Windows 7 first look: More than just "Vista, fixed"

Windows 7 first look: More than just "Vista, fixed"

Summary: For the past 10 days, I’ve been methodically installing and testing the final release of Windows 7 on a wide range of desktop and notebook configurations in my home and office. I’ve done upgrades and clean installs, with and without the Easy Transfer utility, using different editions in 32-bit and 64-bit flavors. I’ll have a through review of Windows 7 next week, including a deep dive into its most interesting new features. Today, I want to offer some first impressions based on my initial experience with these final bits.


[Update; For my final, official review of Windows 7, see Windows 7: An impressive upgrade. For a hands-on look at the final code in action on 10 desktop and notebok PCs, see Windows 7 in the real world: 10 PCs under the microscope.]

Windows 7 won’t be officially available to the public until next week—Thursday, August 6, to be exact—when MSDN and Technet subscribers will finally get the chance to download the software legitimately and activate their copies with product keys. It’s the first step on a long rollout that will end October 22 when the software will be available for purchase in retail boxes and on new PCs.

I’ve been able to get a head start, using the official RTM build (7600.16385). For the past 10 days, I’ve been methodically installing and testing the final release of Windows 7 on a wide range of desktop and notebook configurations in my home and office. I’ve done upgrades and clean installs, with and without the Easy Transfer utility, using different editions in 32-bit and 64-bit flavors. I’ll have a through review of Windows 7 later. Today, I want to offer some first impressions and an image gallery based on my initial experience with these final bits.

Windows 7 isn’t perfect, but it is greatly improved over its predecessors in many ways. Calling it an “evolutionary” release in comparison to Windows Vista is probably a fair characterization. However, if you assume that Windows 7 is simply “Vista, fixed,” you’ll miss many small but meaningful changes and several large ones that give Windows 7 its own identity. In daily use, I continue to be impressed by the attention to detail that went into the Windows 7 iterations of features that are part of every Windows user’s daily routine. I’ve also found some hidden gems, which I’ll spotlight here.

[See my image gallery for a close-up look at key features and hidden gems in Windows 7 RTM]

From a design standpoint, Windows 7 makes the 2001-vintage XP design look downright primitive. Switching between Vista and 7 is less jarring, but the improvements in consistency and visual presentation are still noteworthy and make 7 feel more graceful and modern. The palette is softer, and many of the UI rough edges have been smoothed out.

Arguably, the visual presentation is just eye candy. The more important changes, as far as productivity is concerned, are those that improve usability. When I switch from Windows 7 to a PC running an earlier version of Windows (or, for that matter, running OS X or Ubuntu), I miss some of the window management tricks that I’ve come to rely on, including the ability to peek at thumbnails of open windows on the taskbar and to “snap” windows into position with a flick of the mouse.

Over several months of use, I’ve really come to appreciate Jump Lists, which are pop-up menus that can be summoned with a right-click on a taskbar icon (or, more easily, with a quick upward flick of the mouse. The default Jump List for a program allows you to see a list of recently used files and pin favorites to the menu.

I fully expect that some Windows veterans will grumble over a few of the changes in Windows 7. In some cases, those are just different approaches to design. In others, they reflect the Windows 7 learning curve. As I’ve discovered after six months of intense research, some new features take a while to adapt to. A few, like Libraries, which are the new default file-organization scheme in Windows Explorer, are deceptively complex and require some basic training before they can be used to best advantage.

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In terms of performance, Windows 7 feels quick and responsive. It’s a solid performer even on hardware originally designed for Windows XP, and I’ve found that it uses significantly less memory, disk space, and CPU cycles than Vista. The Windows Experience Index, which was initially intended as a marketing tool for Windows Vista, now does a more through job of testing and reporting on your system’s capabilities (more on that next week). One of my favorite new Windows 7 features is Resource Monitor, which allows you to perform some serious real-time sleuthing into running programs, services, and processes to see which ones are affecting performance or making unexpected network connections.

When I’ve clocked startup and shutdown times, I’ve found them to be similar to a well-tuned PC running Vista SP2. The most noteworthy difference is a reduction in unexpected shutdown delays caused by a process or program that refuses to surrender its hold on system resources. Windows 7 does a much better job of bulling past those sorts of obstacles. Sleep and resume operations seem faster and more reliable on Windows 7 than on Vista; I’ll do some more controlled tests between now and next week’s full review.

