It feels odd to be writing a review of Windows 7 this early. Normally, software reviews don’t make sense until the code is officially released and you have to make a buying decision: upgrade, pass, or buy a new PC with the new OS. The Windows 7 Release Candidate, available for download now, is still technically a pre-release product, and it’s free for your unlimited evaluation (at least until it starts shutting down every two hours beginning on March 1, 2010 and stops working completely on June 1, 2010).
From a features and capabilities point of view, Windows 7 is essentially done. It’s all over but the process of hunting down bugs, many of them associated with OEM hardware and drivers. In a bygone era, code this stable and well tested might have been released as a 1.0 product, followed six months later by a service pack. Not this year. Microsoft is treating Windows 7 as the world’s most ambitious shareware release ever. Try it. Use it for a few months, or even a whole year. If you like it, buy it. If you don’t like it, go back to your old Windows version or switch to a completely different OS.
In short, if you’ve got a spare PC and enough bandwidth to download two or three gigabytes worth of code from Microsoft’s servers, you have everything you need to do your own review. If you’re the least bit interested in Windows, from a personal or professional point of view, then I recommend you do exactly that.
In that spirit, this post is not going to be a traditional review at all. I'm not going to deliver a verdict or fill in a report card or offer a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. I'm not going to tell you how wonderful or awful it is overall or which specific features rock and which ones suck.
Instead of that conventional review approach, I want to share my experiences after six months of using Windows 7 full time. My attitude over that six months has been to keep an open mind, learn how the operating system works, and incorporate its features into my work style. If you’re planning to evaluate Windows 7, I urge you to try the same approach: Keep an open mind, try to figure out how it works, and see if maybe some small changes in old work habits can pay big dividends in productivity. Throughout this post and the accompanying image gallery, I’ve included instructions on how to customize important elements if you really can’t stand the new approach. Armed with that information, you can form your own opinion.
A few preliminary notes: Conventional wisdom says you should do a clean install. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but I’ve also had good luck upgrading systems from Windows Vista. The upgrade takes longer than a clean install, but at the end of the process you don’t have to reinstall all your software (and deal with activation hassles) and you don’t have to transfer files and settings from your backup.
Overall, I’m impressed with how reliable this Windows release has been. It also seems more than adequate in terms of performance. I haven’t taken a stopwatch to measure speeds and feeds, but overall, every common operation in Windows 7 feels snappy and responsive, even on old hardware. I haven’t seen significant changes in startup and shutdown times over Windows Vista on the same hardware.
In the remainder of this post, I look at Windows 7 from a variety of viewpoints, with opinions and advice on what you can expect in your review. I look forward to reading your comments and mini-reviews in the Talkback section.
One topic I don’t cover here is the new Windows Media Center and some slick new media-sharing features in Windows Media Player. I’ll tackle that topic in detail next week.
In the gallery: A bumped-up Windows Experience Index, data-rich Resource Monitor, and crisply organized Action Center
Hardware and driversYou want a happy Windows experience? Get good drivers for all your hardware. That was one of the painful lessons of Windows Vista’s disastrous first year, and Microsoft and its partners aren’t likely to repeat those mistakes with Windows 7.
In more than a dozen installations of the Windows 7 RC code on a variety of desktop and portable PCs, I’ve seen only a handful of devices that required me to install a driver manually. In several cases, a driver that wasn’t installed during the initial setup was picked up by Windows Update shortly after I logged on for the first time.
For most mainstream hardware, even for some fairly old devices, I suspect that driver coverage for Windows 7 today is already better than it was when Windows Vista Service Pack 1 was released. Windows 7, after all, has a head start, because most of those Vista drivers will work with it as well thanks to their shared driver model. Hardware companies appear to have learned their lesson from the Vista debacle and are putting some serious effort into getting good driver support well before the final release.
The makers of graphics boards have been especially aggressive with video drivers. Nvidia and ATI have been delivering updates that support the WDDM 1.1 driver model, which reportedly consumes fewer resources than Vista’s WDDM 1.0 spec. I’ve found up-to-date Windows 7 drivers for fingerprint readers, some advanced sound cards, and a motley assortment of TV tuners, suggesting that the current driver lineup is stronger across all device classes.
