With Windows 7, Microsoft has done an excellent job of taking the core of Vista and turning it into a much leaner and more usable operating system. It introduces many new features that make it easier to use a PC with other devices and networks, and 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)
Windows 7 is the most eagerly awaited version of Microsoft's desktop operating system for years, thanks to the disappointment that Windows Vista has largely proven since its launch three years ago. This led many users to stay on Windows XP, an operating system now the best part of a decade old. Can Windows 7 restore Microsoft's reputation?
We believe the answer is yes, with one or two caveats. Windows 7 fixes many of the issues that customers had with Vista, but it is still largely based on the core code underlying the older platform, meaning that, while applications written for Vista will mostly run under Windows 7, the same is not necessarily true for applications designed for Windows XP.
Another important issue for enterprise customers is that some of the most useful new corporate features of Windows 7 are only available when it is used within an infrastructure based on Windows Server 2008 R2, which has only recently been released to manufacturing.
These features are not likely to show their full potential before IT departments have been through the process of testing and upgrading their server infrastructure to Windows Server 2008 R2, which could be a protracted process given the current economic climate.
However, on the whole, we believe that Windows 7 is a worthy successor to Windows XP for both businesses and consumers, but how speedily the new platform is adopted by either audience is likely to depend on numerous factors such as upgrade costs and, for businesses especially, application compatibility.
In this first part of our Windows 7 review, we're going to focus mostly on the user interface. Windows 7 is designed to be easier to use than earlier versions of Windows, with enhancements to make tasks easier, and improvements in the way devices and peripherals are handled. It is also designed to be leaner than its predecessor, Windows Vista, and to run faster on the same hardware.
Compared with earlier versions, Windows 7 also makes better use of multi-core chips and can support up to 256 logical processors. However, users will see the full benefit of a multi-core system only if the applications they run are also designed to be multi-threaded, so the workload can be distributed across multiple cores.
While some reports have stated the contrary, we found that Windows 7 boots faster than earlier versions of Windows; on some test systems we have been able to use the computer in little more than 30 seconds from pushing the power button.
We were also impressed with how stable Windows 7 has been; from the earliest pre-beta code right through until the final release, we have found it much more reliable than Vista was even after release, and have experienced few problems with the new operating system at all.
Windows 7 is also 'quieter', with fewer annoying pop-up notifications than were seen with Vista. Beyond an initial notification, messages are now moved to a special notification area on the taskbar so that users can review them at their leisure.
Another bugbear of Vista was the User Account Control (UAC) prompts, designed to improve security, but which tended to pop up far too often during normal work. Changes to UAC now mean that users need to authorise an action far less often.
Because Windows 7 is based on Vista's technology, the desktop appears quite similar at first glance, and Vista users will have little difficulty adapting to the new platform. Those moving from XP will find the menus and file structure a little different than what they are used to.
User files are handled differently in Windows 7, for example, with the introduction of the concept of Libraries. By default, Libraries includes folders for documents (replacing My Documents), pictures, videos and music. However, each of these can pull together content from multiple sources, so that the documents library might pool documents stored on the local hard drive with those held in a network folder, for example.
Other user interface improvements include Jump Lists, pop-up menus that provide shortcuts to functions from applications minimised to the task bar. The Windows Sidebar has now gone, enabling users to place gadgets such as a clock or calendar anywhere on the desktop, and minor tweaks include the ability to 'dock' application windows to one side of the screen or another, making it easier to see two windows side by side.
Windows 7 also has support for gesture-based input, allowing users with supported touch-screen PC hardware to operate applications using fingertip control. This works in all applications, allowing users to scroll through windows and tap menu options with a finger, even in existing applications such as Office 2003 that were not written with touch in mind.
Windows 7 changes the way devices, such as printers, phones and other peripherals, are handled. Called Device Stage, this brings together all of the features and information about a device into one place. Device vendors are able to customise the screen for their particular device to allow users to access all its features from one place, including letting you browse the content of Flash memory cards plugged into a smartphone, for example.
In the next part of this article, we will compare Windows 7's new features for businesses and consumers. See Review: Windows 7 - part 2.