In terms of multimedia, the biggest news in Windows 7 is that it now supports most popular audio and video formats. You can play back MP3 and WMA tracks as with previous Windows versions, but now you can also use built-in Windows code to play unprotected music ripped and saved in iTunes or purchased from the iTunes Music Store in AAC (M4A) formats. You can also play movies captured by digital cameras in QuickTime Movie format. Neither iTunes nor QuickTime is required for playback of either format. Windows 7 also supports playback and streaming of video files compressed with the popular H.264/AVC codec; however, it does not natively support the popular Matroska (MKV) container format (DivX is working on a solution that will add MKV support to Windows 7 via the Media Foundation framework.)

Driver coverage was excellent across the board on virtually every Windows 7 system I set up. Ironically, Windows 7 offered better driver coverage than Vista, even on systems that were designed for use with Vista. Missing drivers typically showed up via Windows Update, although in the case of a Creative Labs soundcard I had to follow a link to download a driver package. I’ll have more on some subtle driver-related gotchas in next week’s review.

Several new features in Windows 7 are interesting more for their potential than for what they actually deliver today The new Devices and Printers folder, for example, offers a simplified view of user-managed devices, with icons that a hardware maker can customize so the device icon looks exactly  like the physical device it represents. The accompanying Device Stage interface for managing those devices offers a user-friendly alternative to geeky dialog boxes, especially for managing MP3 players, mobile phones, and printers (as in the example shown here).

We won’t know until sometime after October 22 whether and how quickly hardware makers will jump on this particular bandwagon.

Earlier, I mentioned hidden gems in Windows 7. One excellent example is buried in the Sound Control Panel, where you might never notice it. Plug an external device into your sound card’s input jack (Microphone or Line In, for example) and you’ll see a new Listen tab that allows you to direct that input to an output device. Using this feature, you can play your portable music player through your PC speakers without requiring any additional software. (You can see the user interface for this feature in the image gallery.)

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The first wave of reviews for any new operating system always overemphasize the ease of use (or lack thereof) in the setup and upgrade process. That’s only natural, especially in this case, because of the pent-up demand for an XP replacement that isn’t Vista. Over time, the overwhelming majority of people will get a new version of Windows with a new PC and won’t have to deal with setup issues, but it’s a big deal for upgraders and enthusiasts.

On modern hardware (dual- or quad-core CPU, fast hard disk), I found clean install times consistently under 30 minutes. Copying the setup files to a bootable hard drive or USB flash drive cuts about 10 minutes off the setup time. Upgrades took an average of an hour or so. The most recent upgrade, over an installation of Windows Vista Home Premium on a Hewlett-Packard small-form-factor PC used as a Media Center PC in the living room, was almost effortless. Every installed program worked with no modification. The only manual change I had to make was to replace the included Nvidia driver with the complete package from Nvidia’s website, so that I could adjust the image size on the HDTV to which it’s connected.

One of the most welcome changes in Windows 7 is its backup and restore program, which now offers virtually the same feature set in all editions. You can make a system image backup using any edition, even the lowly Windows 7 Starter, and restore the image in just a few minutes. I was especially impressed with how easy it was to restore a system from an image backup saved on a portable hard drive. The recovery utility offered to do a data backup, then rebooted itself and restored my fully customized saved installation in less than 15 minutes. (I’ll have a much more detailed look at this feature next week.)

In an earlier post (and accompanying image gallery), I spotlighted the Windows Easy Transfer utility, which migrates data files and settings for Windows and many popular programs from an old Windows installation to a new one. For anyone upgrading from Windows XP, it’s literally the only way to go (short of third-party software). As part of the migration from RC to RTM on my main desktop system, I used Windows Easy Transfer, which did a flawless job moving data files and was surprisingly effective with program settings. Reinstalling programs is a tedious process, but the Windows Easy Transfer report made it much easier by providing a checklist and download links for most of the software installed on my old PC.

