Microsoft Windows Vista has been, most everyone agrees, a huge disappointment. Even though, in the years leading up to the release of Vista, everyone complained loudly about Windows XP, by comparison, the old, familiar, and reliable XP stayed on everyone’s computer.
So can Microsoft do better? If the buzz about Windows 7 is any indication, the answer is yes. When Microsoft announced the open beta for Windows 7, I decided to see for myself.
Read on for my first impressions of Windows 7.
Update: You can now pre-order you upgrade to Windows 7.
My chief complaint about Vista is that instead of following the lead of Apple and the Linux community, which produce light, fast, and transparent operating systems, Microsoft built Vista to be a huge resource hog. Vista’s system requirements meant most would have to buy a new computer, even though most people already had computers much faster than they needed to browse the web, organize music and photos, and edit the occasional family video.
Fortunately, Microsoft seems to understand what it did wrong, and with Windows 7, is taking the best from Vista, while putting the operating system on a strict diet. While Vista drew on Apple’s OS X for visual inspiration, Windows 7 seems to draw from the Linux desktop environment, KDE.
Windows 7 feels pretty snappy. I didn’t go and run performance tests on it, because others who have done so report that Windows 7 is faster than XP and Vista on the same hardware. My subjective experience agrees.
I installed Windows 7 as a virtual machineVirtualBox running in Ubuntu 8.04 (similar to running Windows on a Mac using Parallels or VMware Fusion). All this was running on my four-year-old ThinkPad with a single-core processor and one megabyte of RAM allocated to Windows 7. I used a 10 GB virtual disk, as well, even though the system requirements specify 16 GB. It did not seem to make a difference.
Even on my “legacy hardware,” Windows 7 felt quick when launching programs and switching tasks. It seems perfectly comfortable running without much graphics memory, which marks a big change from Vista.
My ThinkPad does not have enough memory to run the Aero visual effects (128MB required), but even without them, Windows 7 is attractive, and the visuals take a back seat to the job at hand.
I mean, how often do you sit and admire the window dressing while using OpenOffice.org or Microsoft Word? I want the buttons and scrollbars to be easy to find, but not distracting. Windows 7 does its job without shouting at me.
The new default taskbar, which has a lot in common with the default KDE taskbar, is a change for the better. Instead of crowding icons and window titles in together, you get an icon for each open program. If you have more than one thing open (two Word documents, for example), they are revealed when you hover over the taskbar icon.
If you can run Aero, there are even more great features, such as Peek. On the “little things” end of the spectrum, the new taskbar also includes the date and time, which is something I have always missed in Windows XP.
I love the new taskbar. The OS X-style docks are useless eyecandy, while the old Windows-style taskbars get too cluttered to be functional. The Windows 7 taskbar does a fantastic job of stuffing a lot of useful features into a simple, easy-to-understand taskbar. And it works very well moved to the side, rather than the bottom, of the screen, a good thing on today’s widescreen monitors, where vertical space is at a premium.
New window management options include some useful “snapping” features. With widescreen monitors, it rarely makes sense to work with windows maximized all the time. So Windows 7 makes it easy to snap a window to half the screen, full screen, etc., so you can keep an eye on more than one thing at a time.
Still no virtual desktops, though. I would very much like to see built-in virtual desktops in Windows, as I can no longer work without them. (Yes, I know there is a PowerToy for Windows XP and Vista. It is crap, and the third-party solutions are not much better.)
Windows 7 comes with very little bundled software, at least in the beta version. The notable apps that come with the default install are:
- Windows Media Player
- Windows DVD Maker
- Backup and Restore
- The usual “candy” like Paint, games, calculator, etc.
Windows Media Player 12 is still great, and works well with most MP3 players, although iPod owners will, no doubt, default to iTunes, instead.
The new WordPad is nice-looking, and includes a new “ribbon” menu. It is also compatible with Open Document Format! I had heard that Microsoft would support ODF, but I am excited to see it.
The new backup software is simplified, easy to use, and no longer requires the user to dig around for it.
Because I did not have enough video memory, I could not test drive Windows DVD Maker.
Other formerly-default applications are available free through Live, Microsoft’s online service. If you missed the basic email client, for example, it is easy to install. Windows Movie Maker is, strangely, no longer a bundled app, but you can install it from Live along with a blogging tool and several other bits of useful (to some) software.
Yes, it comes bundled with Internet Explorer, but everyone should install Firefox, Opera, or Chrome ASAP. Since Windows Update is now a standalone app, there is no good reason to use IE for anything except making sure your website shows up properly in the web’s most notoriously dysfunctional browser.
Overall, however, Windows 7 feels just as sparse as before, and most users will spend a few hundred dollars more acquiring software to make Windows useful. A Mac, by contrast, comes with software to make music (Garage Band) and movies (iMovie), organize photos (iPhoto), and more. Ubuntu, of course, comes with a full productivity suite, image editing software, and more. I’ve been spoiled.
For anyone using Vista, I would call Windows 7 a necessary update–but, as always, wait a few months for the system drivers to catch up. For anyone using XP, it is time to move on, and Windows 7 leaves XP users with no reason to continue using software from the last century.
Will Windows 7 replace Ubuntu as my main operating system? Unlikely. But I will cross my fingers and hope that future Ubuntu releases adopt some of the Windows taskbar’s best features. And while Windows 7 does feel quick, Ubuntu feels even quicker. I like my Linux just fine, thanks.