With the Vista replacement, Windows 7, due to be on the store shelves by October 22nd, the second (After Windows Millennium Edition) major dark-age of Microsoft operating systems comes to a welcome end. I have spent countless hours in all version on Windows since the 3.0 days, but I could the combined hours of Vista usage on one hand. It was a truly bad attempt to develop a next generation operating system, mired in poor design and an even worse reputation. With that, it could actually be the straightforwardly named Windows 7 that pulls my PCs from their longstanding Linux refugee camp.
For a more through review, refer to this article from PC World writer Harry McCracken.
Previous versions of Windows do nothing but annoy the user and prevent actual work from getting done. As a developer, the required firewalls and virus scanner often get in the way of different servers I may be running, not to mention test data and source code that may be at risk. Failed updates have left systems useless and wiped data from the face of the planet (Including all of our 2007 through 2009 receipts and associated metadata that I recently scanned in). Never mind all the add on software, Windows is notorious for popping up notifications and other annoyances which require the user to click on this or that, snapping your workflow in two and tossing whatever is on your mind out the window.
Additionally, I know the Microsoft history of security nightmares. At home I have refused to run any version of Windows on my PCs, exiling them to protected virtualized environments, and then only running them when we absolutely needed to. I tend to also drill people about their updates and security software on their laptops before I allow them to connect to my network. In essence, Linux has ruled the roost at home. And this is only a tiny sampling of what’s been wrong on the Redmond’s flagship product line.
Windows 7, on the other hand, looks to make a shift in Windows design and feel. The operating system sports updated security systems out-of-the-box, and the oft maligned User Account Control is somewhat tolerable. Aside from the graphical look and feel of Windows (which gets high ratings from me), some old ideas are getting refreshing changes, some detailed in short below in an effort not to step on the toes of the better written linked article.
The task bar has been redesigned from it’s previous state, which has been more-or-less the same since the release of Windows 95. It does take some getting used to, which is to say that at first I hated it. The application icons now lack the text labels and are limited to their icons, but do provide informative screenshots of the program windows, which makes grouping similar buttons actually an actually usable concept. Applications can also be pinned to the task bar in a somewhat similar, but improved, fashion to the Mac OS X dockbar. This means that your more commonly used programs will always be grouped in the same place on the bar making it much easier to find them when switching rapidly among numerous open windows. This would actually take the place of my habit of opening programs in a specific order to ensure their icons a certain position on the task bar (i.e. Firefox, then Outlook, then Eclipse, then a build terminal, then a server log window, etc….).
The UI graphics are not nearly as resource hungry as Vista. Most have heard of the legal troubles that Microsoft has felt due to their “Vista Ready” certification requirements on new PCs and the lack of support for some older PCs. Well, Windows 7 lacks this problem. In testing, I was able to run it using the accelerated graphics with no serious performance issues on a seven year old Dell laptop with a gig of RAM, Nvidia Gforce2-Go graphics processor, and a 2.4Ghz Intel P4 processor. This on a laptop, even with it’s upgrades over time, has trouble keeping up with Windows XP or the latest versions of Linux.
Of the applications I tested on Windows 7, both 32 bit and 64 bit, I encountered no real issues. The OS shipped with a Windows XP compatibility layer, but I did not make use of it. I tested Firefox, Google Chrome 2 and 3 beta, Adobe Acrobat, Java SE 6, NetBeans 6.5, Google Earth, Picasa, Songbird, and some more. All ran smoothly.
Windows 7 is not without it’s problems, however…
The Release Candidate I tested on the old Dell laptop did not handle a group of bad sectors on the hard drive very gracefully. Instead of identifying the sectors, it slowed down and eventually died (After I was able to get a feel for performance and non-bad-sector-related stability). Fedora 11 Linux, installed afterwards, kindly notified me of the bad sectors, and hasn’t had any issues since.
System configuration is a complete and utter mess. I guess that for a new or non-tech savvy user, it may make sense, but it was all over the place. Attempting to manually change network settings such as the TCP/IP or WiFi configurations was an adventure in tangled links and buried pages. Even the control panel, historically a decently laid out menu of configuration utilities, is now a long list of menus, each with sublists and other non-meaningful clutter.
So, with all that said…
So, in my opinion (notorious for being pro-open source, anti-Microsoft), is that Windows 7 is worth the time and upgrade, for those struggling with Vista, and especially those Windows XP holdouts. I wouldn’t recommend running out and grabbing a copy at first change, mainly due to a somewhat steep price tag, but definitely put it on the to-do list.
Happy Linux users, such as myself, will likely put the amount they are willing to spend on the Operating System at $0.00 (as I did), but should you actually score a (legal) copy at that price, go ahead with it, I’m sure you, and mostly your PC-using family members, will appreciate it.