I’ve written a couple of recent posts discussing what’s in the different editions of Windows 7, with an especially close look at the default consumer version, Windows 7 Home Premium. I’ve used all four retail editions over the past 10 days in a variety of roles, including the much-maligned Starter edition. I’ll have more on those differences next week. I’ve also been switching between 32-bit (x86) and 64-bit (x64) Windows versions with no real impediments. In fact, in normal use it’s almost impossible to tell which version is running without consulting system tools. One of the biggest concerns I’ve heard from people considering an x64 upgrade is whether they’ll find support for hardware and software they use. My experience says that the majority of people will have a smooth 64-bit upgrade.

Overall, this flurry of OS installs has made me appreciate Windows 7 even more than I did during earlier rounds of the beta cycle. I’m looking forward to putting together a detailed look at the final product next week. If you have any special requests, leave them in the Talkback section below.

Topics: Software, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Windows

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  • I look forward to your next review

    I am far more interested in the differences between versions than an overview. We've been hearing about Windows 7 features for months, now it would be nice to know exactly which features will be present on each SKU, and how the SKUs perform versus each other (like will Starter really be all that bad, or will the extra bloat on Ultimate make it perform worse than the lesser SKUs?).
    Michael Kelly
    • In answer to your questions:

      "will Starter really be all that bad"

      No. It's designed for very low end netbooks and MID's as an alternate for Linux. It's like "the Windows replacement for Moblin". It's limited, but it's designed for pocket-sized but underpowered netbooks and MID's that wouldn't be able to run a fuller-featured edition.

      New netbooks coming in 2010 will have Pine Trail chipsets with dual-core Atom's and Pine Trail will also support discrete graphics like the next gen Ion platform, so those systems will run Home Premium just fine.

      "will the extra bloat on Ultimate make it perform worse than the lesser SKUs"

      Generally speaking, no. Ultimate has extra features that require extra hardware though. For enthusiasts, Professional will be the accepted standard SKU unless you have requirements for Bitlocker, VHD boot, the Subsystem for Unix Applications (SUA), or some of the other, fairly unnecessary options IMO. Professional has everything in Home Premium but lacks a few things from Enterprise. Enterprise and Ultimate are identical. Enterprise is only sold to customers that get a volume license agreement from Microsoft and have added Software Assurance. Ultimate is sold either on "premium, exclusive" PC's or in retail boxes.

      If you want a good comparison, look here:

      Generally speaking, Enterprise/Ultimate is for IT professionals, high-end developers, and customers that like to tweak and play with every option they can possibly get their hands on.

      If you have to ask what the difference is between Pro and Ent/Ult, I'd say stick with Professional unless you know otherwise.
      • So the BottomLine/BigDeal in Win7 is MouseGestures. Great Article.

        i understand preliminary and introductory but that was one of the most empty articles yet.

        Seamus O'Brog
        • You missed it read....

          you want ot hit the "Next Page" link on the lower right...

          Theres 2 more pages that talk about speed improvements, PC Tuners, Multimedia, New user-managed devices tool, Sound control panel, Cleaner more consitent hardware clean up tools, a 64 bit review, and alot more.

          Like I said its the "Next Page" button on the lower right.
        • Empty? I'm not sure Ed is running on all cylinders! :D :D

          I've had Windows 7 RC running on two computers
          for a number of months now. Is it more stable
          than Vista? Yes! Does it run faster than Vista?
          Well if it didn't, I wouldn't be using it!

          Does it have any better coolnest factors?
          on that note, it depends. Because besides
          streamlining the Vista OS to the point, that it's
          now actually worth what you paid for Vista, they
          took out some features that are sure to cause a
          ruckus in many HOMES and Businesses around the
          World. Especially where they have more than a few
          machines that will NOT be capable of installing
          anything other than Windows XP.

          Forget about connecting yours or your kid's
          Netbook (w/ Win XP only) to the Home Network.
          That feature is now called HOMEGROUPS and the
          only computers that will be allowed to be it's
          buddy, are other Windows 7 users and machines.
          Your kids won't even be able to share the printer
          on that XP run computer/netbook or laptop to
          print out their homework that was due yesterday.

          Hence some hot n heavy replugging to get it
          running on their machines. Chaos will indeed ensue
          w/ the inevitable Mountain Dew & Pepsi
          spills on your Bills. That just to get it done &
          out of your way fury will take over. While you're
          fuming over the ruckus in the Office
          w/ the same scenario taking place there.

