It’s not revolutionary, and it didn’t have to be. It just needed to be better. Microsoft’s latest operating system is simultaneously facing high and low expectations. Next to the much criticized Vista, any OS, however mildly improved, would look good in comparison. And yet, while imperfect, Windows 7 undoubtedly delivers. With improved performance, plus a tweaked, intuitive interface that offers more functionality, Windows 7 provides a better overall computing experience for the masses.
How We Tested
To test Windows 7’s stability, compatibility, and performance, we installed the 32-bit version on a plethora of computers, from netbooks to mainstream notebooks: a Toshiba mini NB205-N310 ($399), the Gateway NV5807u ($599) and the Dell Studio XPS 16 ($1,804).
Remember we said Windows 7 isn’t revolutionary? It starts with the look of the OS. Win 7 was built on top of Vista’s architecture (there’s a reason pundits have been saying it’s “what Vista should have been”) and indeed, the desktop looks the same—at first glance, anyway. The windows have the same smoky Aero effects, the desktop icons look the same, and even the little Start button is the 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.
Then one notices the Taskbar. That it takes on the same slick Aero effects as the rest of the OS is the tip of the iceberg: it also takes on way more functionality than it had before, with the kind of usefulness that made Windows users envious of the Mac OS in the past. Users can “pin” any program they like to the Taskbar, which allows you to launch programs with one click, as opposed to double-clicking a desktop icon or clicking through the Start Menu to find the program of your choice. The Mac OS has had this functionality for ages, and although some third-party apps, most notably the Dell Dock, allow you to create more intuitive shortcuts, too, it’s never been baked into Windows.
The level of customization is also impressive; you can drag and drop Taskbar icons into an order that makes sense to you, and when you install new software, it won’t automatically pin itself to the Taskbar, so that space can be as clutter-free as you desire.
Here’s another similarity to OS X’s dock: if you hover over a program in the Taskbar, you can see a preview of whatever documents or windows you have open in that particular program. For example, if you hover over Internet Explorer’s Taskbar icon and currently have three tabs open, you’ll see three small preview boxes arranged side by side. But Microsoft does Apple one better, because when hovering over a particular window (say, one of those open tabs) you’ll get a much larger, almost full-screen preview—a perk Microsoft has dubbed Aero Peek.
Aero Peek is a useful feature, since a thumbnail-sized preview can be hard to decipher. The only thing that took some getting used to was selecting a window or document after we had previewed it using Aero Peek and decided that it was what we wanted. Even though your eyes are drawn to the large preview window, you have to keep your cursor on the tiny preview thumbnail that’s still lingering above the Taskbar. It’s tempting to just click on what you want in that enlarged window, but you have to remember to click the smaller preview instead.
That quibble aside, the Taskbar, and Aero Peek in particular, has to be among our favorite Windows 7 features: it allows you to launch programs, preview open windows and documents, and minimize desktop clutter in one fell swoop.
Microsoft has also made the right mouse button far more useful. If you right-click on a program pinned to the Taskbar, you’ll be introduced to a Jump List, a menu of options that includes everything from pinned files and Web sites (more on that in a moment), Web sites or documents you’ve recently visited or used, and tasks appropriate to that application, such as launching an InPrivate browsing session in Internet Explorer 8.
One of our favorite uses of Jump Lists is to pin favorite Web sites and documents to the Taskbar, as you would applications. With Vista, there’s just no way to access a list of recently visited sites from the desktop; it’s nice to have these favorites just a right-click away, and to know that they’ll stay put, regardless of how recently you’ve accessed them.
If you’ve given IE8 a whirl, these Jump Lists should look familiar. In the same way the browser distinguishes between favorite, suggested, and recently-visited sites when you type in the address or search bars, the Jump List has neat headers for recently-used documents, tasks, and so forth. In both cases, it makes finding what you want easier, since you’re not scanning through an unwieldy list of seemingly unrelated items.
