Windows 7: An impressive upgrade

Windows 7 is officially available to the public tomorrow, after nearly a year of testing. I've covered its features and capabilities in detail over the past few months. Today, on the eve of the official launch, I look at Microsoft's new operating system and answer the big question: Who should upgrade?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Windows 7 is impressive. That word is rarely used in the same sentence as "Microsoft" and "Windows" – certainly not in recent years. But it fits here.

Unlike its predecessors, this Windows version feels as if it were designed and built by a single, coordinated team instead of being assembled from interchangeable parts. In daily use, Windows 7 feels graceful and often (but not always) elegant. Although it builds on elements that debuted in Windows Vista, it fixes many usability sins and adds consistency and polish to an interface that had too many rough edges. And some very impressive new capabilities, especially the grossly underrated Libraries feature, offer rewards for digging deeper.

Windows 7 runs smoothly and efficiently on even modest hardware. Remarkably, it reverses the longstanding trend to make Windows bigger. From a standing start, Windows 7 uses less memory, runs fewer services, and consumes less disk space than its predecessor, Windows Vista, and in the 64-bit version it can address about five times more RAM than you can actually stuff onto a single motherboard. This year, anyway.

I've already covered the features in Windows 7 extensively. Little in Windows 7 has changed since I wrote What to expect from Windows 7 back in May. If you review the screenshot gallery I assembled for that post, you'll have a very good idea of how Windows 7 looks and acts today (the sole exception is Windows XP Mode, which has changed significantly from the beta release I looked at in May).

When Windows Vista was released in January 2007, I suggested that most businesses of even modest size and complexity would be wise to heed conventional wisdom and avoid it until Service Pack 1 was ready. I don't feel compelled to offer that same advice here. The development process for Windows 7 has been steady and deliberate. The Release Candidate code that Microsoft made public last May was arguably more stable and reliable than most recent official Windows releases. As I wrote in What to expect from Windows 7 nearly six months ago:

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.

I'm told that 8 million people have been running the Windows 7 Release Candidate. That's four times the number of people who registered as Windows Vista beta testers during its development process. My gut feeling is that the number of people actually using Windows 7 in recent months is at least an order of magnitude higher than the corresponding head count in the runup to Windows Vista. And based on everything I've heard, the overwhelming majority of those who try Windows 7 like it.

So, who should upgrade? And who shouldn't? As always, I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all recommendations. But for a few categories, the choice is simple:

  • If you're running Windows Vista and gritting your teeth over it, you should upgrade as soon as possible. The relief will be immediate.
  • If you're shopping for a new PC, get one with Windows 7 on it. And if it doesn't run properly on Day 1, return it and find another. OEMs that do a good job of matching PC hardware to Windows should be rewarded. Those who didn't learn from the Vista experience deserve to be punished.
  • If you're perfectly happy with the performance of XP and don't want to relearn established habits, stay put.
  • For anyone relying on mission-critical Windows-based apps or specialized hardware, testing trumps any desire to have the latest OS, no matter how well it's been reviewed.

And if you're feeling gun-shy about switching, it's OK to wait. Most people forget that the venerable Windows XP was unpopular and unloved for its first two years in the marketplace. And Windows Vista has matured into a solid, if forgettable OS after many reliability updates and two service packs. Based on that experience, Windows 7 will improve with age.

Yes, there are downsides to the Windows 7 transition. For Windows XP users in particular, the upgrade process is tedious. Licensing is still a confusing mess, especially for small business owners. Drivers are still a potential source of headaches, as I’ve found in recent months.

But its  improvements in productivity, security, and reliability make Windows 7 worth those short-term hassles. It is, without question, the most impressive software development effort Microsoft has ever undertaken. For anyone who has chosen Windows – out of preference or necessity – it is an impressive achievement and as close to an essential upgrade as I have ever seen.

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