          Well now, but ED would say, "just install Windows 7
          and it'll all be good" or even better yet, simply
          move the printer into the kids room, so he spills
          the Pepsi on himself. But then you can only print
          things when he's home.

          Well first off, my son's Netbook barely runs XP. So
          installing Win 7 is not an option and the whole
          idea of a HOME NETWORK is to share files,
          information and access to various devices (like
          printers) that will undoubtedly not all be the same
          or even be capable of running NEW Improved Windows
          7ista wondrous features and HOMEGROUPS! ;)

          The same scenario will be repeating itself as M$
          unsells their Pre-ordered OS on millions computers
          on millions of Home Networks around the World.
          Where people would rather sit tight on Windows XP
          (that never fails them), than enter into the New
          and Improved Ultra Exclusive Windows 7ista Club! ;)

          Note: When next year rolls around w/ the Killzone
          of RC installs, its hardly looking worthwhile to
          upgrade, for all the special Touch Screen and
          Mouse Gesturing of 7ista. So you'll probably
          find me simply using my XP partition more than my
          7ista partition yet again over coming months!
          .....and happier for it after all! :D
          • wrong

            you can still share files/printers the old
            fashioned way between 7 and xp/vista, I've been
            doing it for several months now. Homegroups is
            just a fancier version of file sharing.
          • If it's possible then HOW???

            I've searched the web for the answer and
            haven't found anything that can get around the
            security requirement differential of these two
            systems. Unless you are talking a hack of some
            type and if so, Microsoft can't be too happy
            that it's hacked before it's even out. SO... if
            you have the answer, then share it, cuz I'm
            back using XP again! :D

            Note I whittled my around to at least share
            files located in my XP partition by taking
            ownership of everything including my own files
            (which I find ridiculous to have to do). But
            things are still quicker from the XP side in
            search functions. So I have been
            storing all files in 7, outside of user locked
            directory files to share those w/o all the
            hassles. Best yet for search, I use Linux's
            Beagle for all OS's & file systems. I'm just
            being honest on that point. :P

            Linux is Super Fly compared to any other
            system (including 7, even for a lamer like me)!
            ;) ....had Linux figured out in a heart beat,
            but still working on 7 to master it!

            ***Oh and not talking using Vista as a go
            between either. I don't have Vista installed on
            anything even though I have the install disc
            w/key. As above comment states, I don't want to
            share printer and files from XP install on
            son's puter. I want to share them from Win 7 to
            XP install on son's and wife's XP machines. If
            you know, please share!
          • Freakin easy.. You do it the same way as before.

            1.) Click the Start Orb and Open Devices and Printers.
            2.) Find the printer listed
            3.) Right-click on the printer
            4.) click on Printer Properties.
            5.) Click on the sharing tab.
            6.) Click the check box, give it a name. Click OK.
            Note: You may need to supply Additional Drivers

            Note: Since XP and Vista can't join a Homegroup, you will likely want to disable the home group and just use standard networking.

            You may also need to create a user account for the printer users (the wife and kid) with a password so they can access the printer.
          • Not really....

            I run Windows 7 RC on 2 of my PCs and with bootcamp on a Mac Pro.
            Although I would not replace my Mac OS X Snow Leopard (yes the beta
            runs great) I have to admit comparing Win 7 to Vista is unfair to 7.

            Speed & stability is the key!

            Win 7 fells at least twist as fast and a lot of the games my son plays
            prove it! Large improvement there.

            As for the network I did not find any problems at all (not the case for
            Vista), it connects with everything much easier.

            I think MS finally is up to something here.

            And one machine that was running XP perfect but struggled under
            Vista is running great and feels faster than the XP.

            Kudos to the guys for the effort! For me my next computer is a Mac
            Pro again, I love the feeling and responsiveness of the OS for my
            work, but it will sure run a disk with Windows 7 for the upcoming
            Need for Speed Shift! ;);)
          • LOLS.

            Figured out that you can connect the two yet?
            Figured out that XP machines can join Homegroup? MS claimed that only windows 7 computers could join Homegroup. Well, either they changed their minds (and not told the public at large), or, more likely... THEY LIED. THEY LIED in order to TRICK (fear tactic) SOME n00bs into BUYING 7. But then they also scared even MORE n00bs, into NOT buying it (i.e. But I won't be able to network with my other PCs!!