The biggest driver headache I’ve found has occurred on a couple of occasions when Windows 7 installed a generic driver for a notebook component that needed a custom driver to unlock its full potential. That occurred on a Lenovo ThinkPad, whose built-in microphone wouldn’t work until I replaced a generic audio driver with a Vista driver downloaded from Lenovo’s website.
I’ve had no problems with 64-bit support, finding drivers for every device on two desktops and one notebook. But if you have a system with a multi-touch screen, like the HP TouchSmart TX2 or Dell’s Latitude XT or XT2, you’ll have to wait a little longer to try out the fancy new gestures (your old touchscreen drivers will enable basic touch and tablet capabilities). N-Trig, which makes the touch screens and supplies the drivers, hasn’t updated its Windows 7 driver package since January 22. I don’t recommend using those beta drivers with the RC.
In the gallery: The new Devices and Printers window, Automatic driver updates, and a touch keyboard.
The desktop, Start menu, and taskbarWindows 7 makes its most noticeable changes right on the desktop, fundamentally changing some core interface elements that had previously stayed pretty much the same since Windows 95.
At the top of the list of changes is the new taskbar (aka the Superbar). For generations, the taskbar has been defined by its text label. In Windows 7, the default taskbar arrangement ditches text completely. Running programs and shortcuts you pin to the taskbar get a big icon and nothing more. You can drag icons to rearrange their order, whether the program they represent is running or not. When a program is running, it gets a subtle shading that makes it appear to be sitting just above the taskbar. Jump lists enable quick access to recently used documents, and thumbnail previews make it easier to find the window you’re looking for.
The left-brainers among us might prefer to restore those text labels, a customization that takes all of a few seconds. The instructions, along with before and after pictures, are here.
Over the past few months, I’ve switched back and forth between the default arrangement and the “Combine when taskbar is full” option, which looks more like the XP\Vista taskbar. I’ve found that I prefer the default icons-only arrangement. I’ve learned what each icon looks like (it took a while to learn to recognize some of the more obscure ones), and I appreciate the fact that programs I pin to the taskbar stay in the exact same position. If you enable text labels, then pinned program icons become larger taskbar buttons when they’re running. That shifts the arrangement and makes it harder to find programs by their location on the taskbar.
The window management tricks in Windows 7 are among the things I miss the most when I temporarily go back to XP or Vista. In general, I find that most people are delighted by Aero Snap, which resizes and positions a window automatically when you drag to the edge of the display. I’m occasionally startled by the Show Desktop button (part of te Aero Peek feature), which hides all open windows temporarily when you aim the mouse at a spot on the far right side of the taskbar. And I’m bemused by Aero Shake, which you activate by clicking on a window’s title bar and moving the window swiftly left and right a few times. That minimizes all open windows except the one you’re annoying. Shake again to restore the minimized windows to their previous positions.
The wacky Windows wallpapers have gotten more than their share of attention. Personally, I like the ability to build my own themes using a collection of pictures I’ve shot as a desktop background that changes every 30 minutes. If you're a photography buff, give it a try.
In the gallery: The new taskbar, Jump lists and previews, the Notification area, and building your own theme.
Windows Explorer and searchSo, who remembers File Manager? You know, that Windows 3.1 utility? Looked like what you’d get if a DOS directory listing mated with VisiCalc?
It’s gone. Deal with it.
Windows Explorer has been evolving for nearly 15 years from its early roots as a disk and file browser. Today, it’s a multipurpose host capable of displaying all sorts of content, not just files. The biggest change is an insistence on using namespaces that aren’t tied to a hierarchy with some sort of disk device at the top.
This emphasis is embodied in the new-style Navigation Bar. If you’re used to seeing a single folder tree in XP and Vista, you might be lost until you figure out what those four or five nodes are all about. Yes, you can customize the Favorites links at the top of the pane with shortcuts to locations you visit regularly. And yes, you can browse local disks in the Computer node and shared folders under the Network heading. (We’ll get to Homegroup later.)
The really big change in Windows 7 is the addition of libraries, which occupy a place of honor in the middle of the Navigation pane. Libraries are virtual folders, defined by snippets of XML in a well-hidden part of your user profile. When you add a folder or shared network drive to a library, it remains in its location in the file system—in other words, the path is unchanged—but its contents appear in the library, where you can open, change, and delete files just as if they were in the actual folder where they’re stored. If you search, your search goes across all the locations in the library (including shared network folders) and returns a consolidated set of results.
