When Microsoft released Windows Vista in early 2007, the new operating system was plagued with incompatibilities, crashes, slowness, and a new interface that confused long-time XP users. Fast-forward to 2009: Following the release of SP1, a whole lot of driver updates, and a new generation of hardware that was built with Vista in mind, and the much-maligned platform works quite well on a majority of new systems. However, Vista’s reputation is still as bad as it was in 2007, notwithstanding Microsoft’s dubious Mojave marketing campaign; it still performs poorly on a number of low-end systems, and a majority of businesses and consumers still don’t see a compelling reason to upgrade.
Enter Windows 7. Microsoft’s next-generation operating system is designed to be faster, more stable, and work with all Vista-compatible software and drivers right out of the box. Our evaluation of build 7000, the first public beta of Windows 7, revealed an attractive, stable platform that works flawlessly with almost every piece of hardware and software we threw at it, including low-powered netbooks. The system has some intriguing new features and feels much more responsive than Vista, even though it did not show quantifiable speed increases in any of our benchmark tests.
Editor's Note: We updated our review and improved our initial rating by half a star after talking to Microsoft about the lower battery numbers we found and accepting their explanation that beta-level drivers are a possible cause rather than the OS itself.
Evolution, Not Revolution
Rather than reinventing the OS as it did with its last release, Microsoft has built upon the solid foundation of Vista SP1 by adding a few welcome tweaks to the user interface, some strong new features, and the promise of improved performance and stability.
To test Windows 7 Beta’s stability, compatibility, and performance, we installed the 32-bit version on several computers: a Lenovo ThinkPad X300 and SL300, a Dell OptiPlex desktop, a Samsung NC10 netbook, and a Dell Inspiron Mini 12. We also installed the 64-bit version of Windows 7 on a home desktop with a quad-core processor and 4GB of RAM.
Familiar User Interface
At first glance, users may not realize that they are in an operating system other than Vista. The windows have the same smoky Aero effects, the desktop icons look the same, and even the little Start button is the same, familiar Windows pearl. The common dialog boxes and Control Panel items are similar too, so users who have become familiar with Vista won’t have to learn a new interface. Unfortunately, if you’re switching from XP, you will have to learn that, for example, Add/Remove programs is now called Programs in the Control Panel.
The difference in operating systems becomes apparent only when you look closely at the taskbar.
Not only is the new bar more attractive because it shares the Aero effect with the window bars, but it also offers a wide range of new functions.
Taskbar icons can now be rearranged by being dragged to the left or right. Vista introduced the concept of thumbnail-size applications previews that appear when you hover over their taskbar icons, but Windows 7 expands the previews, showing you multiple thumbnails for programs that have more than one window or, in the case of Internet Explorer, more than one tab open. Another improvement over Vista is that a full-size preview of the application window appears as you hover over its thumbnail.
Right-clicking on taskbar icons brings up a jump menu, which varies by application but usually contains options, such as a list of recently visited pages in Internet Explorer or recently opened files in Windows Paint. Since the concept of jump menus is new with Windows 7, few software publishers aside from Microsoft have written the menus into their programs. If a program does not support jump menus, right-clicking on its taskbar icon will give the option to open a new instance of the program, close all program windows, or pin/unpin from the taskbar.
With Windows 7, Microsoft has removed the quick-launch area—which allowed users to place shortcuts on the left side of the taskbar—with “pinned” applications. A pinned application is one whose shortcut icon stays on the taskbar permanently. Though Windows makes subtle changes to the area behind icons of running applications, it’s often difficult for users to tell the difference between an open application and a shortcut that has been pinned. Fortunately, by right-clicking on the taskbar and then changing the taskbar buttons menu to Never Combine, you can see text next to each taskbar icon, making shortcuts and running programs distinguishable.
More appropriately, shortcut icons can be pinned to the top of the Start menu so that the applications and their jump menus are easy to access. Otherwise, the Windows 7 Start menu is nearly identical to Vista’s in every way, though it has replaced the ambiguous power button icon with a configurable text button that tells you whether Windows is going to shut down, restart, sleep, log off, or lock when you click it. XP aficionados must learn to love this start menu, because unlike Vista, the new operating system removes the option to change to a “classic” start menu design.
The Tray and Action Center
The tray area is much improved in Windows 7, because it allows the user to configure the rules by which icons appear. Tray icons can be set to show at all times, never appear, or appear only when they have a notification to deliver.
To the right of the clock is a translucent square that activates Windows 7’s Peek function. Hover over the square and all windows are temporarily hidden, revealing the desktop wallpaper, icons, or any gadgets below. Want more than just a quick peek at the desktop? Click the square and all windows are minimized until you click it again.
Replacing the annoying red shield icon and nagging Windows Security Center of Vista and XP is the pleasant white flag of the Windows Action Center, which alerts you both to Windows updates and possible security holes like out-of-date virus software, and then gives you the means to solve them.