            If they'd told the truth, they mightn't have made as much money (people may stick with XP longer), but at least if theyDID make the upgrade, they'd do so with the knowledge that it IS in fact QUITE possible as networking protocols haven't been balkanised by MS to the point where the hardware won't work anymore...
            Michael Brabant
    • To elaborate:

      Starter will only be sold on new computers. You won't be able to buy it in retail. The computers that it'll be installed on will be underpowered compared to next year's norm for netbooks. Likely it'll be on this year's equivalent of a netbook next year - a single-core Atom (likely the very slow Z series) with a 945 chipset (GMA 950 graphics) or a US15W (GMA 500 graphics). Both of those platforms are not considered to be capable of doing HD video, especially not the high-bandwidth stuff like Blu-ray. Pine Trail will be though.
      • Starter

        as I understand it, is only available in emerging markets (undeveloped nations).
        • Getting Fresh!

          But, will it make the upgrade. And all the Vista break down. All around...
          Thomas Rippley
          • What? (nt)

        • Sorry, not so

          Vista Starter was available only in emerging markets, and Vista Home Basic was available worldwide.

          For Windows 7, it's reversed. Starter is available worldwide, but only on netbooks. Home Basic is available only in emerging markets.
          Ed Bott
          • Oh...

            well now that really helps fuel confusion then huh?

            Oh well, personally, I'm not really in the market for either one.
          • So why are you bothering with this?

            Or are you only slumming...
            Wintel BSOD
    • The WOW starts now then Ed?

      If MS say nothing, could this be their first ever product that actually meets the hype?
    • Do I Really Need Windows 7?

      Is there really any advantage to moving to Windows 7 from XP?

      I'm using XP on my MacBook Pro through Boot Camp. I have a few
      graphics applications that generate things like displacement maps
      (CrazyBump), and elevation data (GeoControls) that is used in a Mac
      based 3d animation program (Cinema 4D with Vue 7).
      The Mac side does all the heavy lifting.

      Would I benefit from any noticeable performance improvement?

      This MacBook Pro is maxed out at 6 Gigs of ram, so 64 bit processing
      is not an option.

      Eye candy is useless to me and my system runs beautifully right now.
      • Re: 64-bit

        "This MacBook Pro is maxed out at 6 Gigs of ram, so 64 bit processing
        is not an option."

        On 32-bit Windows operating systems, you can utilize a [b]maximum[/b] of 4GB of addressable memory space, but hardware, especially PCI Express video, will take up a considerable amount of that memory address space - usually to the tune of about 1GB. That address space has to fit in under 4GB even if RAM is already there. What happens is that the hardware memory addresses overlay over top of the RAM space, thereby making that RAM inaccessible. (Note: For any technical users, this is a simplified explanation that's easier to understand)

        On many systems, it leaves you with 3 & 1/8, or 3.125GB.

        If you're using high-end applications that are compatible with Windows Vista and possibly 64-bit, you'll see improvements with upgrading to a 64-bit OS because Windows will be able to utilize the full 6GB.

        Make sure your programs are compatible with Windows Vista first. If they work on Vista, they should work on 7. If there are 64-bit versions of the software available, grab it. Otherwise, you won't see much difference in the programs, but Windows can still use the 6GB, which makes multitasking with RAM-intensive programs much easier than on a 32-bit OS.

        Of course, if you want to go that route and still need XP for a legacy app or utility, you can always get Windows 7 Pro and use the virtualized XP mode so that those legacy apps run seamlessly with native Windows 7 apps. That situation really depends on your needs for security and flexibility, as well as the number of programs that will run in 7, vs. the number that will only run on XP.

        My best advice is that if you want to try Windows 7 to test for compatibility, and want to do it before the GA date (Oct. 22nd), grab a copy of the Release Candidate in 64-bit, [b]back up your important stuff[/b] on your computer, or else use a secondary computer, and install Windows 7 and test your applications. The Release Candidate is close enough to final RTM code that you shouldn't have any major bugs with compatibility or stability. It doesn't cost anything to try, except maybe some time.

        If you want to test native compatibility of applications and you're sure your hardware is fully supported by Windows 7, you could always just run it in your favourite virtualization environment, install your applications in it, and see how well they run first, before installing Windows 7 directly on your hard drive. That way, if you don't like, you can just delete the virtual hard drive file.