Libraries in the file system are intimately tied to libraries in Windows Media Player and Media Center as well. By default, the Music library contains files from the music folder in your profile and from the Public Music folder. If you have more music files in a shared folder on a Windows Home Server, you can add that location to the library and all your music files, local and network, will appear in Media Player, Media Center, and the Music library in Windows Explorer.
The big questions for Microsoft are twofold: First, will Windows users be able to get past the initial conceptual hurdle of understanding what libraries are? Judging by the queries I get, this could be a training issue. And second, will corporate customers find a use for this feature? One gotcha to be aware of: Locations in a library must be indexed. In practice, that means you’re limited to local and shared folders running on Windows machines that support Windows Search. You won’t be able to add a location on a Linux machine or a NAS device to a library, at least not in the original release of Windows 7.
The other change that takes Windows 7’s Explorer well beyond its File Manager roots is a tight integration with Windows Search. In a nod to usability, Vista’s clunky and awkward Advanced Search pane is gone. It’s replaced by a more subtle interface that uses search filters in the search box in the upper right corner of any Windows Explorer window. (I’ve included some examples in the gallery that accompanies this post.)
Search in the Start menu is greatly improved as well. When you click Start and enter a word or phrase in the search box, your results come back neatly categorized. Each of the category headings is a live link—clicking one opens that search in Windows Explorer so you can see the full set of results. That simple change makes Start menu searches the preferred way to find stuff, in my experience. If you’re looking for an e-mail message, you can enter a term, click the Outlook heading in the search results list, and refine your search from there.
In the gallery: Windows Explorer at a glance, customizing the Navigation bar, using libraries, and two ways to search
SecurityIt’s hard to give security features a fair review. If they’re well designed and do their job effectively, you never notice them. It’s also a challenge to illustrate esoteric parts of the Windows architecture, such as Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR) and Data Execution Prevention (DEP). Both features are important defenses against malware that tries to exploit flaws in the operating system such as buffer overruns. Windows Vista introduced many of the core elements that make up the security platform in Windows 7, refined and, for the most part, improved.
One of the most controversial security-related changes in Windows 7 involves User Account Control. This useful but tragically misunderstood feature alienated Windows Vista users by the millions with what appeared to be incessant nagging. Windows 7 dials the UAC annoyance level way, way down. (Microsoft claims that the number of UAC prompts is down by 29% compared to the original release of Vista.) If your user account is a member of the Administrators group, you won’t see UAC consent dialog boxes for most functions you perform from Control Panel. You’ll see UAC prompts as you install applications, but after you’ve checked that task off your list you might go days without being bothered by UAC.
Two other changes in Windows 7 are designed to reduce the threat posed by USB flash drives.
The Conficker worm hops from PC to PC using a variety of mechanisms, one of which involves flash drives and some clever social engineering. To block that avenue of infection, Windows 7 disables AutoRun for removable media like flash drives and memory cards.
An even more serious risk of flash drives is the danger that a drive filled with confidential or sensitive data will be lost or stolen. One solution: an extension of the BitLocker feature introduced in Windows Vista and available only in Windows 7 Ultimate or Enterprise. BitLocker To Go allows you to apply BitLocker drive encryption to removable devices. After you enter a password, the contents of the drive are locked using extremely strong encryption. You can unlock (and re-lock) a BitLocker-encrypted drive using any edition of Windows 7; to set up the initial BitLocker encryption and manage encrypted drives, though, you need to be running Windows 7 Ultimate or Enterprise. (On systems running Windows XP or Vista, you can read and copy the contents of a BitLocker-encrypted drive after entering the correct password, but you can’t add or change files on the drive.) You can configure an encrypted drive so that it always unlocks automatically on any system where you’ve logged on with your user credentials.
For enterprises, which typically have most to lose when data escapes on a stolen or lost flash drive, BitLocker To Go is a killer feature. Check out the step-by-step instructions in the gallery and then try it for yourself.
In the gallery: The Windows Firewall, setting up BitLocker drive encryption, and unlocking an encrypted flash drive
Windows Virtual PC and XP ModeXP mode is one of the few surprises to emerge from the Windows 7 development process. Unveiled less than two weeks ago, it’s received a disproportionate share of news coverage. Will it turn out to be a killer feature or just an esoteric add-on? It's still too early to say.
