Bigger, better, faster
It's official: Windows 7 is a lot quicker and more reliable than both XP and Vista, as validated by numerous independent benchmarks. It can also take full advantage of the 64-bit, multicore and hyper-threading processor technologies now widespread even on low-cost PCs, resulting in a platform that boots quicker and requires far less in terms of both processing power and memory resources.
It's a lot more efficient at handling the desktop UI, connecting to network resources and handling storage. All of these points add up to a faster operating system and more responsive applications, even on relatively low-spec laptops.
Windows 7 also improves upon its predecessors by running background processes only when needed and adding networking enhancements, especially on the wireless side. There are also major improvements when it comes to putting PCs to sleep and waking them up again, making the process quicker and a lot more reliable than in early versions of Windows.
But do you really need all this extra pizazz? There are lots of ways to increase desktop performance without the cost and upheaval required to swap out the operating system. For example, adding more RAM will give most desktops an instant lift and is something you probably need to do anyway, even if set on migrating to Windows 7. Moreover, if maximising performance is your goal, there are a number of other alternatives such as desktop virtualisation — where processing can be partly offloaded to powerful servers — or switching to a different, leaner operating system altogether.
Fundamentally secure — or not?
According to Microsoft, Windows 7 is a "fundamentally secure platform" and a major step up in security terms from XP and Vista. Whether that's true or not is open to debate, but there are certainly plenty of security enhancements, many building on technologies introduced in Vista that Windows 7 makes better and easier to apply.
BitLocker drive encryption, for example, is extended to support removable media in BitLocker To Go. User Access Control (UAC) technology, where additional privileges are needed for OS changes to be made, is now far less obtrusive.
There are new tools as well, including AppLocker, which can be used to lock down and control user applications, and DirectAccess, giving remote and mobile workers secure network access without the need for a complex VPN setup. Built-in support for smartcards and biometric authentication technologies such as fingerprint readers is now standard; the built-in firewall gets support for multiple active policies. There are numerous security enhancements in the Internet Explorer (IE) 8 browser.
It's not all good news. Windows 7 is far from invincible. Its vulnerabilities will require regular patching to stay secure. More than that, there are limits as to how secure Windows can be made. As a result...