In addition to making security alerts more polite, Windows 7 allows you to adjust the infamous User Account Control (UAC) warnings so that you can choose on a sliding scale when the operating system needs to ask for your permission to install programs or change system settings. As with Vista, we still prefer turning off UAC entirely.
One small, but extremely useful improvement in the Windows UI is the ability to snap windows to the left or right side of the desktop by either dragging them into the side of the desktop or hitting the Windows key and one of the arrow keys. When snapped, a window takes up exactly 50 percent of the desktop, allowing users to easily split their workspaces between two applications, such as e-mail and a Web browser. Snapping a window to the top of the screen maximizes it, while pulling a maximized window down from the top of the screen restores it to its former size.
Windows 7 promises built-in touch and multitouch capability for notebooks that support it. During the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference in October 2008, we witnessed demonstrations of the ability to draw in two directions at once with Windows Paint, to zoom in and out on images by moving fingers closer together or farther apart, to right-click by holding down a finger, or to get a jump list by swiping upward on the desktop. We installed Windows 7 Beta on a Dell Latitude XT tablet, which features a multitouch digitizer manufactured by N-trig. While basic touch functionality worked without any drivers, we were unable to take advantage of multitouch, even with N-trig’s latest driver. We’re fairly confident these issues will be resolved and it will work on the Latitude XT and all other touch-optimized capable PCs before launch.
Enhanced Peripheral Support
One of the less critical, but still nice-to-have features of Windows 7 is Device Stages: customized menus that appear when you plug in a supported peripheral. These custom menus list actions (e.g., scan, print, sync, play) and links to Web resources such as instruction manuals, support forums, and places to buy accessories such as headphones or ink cartridges.
To get a Device Stage menu to appear, the device’s manufacturer has to have created one for Windows to access. Unfortunately, the list of supported devices as of this writing is tiny, so we were only able to test one, a SanDisk Sansa Fuze MP3 player. Upon plugging in the Fuze, we were greeted with an attractive Device Stage menu that featured a picture of our player and options to let us sync and manage our media, find the manual, or buy accessories. We look forward to testing this functionality with other types of devices such as cell phones, cameras, and multifunction printers.
With so many forms of media and so many different applications storing their media in different directories, it’s easy to lose track of one’s music, photos, videos, or documents. For example, iTunes saves the videos you download to one folder and Premiere Elements puts your home movies in another. A new feature called Libraries allows you to see all the files of a particular media type in one place, even though they may live in different folders or on different drives. Because Microsoft has made the Libraries icon prominent in Windows 7’s standard file open-and-save dialog boxes and in Windows Explorer, you can get a complete list of media files without opening a dozen folders or using the search function.
To add files to a library, just right-click on the folder where any media files are stored and select Include in Library. Then choose which library you want to add that folder to: Documents, Music, Pictures, Videos, or a custom library of your own creation. In our testing, we were able to add folders to our libraries from several different locations on our internal hard drives and from shared folders on our network. However, when we attached a USB hard drive, we noticed that we could not add any of its folders to our libraries.
HomeGroups for Easy Sharing Over Networks
To make it easy for users to share documents, music, video, photos, other files, and printers in the home, Microsoft has added the HomeGroup networking feature. Rather than monkeying with the complex workgroups and network neighborhoods, Windows 7 users can simply create a HomeGroup password, and any user who is connected to the same LAN can join the group just by clicking the Join Now button under HomeGroup in the Control Panel.
We created a HomeGroup by first setting a custom password on a desktop workstation that was connected via Ethernet to our router. Then we took a Lenovo ThinkPad X300 that was connected via Wi-Fi to the router, opened its Control Panel, clicked Join Now, and entered the password. In just a few seconds, the two computers were able to access each other’s libraries from menu items in Windows Explorer or in file open/save dialog boxes.
While setting up the HomeGroup was speedy, working with files on a remote machine was glacial. Forty seconds passed between the time we clicked on the Photos folder on the X300 notebook and when its file list appeared. Several more seconds passed as Windows created thumbnails for the remote photos.
Saving a file from Windows Paint on our laptop to the photos folder on our desktop was just as slow. It also appears that the operating system does not cache remote data; we went into another window and clicked the same folder, only to have the same long wait. We were able to include the desktop’s folders in the laptop’s libraries, but doing so slowed library browsing to a crawl.
When Vista came out, most devices needed new drivers, and lots of software failed to work. Even worse, several devices had poorly written drivers that resulted in all kinds of crashes and instability. With Windows 7, Microsoft has promised that programs and drivers that work in Vista will work with the new operating system flawlessly.
Most of the systems we tested worked flawlessly with the operating system’s built-in drivers. We needed only to download and install a manufacturer’s Vista drivers for the screen on the Dell Latitude XT, the Wi-Fi card on the Dell Inspiron Mini 12, and the hot keys on the Samsung NC10. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of Windows 7’s built-in Bluetooth stack, which automatically detected an Azio Bluetooth dongle on one of the desktops, let us pair it with a Sony CMT-BX5BT stereo system, and then streamed flawless audio to the stereo, without the need for third-party drivers.
