The Windows 7 Age

Windows 7, the anticipated successor to the oft-maligned Windows Vista operating system from Microsoft, has arrived.  Now available in stores on DVD-ROM, on the web for download (http://store.microsoft.com/win7netbooks), and on newly-purchased PCs, Microsoft has a lot riding on the acceptance of their new OS.

Windows has had a rough decade.  After waiting six years to release a follow-up to the largely successful Windows XP, Microsoft's Windows Vista was met with uber-hyped expectations, most of which Microsoft is responsible for building up, and most of which its customers and critics felt it did not live up to. In the meantime, Apple’s Mac OS X and popular versions of GNU Linux having been muscling their way into Microsoft’s marketshare. Microsoft’s response to this turn of events was the accelerated development of Windows 7. 
 
Early reviews of the OS based on its two release candidates (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Release_candidate#Release_candidate) declared it to be a tremendous improvement over Vista and a solid operating system when compared to any other.  Now that the complete release is available to the public, those reviews are being reaffirmed and on the whole, public reception has been positive. 
 
I've been working with Windows 7 since installing its second release candidate on my Dell Vostro mini-tower in August.  Over the weekend after its release, I downloaded and installed the complete version on my Asus EEE PC 1000HE netbook.  There are numerous reviews all over the web you can use to make an informed decision as to whether you should upgrade.  Here are my personal experiences with Windows 7 and my advice to you as you make the transition to a Windows 7 world. 
 
Installation
As I said above, you can get the software in any brick and mortar store, but I chose to download it to install on my netbook.  I was anxious about doing this, as netbooks by definition do not have optical (CD/DVD) drives. This meant using a USB flash drive to install the OS, and while I have installed many operating systems, using a flash drive would be a first. Fortunately, Microsoft provided a tool that wrote the downloaded Windows 7 files to the drive, making it usable for the installation. 
 
The installation itself was pure simplicity. I purchased the “upgrade” copy of Windows 7, which essentially means you must already be running Windows XP or Windows Vista before you can upgrade. This is, however, a bit of a let-down, because as far as I can tell if I ever want to reinstall Windows 7, I’ll need to reinstall Windows XP first. The ability to skip the possibility of that step in the future, however, did not warrant spending the extra $80 on the “full” version. 
 
Another downside to the upgrade version is the inability to completely reformat your hard drive and install a fresh copy of Windows. This is unfortunate, as reformatting the hard drive would have removed any fragmentation left over from the previously installed Windows XP and made for smoother experience once the Windows 7 installation was complete. The best choice I was given was to install Windows 7 from scratch and have the installer move all my old system and program files into a folder called windows.old, which I promptly deleted once the installation was complete. 
 
The rest of the installation was picture perfect. Netbooks are relatively slow computers, so the full process took a good two hours, but that’s to be expected on slower hardware; newer computers with more memory that run dual- and quad-core processors should run the installation more quickly. When the installation was finished, I was asked for the usual information, to create a username and password, set my time zone, and join my wifi network. 
 
I was already running my Dell Vostro with Windows 7’s second release candidate, which was powered on and connected to my network while I was installing 7 on my netbook. My netbook’s Windows 7 detected this and asked if I wanted to join my network’s Windows 7 Home Group. Home Group is intended to make the process of setting up sharing of files, printers, and other devices easier among all your PCs. I chose to skip this step, as I prefer to set up my networks manually (and from what I can tell, Home Group doesn’t look any easier, just a different kind of confusing), but you can read more about Home Group at http://blogs.msdn.com/e7/archive/2008/12/30/at-home-with-homegroup-in-windows-7.aspx
 
And that was it. My netbook booted into Windows 7, I deleted the windows.old folder containing all my old and now completely unnecessary files and the installation was complete. 
 
Initial Experiences
I’ll admit it. I am impressed with what Windows 7 did with my woefully underpowered netbook (full specs listed here for the technically inclined: http://usa.asus.com/product.aspx?P_ID=Ues16Gw2OcqSjUNt). What really stood out at me was the fact that my netbook was using the full Aero Glass theme, which gives the windows borders and menus a transparent, glass-like appearance, and it did so without any problems. This isn’t that big of a deal in terms of “will-my-computer-do-what-I-need-it-to,” but it made an impression: when this theme was introduced with Windows Vista, we were all told that essentially we would need new, muscular video cards manufactured by an advanced alien species in brown dwarf stars that were imported from the future.  There are very few computers as graphically underpowered as netbooks, so you may understand my surprise that this effect worked and worked well. 
 