Interface aside, the concept of a Jump List is appealing because it means fewer clicks, and quickly getting to where you want to go. For example, you might prefer right-clicking on a Taskbar icon and selecting the document you want, as opposed to drilling into the Start Menu’s Recent Documents menu (where that document may or may not reside, depending on how recently you’ve opened it).
Since the concept of Jump Lists is new with Windows 7, few software publishers (aside from Microsoft) have written the menus into their programs. Roxio, to name just one, doesn’t support Jump Lists yet in Creator 2010, so you would have to launch the program and then decide to, say, burn a disc. If a program doesn’t support Jump Lists, right-clicking on its Taskbar icon will only give the option to open a new instance of the program, close all program windows, or pin/unpin from the Taskbar.
We’ll like Jump Lists even more as more applications support them, but even now, it’s a stellar feature that saves you extra clicks.
Shortcut icons can also be pinned to the top of the Start Menu so that the applications are easy to access. Personally, we’re less impressed by this than we are by the Taskbar’s pinned applications and documents. Why would you want to click the Start Menu only to click a shortcut, when you could click a Taskbar icon once?
Otherwise, the Windows 7 Start menu is nearly identical to Vista’s, 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.
Here’s another change to the Start Menu: When you start typing in the Search bar, it organizes the search results in categories, similar to the way the Taskbar does with Jump Lists, and the way IE8 does with Web sites. While we already praised Vista for adding live search to the Start Menu (that is, getting results as soon as you start typing, and watching the options narrow as you continue), it’s nice to see these search results appear with a little more context attached (photos vs. videos, for example).
However, these search results aren’t perfect. For example, when we searched for a Word document by its title, we found it listed under Music, Pictures, and Videos. This kind of inaccuracy dings the new Start Menu’s usefulness somewhat, but we still like the categorized search results (and the less ambiguous power button doesn’t hurt either).
If you’re already a Windows user, you know the Tray area; you probably just don’t pay that much attention to it. It’s that area in the lower right corner of the screen—the same area where you can select wireless networks, change the power settings, and adjust the volume. It’s also where programs will show pop-up alerts.
It’s different from the Taskbar in that the Taskbar is where you pin programs you actively want to seek out. The Tray area is for applications—Windows Update, for example—that need to find you. Appropriately, icons in the Tray area are smaller and more discreet compared to the Taskbar icons, which are large and easy to click.
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. Less visual clutter is always a good thing, and fewer pop-ups, we’re sure, was atop most everyone’s wish list for the next version of Windows.
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. This action does the same thing as the current Show Desktop icon in Vista, but we do prefer having this button in an easy-to-find place, as opposed to being buried in the Taskbar.
Improved Wireless Access
It’s a fairly small detail in the grand project that is improving Vista, but one of our favorite features of Windows 7 is how much easier it is to get online. With Vista, you had to select the wireless icon in the Tray, choose the option for selecting a wireless network, decide which one you wanted, and then enter your login information. All this hassle was enough to drive travelers crazy.
With Windows 7, when you click the wireless icon, a list of available networks pops up, and you can choose the one you want. This change is hardly original (again, Mac users have been enjoying a comparable feature for a long time), but it’s certainly a welcome, long-awaited one.
Finally, when you click on a network, you’ll see a box that, when checked, allows you to connect to that network automatically. You can do this with multiple networks so that you’ll automatically log into the connection with the most bars. The more boxes you check, the less chance you’ll find yourself fiddling with the wireless connection. That said, when you do connect, you might briefly resent having to click the network name on the list, only to then click another box that says Connect.
Replacing the annoying red shield icon and nagging Windows Security Center of Vista is the pleasant white flag of the Windows Action Center, which alerts you both to Windows updates and possible security holes (such as out-of-date virus software), and then gives you the means to solve them. Also, 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.
We mostly like the Action Center. That’s mostly, of course, because you can control the pop-ups. (If you choose to stifle them in favor of, say, a third-party security program, of course, minimizing those pop-ups is your problem, not Microsoft’s.) It’s also nice to see that Microsoft has added backup to the Action Center, following in the steps of security companies that now treat backup and security similarly.