Almost every program worked without a hitch, though in a few cases, we got an “unsupported operating system” error message when attempting to install or run an application. These error messages disappeared when we right-clicked on the setup file and selected Windows Vista compatibility before beginning installation, then set the installed program file to compatibility mode.
The only program that caused serious problems was the Cisco VPN Client, which installed successfully but then caused a blue screen of death on the next reboot. After restoring to the last known good configuration, getting a new version of the client software, setting it to compatibility mode, and following some online tips, we were able to get the VPN to work without destroying the OS. The only other program that required extra effort was the LogMeIn client, which we had to install using the command-line interface.
Windows 7 generally seemed much snappier than either Vista or XP. Programs appeared to open more quickly; start up, shut down, sleep, and wake processes were quick and free from lock-ups; Windows moved smoothly across the screen without any ghosting; and The Aero effects worked on every system except the Inspiron Mini 12.
Most importantly, our test systems had little, if any, hard drive activity going on in the background. As we went back and forth between Windows 7, Vista, and XP, we were struck by how frequently we saw the hourglass/spinning blue circle in the two older operating systems, even when we weren’t loading or saving anything. In Windows 7, if we weren’t opening, closing, or writing, the hard drive stayed quiet and our notebooks stayed focused on the tasks at hand.
Unfortunately, the lack of background noise could not be quantified by benchmark scores. When running our typical suite of tests, scores were basically a wash under Windows 7 when compared to Vista. The ThinkPad SL300 saw its score on PCMark Vantage, which measures overall performance, increase slightly to 2,354 in Windows 7 from 2,176 in Vista, while its rating in the graphics program 3DMark06 dropped a tad from to 717 from 832. On the LAPTOP Transfer Test, where we copy 4.97GB of mixed media files from one folder to another, the SL300 showed significant improvement, finishing the test in 4 minutes and 1 second (a rate of 21.1 MBps) as opposed to 5:06 (16.6 MBps) under Vista.
The Lenovo X300 would not run PCMark Vantage in Vista, but its 3DMark06 graphics score was marginally lower in Windows 7 (474) than in Vista (528) and it took an imperceptible 12 seconds longer to complete the Transfer Test, going from 2:25 (35.1 MBps) to 2:37 (32.4 MBps).
The Samsung NC10 netbook wouldn’t run PCMark Vantage under either XP or Windows 7, but its graphics score in 3DMark03 was imperceptibly better, going to 639 from 602. The NC10 also completed the Transfer Test a bit more quickly, increasing to 13.7 MBps from 12.4 MBps. The Inspiron Mini 12’s score of 395 in Windows 7 was nearly identical to its score of 406 notched under Vista.
Boot times are also a mixed bag, with most Windows 7 systems we tested showing modest improvement. The Lenovo X300 and its speedy SSD booted the beta of Microsoft’s latest OS in a blazing 40 seconds, but needed only 5 seconds more to launch Vista Home Premium. The SL300 launched both Windows 7 and Vista in the same 57 seconds. The Dell Inspiron Mini 12, which had taken a painful 1:30 to boot Vista, took 1:20. The Samsung NC10 booted in 45 seconds under XP, which slowed ever so slightly to 48 seconds under Windows 7.
With Windows 7, Microsoft promises better power saving because of features such as the lack of background processes, a smart network function that turns off the Ethernet port when not in use, a more efficient DVD playback process, and adaptive brightness. However, when we ran our LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi), all the systems lasted significantly less time than they did under Vista or even under the Windows 7 pre-beta we tested previously.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X300 lasted just 3 hours and 36 minutes in the new operating system, when it had lasted 4:09 in Vista and, strangely, 4:23 in the Windows 7 pre-beta. The SL300, with its extended battery, lasted a whopping 8:52 in Vista, but that number was cut to 7:15 in Windows 7. Under its native XP, the Samsung NC10 netbook managed an impressive 6:34, but that time shrank to 5:15 under Windows 7. Only the Dell Inspiron Mini 12, which coincidentally was the only system that wasn’t powerful enough to run with Aero effects, lasted 5:12 under Windows 7 and 5:20 under Vista.
After talking to a lead developer at Microsoft, we believe the difference in power consumption could be due to drivers that Windows 7 installed, rather than the operating system itself. Microsoft assures us that, as the operating system moves closer to release, the bundled device drivers will continue to evolve.We will continue to test the endurance and tweak the power-saving settings as the OS evolves in the months ahead.
In using Windows 7 as our primary platform for several days, we couldn’t tell we were using a beta operating system, and we feel confident we could give up Vista and XP for the beta, without looking back. If you have the beta version, feel free to switch over now. If you’re using Vista and it works well on your hardware, you may wonder if Windows 7’s new features would justify paying for an upgrade. We can only say that the absence of hard drive–whirring background tasks and obnoxious tray icons is even more attractive than the presence of Jump Lists, preview thumbnails, or the friendlier way of displaying attached peripherals. Even though the final version of Windows 7 may not ship for 6 to 12 months, it’s clear the operating system is ready to use today and should only get better as it approaches its release date.