Windows 7 includes compatibility tools similar to those found in Windows Vista, which allow you to work around minor compatibility issues so that you can install and run an application that was written for an earlier Windows version. XP Mode is for more chronic problems, where a program that runs fine in Windows XP simply won’t work on Windows 7. It uses a spiffy new version of Microsoft’s venerable Virtual PC program to run a fully licensed copy of Windows XP SP3 in a virtual machine. (XP Mode is available only with Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise editions of Windows 7 and requires hardware virtualization support in the CPU.) I found the setup reasonably straightforward. First you run a small update package to enable Windows Virtual PC, and then you install the Virtual Windows XP package to unpack the XP virtual machine and set it up.
The most popular use for XP Mode is to run a critical business program that won’t run otherwise, such as a point-of-sale application or an accounting package. Looking around my office, I found a perfect test case as well. My primary PC runs Windows 7 x64; I have a USB scanner that doesn’t have x64 drivers but has a perfectly functional set of XP drivers. It also comes with a fully licensed copy of Adobe Acrobat 7.0, which has compatibility issues with Windows 7.
The new Windows Virtual PC includes the capability to attach USB devices. I plugged in the scanner to a USB port on the host machine, attached the device to the XP virtual machine, and proceeded to install Acrobat and the XP scanner driver without issue. I then had no trouble scanning a handful of documents.
All the code that makes XP Mode possible, including Windows Virtual PC, is still in beta form, so it’s difficult to evaluate the software fairly. Although it works, it wasn’t as seamless as advertised and occasionally confused me with its behavior. In my case, I couldn’t use the so-called seamless mode to initiate a scan. I had to load the full XP virtual machine, attach the USB scanner, and then click the scan button each time.
The new Virtual PC program is impressively lightweight, using about 280 MB of RAM to host a 256MB virtual machine. I found that keeping the XP virtual machine running when hibernating took a toll on wake-up times. The program had a fair number of glitches, too. For example, I couldn’t create or edit a virtual machine when logged in using a standard user account. Each virtual machine is tied to a specific user account, so you can’t share an XP program between two accounts using a VM in a common location. And the process of switching between Virtual PC and seamless mode was cumbersome, with some truly inscrutable error messages.
In the gallery: XP’s seamless mode, the Virtual PC interface, and examples of confusing error messages
NetworkingTrying to evaluate all the networking features in Windows 7 takes more resources than the average casual tester has at his disposal. Several significant improvements are aimed squarely at corporate networks, like DirectAccess, a slick alternative to VPNs that only works if you have a box running Windows Server 2008 installed at the edge of your network. There’s also BranchCache, which is designed to improve network responsiveness in remote offices connected to a Windows Server 2008 box over a wide area network. If you’ve got the resources to do those tests, share your experiences in the comments below.
Meanwhile, a completely different set of networking features are available for home users. The most interesting is a new feature called Homegroups, which is designed to simplify the process of sharing digital media, printers, and documents between Windows 7 PCs. (Homegroups don’t work with earlier Windows versions, nor with other operating systems.)
To create or join a Homegroup, you have to set your network location to Home. If you choose Public or Work when you see the Location dialog box, you’ll be unable to connect to a HomeGroup and the Homegroup shortcuts won’t appear in Windows Explorer.
Any administrator can set up a Homegroup. Windows assigns a random password, which you can change to something easier to remember. This password isn’t intended to be a deep secret. The whole idea of HomeGroups, in fact, is to take the headaches out of networking and sharing in environments where you trust everyone, as in a home network.
The benefits of a Homegroup appear in Windows Explorer, where you can easily browse another user’s shared libraries. They also show up in Windows Media Player and in Windows Media Center; the latter allow you to play recorded TV from another computer’s library.
Homegroups are another concept that requires an initial conceptual leap to understand. I’m interested in hearing feedback from readers who’ve installed the Windows 7 RC. Are you using Homegroups? How easy or difficult were they to set up, and are they working as you expect?
Another noteworthy change in the networking feature set makes wireless access points easier to connect to. When a wireless adapter is installed and active, an icon appears in the Notification area. Clicking that icon displays a list of available networks and gives you all the tools you need to connect securely.
In the gallery: Setting up a Homegroup, connecting to shared Homegroup resources, easier wireless