With Windows 7, Microsoft has done an excellent job of taking the core of Vista and turning it into a much leaner and more useful operating system. It introduces many new features that make it easier to use a PC with other devices and networks, and also technologies that should prove of significant value to businesses when used in conjunction with Windows Server 2008 R2. There will inevitably be some die-hards who will not want to move away from XP for various reasons but, unless you have applications that simply will not run on Windows 7, now is the time to at least start planning for a migration to the new platform.
User interface improvements; performs better than Vista on same hardware; easier networking; better multimedia support.
Some existing applications may not be compatible; relatively costly full retail price for various editions.
£149.99 (Home Premium edition)
In this second part of our Windows 7 review, we examine the various added features for consumer and business customers. See part 1 here.
For consumers, Windows 7 adds new features that make it easier to set up a home network and share content among a number of PCs within the same home.
HomeGroup enables a new Windows 7 PC to automatically find others on the same network and link up with them to share resources. Access is protected by a password that is generated when the HomeGroup is created from the first Windows 7 PC, and this must be supplied to join a new computer to the group. See Hands on: Using HomeGroup in Windows 7.
Any printers connected to PCs are automatically shared with the group, but each user can choose which music, pictures, video and document libraries they wish to share. Sharing is only enabled when a Windows 7 PC recognises that it is connected to its 'home' network, and not if a laptop is taken outside the home and connected to a different network, for example.
Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center support a much broader range of audio and video formats in Windows 7, including H.264, Mpeg-4, DivX and AAC, and also allow users to access multimedia content on other computers via HomeGroup. Users can also stream media from one PC in a HomeGroup to another.
As is the case with earlier releases of Windows, the Professional edition has features not in the consumer editions, such as the ability to join a corporate domain and full system backup support in the Backup and Restore Center.
For large organisations, Windows 7 Enterprise Edition adds several potentially significant new technologies, including AppLocker, DirectAccess, BranchCache, federated search and Bitlocker To Go. However, pretty much all of these features require a server infrastructure based on Windows Server 2008 R2 before they can be enabled.
AppLocker gives administrators the ability to apply a white list of applications that are allowed to run on client systems using Group Policy settings, while DirectAccess provides laptop users with the means to connect securely to the corporate network without needing a virtual private network, using an IPv6-over-IPsec encrypted connection.
BranchCache is a new feature designed to offer better access to information for workers in a remote branch office. As the name suggests, it caches data transferred over the network, with cached data either held on a server or distributed among the client PCs at the site.
Federated search (see sample screen above) extends the search capabilities seen in Vista to allow users to search not only their own computer, but to send out the search request to data repositories such as SharePoint and have the results merged with those from their own computer.
Bitlocker To Go extends the Bitlocker encryption technology introduced in Windows Vista to support removable media such as USB Flash drives. Administrators can also set a policy that requires users to encrypt such media before they can be used.
For businesses with the Professional or Enterprise editions, Windows 7 supports XP Mode, which enables any applications with compatibility issues to run inside an XP-based virtual machine. See Hands on: Using Windows XP Mode in Windows 7.
However, XP Mode is not actually supplied as part of Windows 7, but must be downloaded and deployed separately. It also requires a PC with hardware support for virtualisation in the processor, and pushes up the hardware requirements as it needs at least 2GB of memory.
Windows 7 is available in fewer editions than Window Vista. The retail versions in the UK are Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate, costing £149.99, £219.99 and £299.99 respectively.
These versions will also be available pre-installed on PCs, with the likely segmentation being Home Premium targeting consumers, Professional appearing on business systems, and Ultimate on high-end systems aimed at enthusiasts and gamers.
A Windows 7 Family Pack will also be available, allowing Home Premium to be installed on up to three PCs for £149.99.
Another edition, Enterprise, is available only to volume licensing customers, while the Starter edition is limited to original equipment manufacturers and is likely to appear in the UK only on systems such as netbooks.
Starter edition will also be available only as a 32-bit version, while all other editions sold in the UK are available in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions.
The differences between these editions are commensurate with earlier versions of Windows. Home Premium lacks features in Professional such as the ability to join a corporate domain and Remote Desktop capability, and does not support the Windows XP Mode for legacy applications.
Enterprise edition has further corporate-friendly features outlined earlier, such as AppLocker, Bitlocker Drive encryption, DirectAccess and BranchCache, which are also present in the Ultimate edition.
A feature called Anytime Upgrades allows users with Windows 7 Starter, Home Premium or Professional to upgrade to a higher edition by entering a special code, which will be supplied by Microsoft for an extra fee, that unlocks the extra functions.
Further complicating matters, users can buy upgrade versions of Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate if they already have a PC with an earlier version of Windows. Home Premium will cost £79.99 until 31 December 2009, and £99.99 thereafter, while Professional costs £189.99 and Ultimate £199.99.
In the concluding part of this review to follow, we will look at hardware requirements and upgrading.