
Microsoft Windows 7 90-Day Eval VHD is available for download here.
Another Windows 7 RTM Enterprise 90-Day Evaluation is available for download here.
Windows 7 RTM Starter Edition, 100-Screenshot Gallery
Windows 7 RTM Home Basic 110-Screenshot Gallery
Windows 7 RTM Home Premium 120-Screenshot Gallery
Windows 7 RTM Professional 110-Screenshot Gallery
Windows 7 RTM Enterprise 100-Screenshot Gallery