Such is a testament to the lengths Microsoft went to re-engineer Windows to use as few system resources as possible, which stands in stark contrast to Vista, notoriously  hogging resources to the point of leaving almost none for any other program. I still wouldn’t recommend trying to install it on any computer with a processor running under 1.5 GHz and definitely no less than 1 GB of RAM, but such specs are below entry-level in the today’s computer market anyway. 
 
The installation had managed to find good drivers for all of my netbook’s hardware and I could have left it as it was and been well-enough off. The only things it left out were drivers for my multi-touch track pad and the volume controls on my keyboard. This was not a problem, however; I was pleased to discover that the drivers included with my netbook to run on Windows XP worked just fine in Windows 7 and once I installed them, my netbook was doing everything it had done under Windows XP. 
 
So Windows 7 will run on fairly underpowered hardware. I can’t speak for older hardware, however. As it has just been released, drivers may not yet be available for all hardware running Windows 7 and depending on how old the hardware is, drivers may never be released. Before you install Windows 7, you should download and run the Upgrade Advisor (http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyID=1b544e90-7659-4bd9-9e51-2497c146af15&displaylang=en) to make sure your computer will be able to run it. The state of hardware support for 7 seems to be vastly improved over Vista when it was first released, however. Back then, I was angered to discover that my network card, that little piece of hardware that connects me to the Internet, wasn’t supported by an out-of-the-box installation of Vista; naturally my first inclination was to go and download an updated driver, but of course, what a silly notion - I would need to be connected to the Internet to do that. I experienced no such horrors when installing 7.  
 
Software Compatibility
I’ve run into no problems installing all my programs in Windows 7. This may be in part due to the fact that most of my programs are relatively new. Office 2007 installed without any snags, naturally, but I’m hearing a lot of stories on the web about problems running Office 2003. If you’re still running a generation behind the current Office suite and you don’t want to shell out $400 for an upgrade, this may be reason enough to hold off on upgrading to 7 for now.
 
Most of the rest of my programs are free and open source and perform beautifully on Windows 7. These include VLC media player, Firefox web browser, the GIMP image manipulator, Audacity sound editor, and iTunes. Oh wait, iTunes isn’t open source. But yes, iTunes runs fine on Windows 7, iPhone lovers need not worry. Photoshop does not yet officially support 7, but given both Windows’ and Photoshop’s ubiquity in each of their unique markets, they’ll learn to play together eventually. 
 
Games are a bit of mixed bag, depending as much on your hardware configuration as your operating system. For instance, one of my favorite new indie games, “And Yet it Moves” (http://andyetitmoves.net/) worked fine, if a little slow, on my netbook under Windows XP, but crashes repeatedly under 7, while on my super-powered desktop computer which also has 7, the game runs smooth as silk. Fallout 3, one of my all-time favorite games (which, admittedly, is notorious for being buggier than an August afternoon in rural Indiana) ran great on my desktop under Vista, but crashes at the drop of hat under 7. When I looked for help online, everyone else was reporting that their installations of Fallout were running better under 7 than they were under Vista, the reverse of my experience. PC gaming is always more of a gamble than console gaming, where the hardware specs are guaranteed identical for all users and hence easier to program for. If you’re a serious gamer and you want to keep your games working well until you’re sure you can play them under 7, think about setting up a dual-boot configuration (http://lifehacker.com/5126781/how-to-dual-boot-windows-7-with-xp-or-vista) and keeping Vista or XP around for the games. 
 
New Features in 7
Windows 7 is much more than “Vista done right.” It adds some seriously useful features that you will wonder how you did without after living with them for only a few days. 
 
First up, the task bar. Open programs displayed in the task bar are no longer represented by horizontal buttons with the program name, but instead by the program’s icon. If you use the program frequently, right-click the icon and choose the option to “pin” it to the task bar. This, in essence, combines the functionality of the task bar and the quick launch bar. Place your pointer over the icon and you will be presented with a thumbnail preview of the window, similar to Vista. However, if more than one window is open for the same program, such as your web browser or Word, you will see a stack of icons and using the preview feature will show all the previews for that program side-by-side. Mouse over one of the previews and even if that window is minimized, it will flash into full-screen mode; mouse off and it disappears. This functionality is referred to as Windows Peek.
 
Another new addition to the task bar is jump lists. Right-click on the file-explorer icon and you will see a list of frequently accessed files and locations. Right-click on Internet Explorer and you will see a list of frequently viewed web pages.   What is listed depends on which program you’re clicking on. 
 
Windows Snap allows for easier re-sizing of windows. To maximize a window so that it occupies the entire screen, drag it by the title bar to the very top of the screen and let go – the window will maximize. Drag the window to the right or the left side of the screen and it will occupy exactly one half the space – this feature, though it sounds simple enough, makes it fantastically easy to view two documents or two web pages side-by-side. 
 