The one thing we find odd is that Windows Defender is not easy to access from the Action Center. This built-in scanner still comes baked into Windows, but it seems to us that if the Action Center is to be a central, easily-accessible portal from which users can monitor backup, security, and updates, Windows Defender should also be an option there.
Snapping (And Shaking) Windows
One small, but extremely useful improvement in the Windows interface is the ability to snap windows to the left or right side of the desktop by either dragging them to 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. It’s also good for viewing two documents or Web pages side by side, a scenario you’ll run into whether you’re comparison shopping or reconciling similar documents. 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.
We were able to master snapping on our first try. You just drag one window to the left or right side of the screen and wait a second for the snapping to kick in. Just remember to drag that window far to the side; you’ll see the outline of the window taking up half the screen before the content within that window or document actually resizes. The delay is mildly annoying, but at least you know right away that it’s working. Once you’re ready to unsnap, just grab the window by the title bar and drag it; it will instantly assume its pre-snap size.
On a similar note, we love the Aero Shake feature, which allows users to grab the title bar of a window and “shake” it back and forth, which flings all other open windows to the bottom of the screen, where they’ll be minimized. It’s a nice shortcut, and it’s just the kind of innovation we’d like to see more of from Microsoft.
Windows 7 makes it easier to navigate not just the Start Menu, but Windows Explorer as well. The parent folder in the address bar now has interactive drop-down boxes, denoting each step of the navigation process toward finding a file. The bread crumbs were always there in Vista, but now each component is clickable, which means there’s no longer just a single drop-down menu to retrace your steps in the navigation tree. All in all, it’s part of what’s shaping up to be a larger theme in Windows 7: fewer clicks.
In addition, Explorer now supports multitouch zoom, which means you can zoom in on your search results if you have a multitouch display or trackpad—the same way Microsoft allows you to zoom in on Web pages in IE8.
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. For example, iTunes saves the videos you download to one folder, and Adobe Premiere Elements puts your home movies in another. With Windows 7, you’ll see all of these files in one place, and you won’t waste any double clicks prying into what could be the wrong subfolder in, say, My Music.
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. Even better: Microsoft has also built in longer snippets of search results, so you’ll have a better idea of what a file contains before you click on it (further evidence that Windows 7 is all about clicking less).
Unfortunately, one thing Microsoft hasn’t changed since we critiqued the beta version of Windows 7 is that you can’t right-click on the contents of a USB drive and include them in a library. We imagine it can’t be that hard to build in a command that would allow you to, in effect, copy material from a USB drive to a hard drive, while simultaneously dictating how that content will be organized once it’s on the drive.
If there’s one gee-whiz feature in Windows 7 that tells you this OS is the foundation for the next generation of PCs, it’s multitouch. Windows 7 delivers multitouch capability for PCs with touch displays, which means that users can use multitouch gestures, such as rotating, pinching, and zooming, to interact with the OS when it comes to daily activities such as Web browsing and viewing photos. At the same time, Synaptics and other companies are working to build multitouch support into touchpads.
Certain core Windows applications, such as Internet Explorer and, as we stated previously, Windows Explorer, support multitouch gestures. But Microsoft showcases these features with its Windows 7 Touch Pack, an amusing suite of software we installed on a Dell Latitude XT2 tablet and played with in a hands-on video below. Touch Pack’s applications include Surface Collage (for arranging photos); Surface Globe (think Microsoft’s version of Google Earth); BlackBoard, a puzzle game we found slightly confusing; Rebound, a game for two that’s reminiscent of air hockey; Surface Lagoon, a screen saver that allows you to touch a body of water for creating cool ripple effects; and Garden Pond, a game in which, similarly, you shift water around to get origami creations to destinations on the shore.
The Touch Pack is a good proof of concept, but we imagine you’ll tire of these apps as quickly as we did. While the multitouch experience was easy to master, and we’re glad Microsoft programmed support for it, we’ll be more impressed when we start to see third-party applications that move beyond the novelty factor. We’d like to see touch programs that can help notebook owners use their tablet PCs more efficiently, or provide a new experience for gamers.
