It’s perhaps a virtue of Windows 7 that you soon forget you are working in the environment of Microsoft’s newest operating system and just get on with the computing tasks at hand.
If you’re upgrading from Vista, the changes can probably best be described as cleverly subtle. There’s nothing radical here – no game-changing technologies that signal the future of desktop computing. For a company the size of Microsoft that’s potentially quite alarming – what are all those people doing? But after the botched birth of Vista and a disappointing experience for many with Windows ME, the focus on executing the basics is admirable.
If you are upgrading to Windows 7 from Vista you’re in for a relatively smooth, if potentially lengthy ride. Make sure you run Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor before you start, to see if there are any potential incompatibilities you’ll have to deal with and if your computer has the grunt to run the new operating system.
My machine, a Dell XPS M1330 with 4GB of RAM was deemed to have plenty of power to cope with it. However, when I went to install Windows 7, I was told that I couldn’t proceed with the installation until I upgraded the computer’s BIOS. Now the BIOS is a pretty integral piece of software that governs a lot of functions on your computer, so I was a little bit nervous about the upgrade, but I quickly located the latest BIOS software on the Dell site, crossed by fingers and flashed the BIOS. Windows rebooted and loaded smoothly paving the way for the install. Now, that install was a very hands-off process, but it did take the best part of 2.5 hours as the 2.5GB of files were installed, expanded, settings checked and transferred.
Overall however, I have to say that installation was a smooth run – unlike with Vista where I found myself running a new operating system that wasn’t compatible with numerous device drivers on my computer.
XP users making the upgrade – and there’s a good chance this is the majority of people who will be moving to Windows 7 have a slightly more complicated task ahead of them and if the Windows 7 upgrade process falls over anywhere, it is likely to be here. Moving from XP to Windows 7 is a clean install – it will wipe all your files off the computer, so you will need to create copies of them on an external hard drive, CD or DVD and transfer them once Windows 7 is safely bedded in.
A feature of XP called Windows Easy Transfer will help make the process easier and Computerworld has some useful tips on undertaking an XP to Windows 7 upgrade here. Make sure before you do the Windows 7 installation that you have the program installation discs for all the various software packages and applications you’ll want to reinstall on the computer once Windows 7 is onboard – and double check your files have successfully transferred to your external back-up source before pushing the button on the upgrade.
I haven’t done any scientific tests to prove it yet, but Windows 7 seems to run processes slightly faster on the XPS. Boot up time is similar to that of Vista, but the occasional lags I used to experience in running multiple applications or waiting for results to populate in the Windows search bar appear greatly reduced. PC World has some good tips on how to optimise performance in Windows 7.
There are numerous reports that Windows 7 is more energy efficient – using less processing power and therefore less battery power, giving laptop users more computing time between charges. I’m not convinced about this in terms of the XPS. I’m still averaging a fairly modest two hours of battery life.
Look and feel
Vista users won’t notice anything too extreme in the looks department – the toolbar is slightly fatter and icons display differently. The fonts, icons and colour scheme have all been refreshed, as has the log-in screen and the graphics displayed during boot-up. However, Windows 7 is much more useful in how it displays windows and applications. For instance, you can hover over the Internet Explorer (or Firefox) image in the task bar to bring up a pop-up window that will show you the most recent sites you have visited. Returning to one of those sites simply requires you to click on the desired link.
Hovering over an application in the task bar, displays a nice large preview screen of the application. Mac users are already treated to such user-friendly features so it is good to see them appear in Windows. Personalising Windows seems to be easier – themes and desktop backgrounds are easier to apply and the gadget bar which used to run down the right side of the screen in Vista can now be pulled apart and scattered around the desktop. These gadgets are potentially very useful – I’ve got RSS feeds, weather and a Twitter client going, so even with no web browser window open, I’m receiving a regular stream of information straight to the desktop.
Again, it is mainly subtle improvements to existing features that form the bulk of Window’s 7 overhaul – but already I’m coming to appreciate these changes. A redesign of how files and folders are organised allows you to bundle folders from across your computer in one location. So all the folders containing music cna be grouped together and in fact Windows will even doing this for you automatically. This is highly valuable if, for instance, you have music spread across multiple folders. Any sort of grouping can be configured making browsing for files so much easier and avoiding the confusion that sometimes arose in Windows between public and personal folders.
Home Group makes it much easier to share files across multiple computers and devices connected to the home network. Incidentally, allowing streaming in Windows 7 simply required it being enabled in Windows Media Player, a one click process, and I was quickly able to stream music and videos to my Playstation 3 console. WMP also allowed me to quickly authenticate my Windows Live ID so I can stream content over the internet from my home computer to another computer.
One click access to wi-fi networks is now possible thanks to a revamped wireless connections interface.
A few new interface features make navigation on the desktop easier. Aero Peek is a little sliver of the task bar you can click to clear the clutter of applications and browser windows from the screen to show you your clean desktop. Snap lets you push an application window to the side of the screen to snap it shut or towards the top of the screen to maximise it. You can also display two windows side by side. Shake allows you to grab a window with your mouse pointer, click and shake it slightly to minimise all other windows. It is very useful for those of us who end up with 10 – 20 windows of one sort or another open at one time.
While Vista was lauded for beefing up security and closing off many of the exploits that plagued Windows XP, especially prior to the application of Service Pack 2, many complained at the pop-up screens Vista would throw at you asking for permission everytime you sought to install an application or change a setting. I’ve already had a couple of pop-up screens but they are a lot less frequent. Experts suggest Windows 7 may well be the safest Windows operating system yet. There’s also built-in encryption now for external hard drives and flash drives, which is a nice feature as we are using so many of these types of devices to back-up our digital lives and make data portable.
Chris Keall has the details here, but as he points out its a disappointing price range being offered by the big retailers. There are no major discounts on offer for those upgrading unlike in the US and Europe.
Windows 7 Home Premium (32-bit edition) is selling for around $190 across numerous retailers advertising on Pricespy, Professional (32-bit) around $260 and Ultimate (32-bit) $340. So there is obviously some discounting going on at the discretion of online retailers.
This is what Vista should have been back when it launched in 2007. If XP users can get over the slightly trickier upgrade process, this should be a resounding success for Microsoft. It’s an interesting factor that since upgrading to Windows 7 I’ve become more engaged with Windows features I’ve ignored for years, such as the Media Centre software, which is actually quite good. I’m also tempted to increasingly check out Microsoft’s Windows Live suite of online services, though there’s no particularly exciting integration between desktop OS and the cloud delivered here. Maybe that’s a missed opportunity or a determined attempt to keep the desktop focused on running PC-based applications. You can’t really argue with that as a mission statement.