To help better organize your folders, Windows 7 uses a system called “libraries”. Open the file explorer and in the pane on the left of the window, you will see libraries for documents, photos, movies, music, etc. These libraries will monitor your choice of folders where documents of these types are stored and automatically update the library. Thus, you may have similar-type files stored in multiple places on your hard drive and still be able to access them in one central location. 
 
Here are just a few more new features which I especially liked:
  • Windows Media Player will now play almost all media file types – no need to download codecs or other media players if you don’t want to.
  • The search bar incorporated into the start menu quickly searches all files on your computer, very much like a web search engine.
  • Signing on to wifi networks takes many fewer steps and is easier to control from the system tray.
  • Setting up file sharing between Windows 7 computers, even without using the previously mentioned Home Group feature, is much simpler.
  • User Access Control (UAC), that dreadful dark screen accompanied by the question “Are we sure we want to proceed with this?” is much less intrusive and you can even set different levels of security for it.
  • CD/DVD image files (ISO files) can now be burned without third-party software.
  • Windows 7 is fast, even on slower hardware.
Even still . . .
Windows 7 is the first version of Windows I’ve installed since 3.1 that managed to do more with the hardware it had to work with (as opposed to buying a whole new computer), installed easily, and, essentially, didn’t take one step back for every two forward. 
 
Still, areas remain in which Microsoft is lagging behind. Beyond my inability to reformat my hard drive using the upgrade version of 7, my biggest qualm with the new Windows (and, in my eyes, it’s really big) is the inability to hide your username on the login screen. When you install Windows, it asks you to create an account for yourself with a username and password. So, correct me if I’m wrong, but the real point behind the username/password combination is to secure your account and its information. Windows 7, much like Windows Vista, insists on plastering your username on the login screen without you having to type it in and only asks for your password.
 
Now, in previous Windows releases, I’ve been able to change the method in which I login, so that I must input my username and password using the “classic” login screen. In Windows 7, however, you cannot change this. Laptop users should be especially wary, as a stolen laptop is now that much easier to break into. 
 
Also, one of my favorite Microsoft programs for locking down accounts and increasing security on my computers, Steady State (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/products/winfamily/sharedaccess/default.mspx), is not yet compatible with Windows 7. In fact, Microsoft brags that the program now supports Vista on its homepage. Steady State is an essential program for those of us who are security-conscious, as well as for administrators running public network terminals (like, say, at a library, or a school). It is truly unfortunate that Microsoft has not seen fit to have this program ready to use, even as a test release, with Windows 7 from the start. 
 
Windows 7 may run like greased lightning, but in my experience, it doesn’t boot any faster, despite claims to the contrary. On my super-duper tricked-out Dell, it boots just a little slower than Vista. On my netbook, it boots slower than XP. Honestly, I’m not that disappointed in this, as I rarely power my computers off completely, but it is a big issue for other users. 
 
I’m also disappointed Microsoft has chosen to continue with its rather confusing number of versions. Let’s see, there is Windows 7 Starter, Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate (the last of which should, in my opinion, really be labeled “Windows 7 Complete”). Each version is geared toward a different set of users, with different features enabled depending on that user set. You also have to decide if you want the “upgrade” or the “full” version, as I discussed earlier. Finally, advanced users may want a 64-bit version of the operating system for their multi-core CPUs, though most will stick with the regular 32-bit version. With all these permutations and the different costs associated, the average user is bound to be baffled. Even I have thrown my hands up trying to keep track of what’s offered in all the different versions. I installed the Home Premium Upgrade and so far, so good. But if I really had $200 extra to spend, would I have gone with the 64-bit Windows Ultimate full release? Um, no. 
 
None of this is surprising. Microsoft has never been known for their everyday low prices (though I tip my hat to their philanthropic and charitable efforts), but the computer landscape is changing. Tech specialists, journalists, and hipsters are all buzzing about our technological shift away from the operating system installed on a single computer to web-based applications and services, as well as mobile platforms like the iPhone and Android (http://www.android.com/) phones and quality free operating systems like Ubuntu Linux (http://www.ubuntu.com/). Microsoft may have one or two major releases of Windows left to them, but sooner or later, they are going to have to completely rethink the concept of an operating system in the decade to come.
   
Final Thoughts
Windows 7 is good. If you want to buy it, remember to check your computer with the upgrade advisor to make sure it is up to the job.  As far as I can tell though, a computer that can run Vista can easily run 7. There’s room for improvement, but that’s what service packs are for and I’m not too concerned. So if you’ve had enough of Vista or you’re ready to move on from XP, don’t be afraid to give Windows 7 a try.