We suspect that as much as we talk up Windows 7’s more intuitive interface, and no matter how much Vista can grind your gears, some will hesitate to upgrade from their older version of Windows out of concern that all the applications and accessories they normally use may not work.
Indeed, when Vista came out, most devices needed new drivers, and lots of software failed to work. Even worse, several devices had poorly written drivers, resulting in all kinds of crashes and instability. However, because Microsoft built Windows 7 on the same architecture as Vista, any software or peripherals you bought alongside your Vista machine should work flawlessly. When we connected our T-Mobile myTouch 3G smart phone and Canon Pixma MX860 all-in-one printer to the Dell XPS 16, the drivers installed successfully, and we were able to use both peripherals without a problem.
Back when we tested the beta version of Windows 7, we had a few (but not many) problems with drivers once we installed the OS: We needed to download and install a manufacturer’s Vista drivers for the screen on our Dell Latitude XT2, the Wi-Fi card on the Dell Inspiron Mini 12, and the hot keys on the Samsung NC10. With the RTM version of Windows 7, we experienced no such problems when we installed it on the Dell XPS Studio 16 or the Gateway NV, but the Toshiba mini NB205 needed new drivers in order to get close to the same battery life as it did when running XP.
As the driver issue for peripherals has largely been resolved, the question isn’t just whether or not they will they work (although that is crucial), but how easy will they be to use? Windows 7 includes Device Stage, which are customized menus that appear when you plug in a supported peripheral. These custom menus list things you can do with that peripheral (e.g., print, scan, sync, view stored photos and videos) and link to Web resources such as instruction manuals, support forums, and places to buy accessories (such as headphones or ink cartridges).
In order for a Device Stage menu to appear, the device’s manufacturer has to have created one for Windows to access. When we reviewed Windows 7 in its beta version, the list of supported devices was skimpy; we were only able to test one device—a SanDisk Sansa Fuze MP3 player. Now, that list includes cameras, phones, portable media players, and printers. Microsoft would not reveal peripherals compatible with Device Stage, since these companies have not yet made public announcements, nor would it comment on how many devices have been added to the list since Windows 7’s beta period.
However, that didn’t stop us from connecting some new gadgets to our Win 7 machines to see how they worked. While we only saw the old Autoplay box when we connected a Pure Digital Flip MinoHD and Kodak Zi8 camcorder, Device Stage appeared when we plugged in a newer Nikon D5000 DSLR. A generic camera graphic was displayed on top of the window, with the camera’s battery life and memory card capacity shown in bar form beneath. Our options included adding or removing media from the device, importing photos and videos, and viewing the memory card’s contents in Windows Explorer. These are all options you would have seen with the old Autoplay screen; this box just has a smoother interface.
Ultimately, the most important thing is that whatever accessories you own will almost certainly work with Windows 7, but the OS will get better as Device Stage support becomes the norm. Until then, you’re not missing much functionality you can already get from Autoplay.
Networking and Sharing
With Windows 7, Microsoft seems to understand that many homes have content dispersed across multiple PCs. To make it easy for users to share documents, music, photos, video, and other files, as well as printers in the home, Microsoft has added the HomeGroup networking feature. Rather than monkeying around with the complex workgroups and network neighborhoods, Windows 7 users can simply create a HomeGroup password, and any Windows 7 user who is connected to the same network can join the group by just clicking the Join Now button under HomeGroup in the Control Panel.
We created a HomeGroup on the Dell Studio XPS 16 by first setting a custom password on a desktop workstation that was wirelessly connected via Ethernet to our router (a D-Link DGL-4500 802.11n gaming router). We then used the random ten-digit password generated by Windows 7. Next, we took the Toshiba mini NB205 that was also connected via Wi-Fi to the router, opened HomeGroup in 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.
