Windows 7: Where's the Beef?

Tuesday Nov 11th 2008 by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
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Sure, some things are unfinished, and quite a few things are broken, but given that we’re not even in the beta stage yet, Windows 7 is well rounded and offers quite a good experience.

Windows 7 has been a popular talking point for pundits since Microsoft unveiled a pre-beta and provided a fair bit of information about the OS at the PDC 08 conference last month.

But is the OS any good? Where’s the beef? Or, more importantly, is there any beef to begin with? To help answer these questions, I’ve switched a few test machines over to Windows 7 and actually been using the OS to carry out day-to-day work.

OK, so is there any beef or is Windows 7 just a re-packaged Vista? Well, as contradictory as it might sound, the answer to both these question is “yes.”

From what I’ve seen on running the build 6801 pre-beta of Windows 7 (the one handed out at PDC), Windows 7 has plenty of new features to compared to Windows Vista. In fact, build 6801 is far better than its “pre-beta” tag suggests and is far better that early betas of Vista were.

However, if at your core you hate Vista, you’re probably going to hate Windows 7, because it’s obvious that the two operating systems share a lot of DNA.

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A question that people have asked me a lot over the past few days is “What’s Windows 7 like?” After a fair bit of thought, my best answer to this question is “like Vista … only better.” And I’m not just blowing hot air when I say that, I can highlight several areas where 7 really whips Vista. For example:

Speed

Windows 7 is, without a doubt, faster than Windows Vista. While it’s far too early to start benchmarking the OS just yet, there are noticeable speed increases in a number of key areas:

• Install time has been cut dramatically: On a system that took 25-30 minutes to install Vista, 7 loads in about 15-20 minutes.

• Startup and shutdown: Another area that seems to have received a lot of attention is startup and shutdown speed. Put Windows 7 and Vista in a drag race and 7 wins the startup race by about 10% and the shutdown race by some 15%.

• Overall OS responsiveness: While it’s incredibly hard to measure, Windows 7 is undoubtedly snappier and more responsive under load that Vista is. In fact, I’d rate the difference between Windows 7 and Vista SP1 to be greater than Vista and Vista with SP1 installed.

-- Windows 7 finally beats XP hands down: That’s right, you heard me, Windows 7 has the one feature that Vista should have had – the ability to beat XP!

Reliability

For a pre-beta, Windows 7 is incredibly reliable. Sure, I’ve had a few crashes (more on these later), but overall Windows 7 is has performed exceptionally for a pre-beta.

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Ease of use

A recurring complaint about Windows Vista was that it made simple stuff difficult by burying even the simplest set of options inside too much UI, and illogically carried forward too much UI clutter from XP. With Windows 7 Microsoft has started to correct this. Windows 7 doesn’t fix everything yet because the UI is still very much a work in progress and feels a little schizophrenic in places, but you can see many places where Microsoft has simplified the UI.

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I do have quite a number of nagging questions about Windows 7 that I hope will be answered come the beta of the OS.

Continued: Windows 7 Consumer apps, and the user interface?

Are there going to be any new consumer apps?

One of the strong points of the Mac OS is that it comes kitted out with iLife, a suite of apps aimed at the home user. Microsoft has shipped consumer apps with Windows in the past but these have traditionally been rather … well … basic.

From what I can gather Microsoft will offer Live apps via a download to users, but right now I don’t see anything coming that remotely offers the functionality that comes pre-bundled with Macs.

I know that Microsoft has in the past been accused to cluttering up the OS too much, but right now the Start Menu is looking very barren. A happy-medium that would please most people is a default install of consumer apps, but an option during the install process to not install them.

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How polished a user interface can Microsoft deliver?

Put Windows and Mac side by side and you notice how much effort Apple has put into polishing the user experience. Microsoft, on the other hand, seems to have a problem when it comes to making Windows the smooth experience that it should be.

There are so many examples of illogical UI decisions made in Vista that it seems apparent that developing a clean, consistent UI wasn’t a high priority for Microsoft. Fortunately, Microsoft seems to be fixing some of the more glaring issue in 7.

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What about compatibility?

If there was one issue above all others that tarnished the Vista brand it was the high number of compatibility issues that early adopters faced. Despite Vista having a long beta test, vendors such as NVIDIA and ATI had difficulty bringing out drivers that were stable. This caused a lot of understandable user dissatisfaction. The issues have now been fixed but the notion that Vista is buggy and problematic still lives on.

Windows 7, because it is based on the Vista core, should be a pretty safe bet for anyone already running Vista, and most drivers and software should just work normally. That’s not to say that there won’t be any issues. With build 6801 I’ve found that Google’s Chrome browser won’t run, and that some drivers cause Blue Screens of Death (BSoDs) when upgrading from Vista to 7. I expect most of these issues to be resolved by the time Vista is in beta.

Overall, I’m very impressed with build 6801 of Windows 7. For a pre-beta it’s very well rounded and offers quite a good experience. Sure, some things are unfinished, and there’s quite a few things that are broken, but given that we’re not even in the beta stage yet, I have high hopes for Windows 7. It could after all turn out to be Microsoft’s “Lucky 7!”

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