Unlike our experience with HomeGroup in the beta version of Windows 7, accessing media files was nearly instantaneous. As soon as we dropped music into the shared folder on the XPS 16, it showed up in the music folder on the NB205. Likewise, playing both music and movies across the network was seamless; music played smoothly, and movies did not skip or stutter. We then opened a photo on the XPS 16 that was stored on the NB205. Using Microsoft Paint, we drew on the photo and saved it remotely, but it felt like we were editing it locally. This speed, ease of use, and the fact that Microsoft seems to be giving serious thought to how people are interacting with their digital media makes HomeGroup a strong feature.
We tested Windows 7’s performance on three laptops in different price ranges: the 10.1-inch Toshiba mini NB205-N310 ($399), the 15.6-inch Gateway NV5807u ($599), and the 16-inch Dell Studio XPS 16 ($1,804). While this does not, of course, completely represent the breadth of screen sizes, performance, and prices for all laptops, our goal was to test the OS on a sampling of systems, so that we could evaluate its performance with different capabilities and screen sizes. The Toshiba, for example, has a low-power Atom processor and 1GB of RAM; the Gateway has a dual-core processor but integrated graphics; and the Dell has a dual-core processor with a more powerful discrete graphics card.
PC Mark Vantage
For each laptop, we ran a full round of benchmarks on the notebook’s native OS (Vista for the XPS 16 and Gateway NV; Windows XP for the NB205) and again after we installed Windows 7 Ultimate. These benchmarks included PCMark Vantage, 3DMark06, the LAPTOP Transfer and Battery Tests, boot time, the time it took to enter sleep mode and wake up, and the amount of time the notebooks needed to open Adobe Reader (the 7.2MB, 567-page 9/11 Commission Report), Firefox 3 (blank page), and Microsoft Word (blank document).
In most cases, we noted boosts in performance with Windows 7. Depending on the laptop and test, these improvements ranged from subtle to impressive. The XPS 16’s PCMark Vantage score, for instance, rose to 4,231 from 3,747, while the NV’s jumped to 3,586 from 3,262.
We were not able to make an apples-to-apples comparison for the NB205 netbook, however, because its original XP operating system runs a different benchmark, PCMark05. However, this machine’s 1,134 score in PCMark Vantage when running Windows 7 was satisfactory; it was just a few hundred points below more powerful notebooks equipped with Ultra-Low Voltage processors running Vista.
Application Open Tests
Everyday tasks should generally feel zippier, too. That’s where our timed application open tests come in. When it came to opening Microsoft Word, the NV went to 4.8 seconds in Windows 7 from 7.5 in Vista; the NB205 rose to 5.8 seconds in Windows 7 from 3.8 in XP. The XPS 16 also took more time in Windows 7; it opened Word in 4 seconds, as opposed to 2.4 with Vista.
With Adobe Reader, the XPS 16 halved its time to 5.3 seconds from 10.1; the NV came down to 5.5 seconds from 6.8; and the NB205, 5.5 seconds from 5.8. Finally, with Firefox 3, the XPS 16 went to 3.7 seconds from 4.9; the NV, 3.2 from 4.2; and the NB205, 3.3 from 6.5.
Wake and Sleep Times
When it came to entering sleep mode and waking up, our results were more varied. While the XPS 16’s wake-up time dropped from 4.5 to 3.3 seconds, the time it took to go to sleep rose from 5.0 to 6.4 seconds. The NV’s results were more decisive; its sleep time dropped slightly from 8.0 to 7.7 seconds, whereas its wake-up time halved, from 4.2 to 2.3 seconds. The NB205 took 5.1 seconds to go to sleep in Windows 7, and 5.3 in XP; meanwhile, it took 1.8 seconds to wake up in Windows 7, and 3.2 in XP. It seems, then, that while Windows 7 might cause a modest improvement in sleep times, it has a bigger impact when it comes to notebooks waking up faster.
LAPTOP Transfer Test
Our laptops’ hard drives were generally faster under Windows 7. To test this, we ran the LAPTOP Transfer Test, which involves timing how long it takes to duplicate a 4.97GB mixed media folder, and then converting that time to a transfer rate. While the XPS 16’s rate fell to 16.4 MBps from 19.7 MBps, the NB205’s rose to 21.1 MBps from 18.1 MBps, and the NV’s inched up to 18.4 MBps from 18.3 MBps.
Finally, we got a feel for each notebook’s multimedia prowess by converting a 5:05 MPEG-4 clip to AVI using Handbrake. The results were mixed: the XPS 16 took 6:30 with Windows 7 and 6:51 with Vista; the NV took 7:31 with Windows 7 and 7:20 with Vista. Finally, the NB205 took 28:40 with Windows 7 and 27:23 with XP. We’re more inclined to say that this is an example of the software not yet being fully optimized for Windows 7 than we are to accuse the OS of limiting notebooks’ transcoding clout.
The graphics performance of the three notebooks we tested improved slightly, according to our 3DMark06 results. The XPS 16’s score rose to 4,387 from 4,371; the NV’s to 963 from 942; and the NB205’s to 148 from 92. Each of these margins is, perhaps, small enough to be negligible. On the other hand, the fact that the scores rose for each laptop suggests that Windows 7 does have some real, if modest, effect on graphics performance.
We also tried some real-world gaming on the XPS 16, a large-screened notebook whose discrete ATI graphics card was designed to render graphics smoothly. In Vista, it managed 75 frames per second when playing Far Cry 2 at 1024 x 768 resolution, and 28 fps at 1366 x 768, its native resolution. The results with Windows 7 weren’t promising: on the one hand, it reached only 57 fps at 1024 x 768, and just 13 fps at maximum resolution. We performed the same test on an ASUS G51v-RX05, a 15-inch gaming notebook with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 260M graphics chip. This time, the frame rates stayed roughly the same. In Vista, the G51v notched 58 fps at 1024 x 768, and 37fps at 1366 x 768; in Vista, we saw 58 fps at 1024 x 768, and 44 fps at max resolution.
Depending on the laptop, Windows 7 caused a modest to dramatic increase in battery life. For the Dell XPS 16, the difference was just four minutes (3:27 versus 3:31). For the Gateway NV, however, it meant a full hour of extra longevity: its battery life rose from 3:20 to 4:20.
The Toshiba mini NB205 was the one blemish on our battery testing. When we first ran our battery test with the NB205, its endurance shrank by more than three hours, from 9:24 to 6:15; after installing new drivers from Toshiba, the battery life increased to 6:53, which is better, but still far short of its endurance in XP. Likewise, the MSI U123 saw a dropoff when going from XP to Win 7: while its nine-cell battery saw a runtime of 8:14 in the latter OS, that time decreased to 7:41 in Windows 7. We believe these discrepancies are due to the netbooks not having been optimized for Windows 7 at the time of our tests.
We also conducted several tests on Windows 7 to evaluate energy efficiency, measuring the amount of time each notebook took to charge to 80 and 100 percent, along with the total and average number of watts used. We arrived at the LAPTOP Battery Efficiency Rating by taking the total amount of watts it took to charge each system and dividing that number by the battery life.
The XPS 16’s energy efficiency rose slightly: its total wattage used while recharging dropped from 13,744.0 to 12,452.0. Its LAPTOP Battery Efficiency Rating likewise dropped from 65.1 to 60.2. The NV’s wattage dropped from 4,918.2 to 3,692.2, and its LAPTOP Battery Efficiency Rating went to from 24.6 to 14.2—an improvement of more than 10 watts per minute of battery life. The U123’s total wattage while recharging decreased, to 8,599.5 from 10508.4, and its efficiency rating went to 18.7 from 21.3, not as dramatic as the NV, but good nonetheless.
While we’re not fans of trialware that can increase Windows’ boot time , Windows 7 itself is missing some apps you might have grown used to in Vista, and were actually useful. For example, you won’t find the Windows Live suite, including Mail, Movie Maker, and Photo Gallery. Neither is there an IM client, word processor, calendar, or PDF viewer. It does still have Notepad, as well as Snipping Tool (for sharing screenshots), a sound recorder, and Windows DVD Maker.
One silver lining to Windows 7’s software package: we’re digging that Microsoft Paint now has the same Ribbon interface as Office 2007 and 2010. Some may find it confusing, but since we’ve come to appreciate how it organizes a wide range of tasks in whatever application it’s used in, we like that Microsoft is deploying the Ribbon in more programs. That said, this sleek interface isn’t enough to excuse the fact that users can’t edit photos or videos out of the box.
Windows Media Player and Media Center
While the Libraries feature of Windows 7 helps you find your media more easily, changes to Windows Media Player and Media Center aim to improve the way you enjoy that content. Windows 7 features enhanced codec support in the new Windows Media Player 12, including AAC and H.264, which means you won’t have to hunt around the Internet for them. A new “Play to” function allows you to launch a playlist that’s stored on your PC or any networked device, including but not limited to PCs. The interface, though, is still sadly inelegant compared to iTunes.
Windows Media Center, meanwhile, has a slightly more streamlined interface; as in Vista, you scroll up and down through overarching categories (such as Music, Movies, Pictures + Videos, and TV), and then side-to-side through task-oriented options. New in Windows 7, though, is an Extras category, which acts as a catch-all. This seems like a more intuitive way of dealing with miscellaneous online content, and shows that Microsoft is looking ahead.
Some other changes also make Media Center easier to navigate. For instance, there are now logos for different channels, including a visual marker for HD channels. There’s also color coding for different types of shows, more intuitive alphabetizing, and a new desktop gadget. All are welcome changes when it comes to usability, a word nontechies might not associate with a program that promises to perform relatively advanced functions, such as record programs.
Despite these enhanced navigation features, you might lament the fact that you can only stream one show at a time with Internet TV, so you can’t select a few and skip around while you wait for another’s stream to buffer. And whatever kind of user you are, beware of the fact that there is no folder for deleted items, as there is in, say, your inbox, so when you delete something, it’s permanent.
The Internet TV section is conveniently divided into categories, such as news and sports, and clips come from a wide range of content providers, such as MSNBC and CinemaNow. The selection of content, though, is small and uneven. At the time of this review, there were only eight TV shows listed; alongside full seasons of Arrested Development were obscure titles such as Republicrats. Similarly, the music video category includes songs by Taylor Swift, a current pop star, as well as more forgettable tracks such as “Confessions of a Broken Heart” by Lindsay Lohan.
The popularity and volume of content aside, the idea that you can access it from a centralized desktop program, rather than having to open your Web browser, is compelling. All in all, there’s no question that Media Center in Windows 7 is more intuitive than in Vista, and, like Libraries, does a better job of organizing and bringing together multimedia from different sources into one central location.
Versions and Cost of Upgrading
Windows 7 comes in six flavors, although two of them—one for “emerging markets” and one for enterprises—will not appeal to most of the consumers reading this review. That leaves four versions: Starter Edition, a netbook-specific version available only through OEMs, has several limitations, including the inability to customize your desktop and a lack of multitouch support. Home Premium is the equivalent of Vista Home Premium, and includes all the standard features we’ve discussed in this review. Professional allows for remote access to corporate networks and full-system backup and restore, and can run XP programs that won’t work in Windows 7 Home Premium. Ultimate combines all of the multimedia features of Home Premium with the security and business-targeted amenities that Professional offers.
Considering Apple is planning to offer Snow Leopard as a $29 upgrade with no limit on licenses—and, particularly because Vista was so disappointing the first time around—Microsoft’s pricey upgrade costs seem unecessarily steep. However, many notebook makers and retailers are allowing those who recently purchased a Vista laptop to upgrade to Windows 7 for free. And, of course, you don’t pay a dime for the OS if you purchase a new machine.
If Vista left you somewhat disillusioned with Windows, we suggest you upgrade to Windows 7. You’ll find that this new OS not only corrects Vista’s annoying pop-ups and extraneous activity, but provides a more intuitive user interface, a stable platform, longer battery life, stronger performance, and support for multitouch applications, which we predict will start proliferating once Windows 7 becomes the standard OS for PCs. While we don’t expect Windows 7 to win over Mac fans, we think it will breathe new life into the PC ecosystem, satisfying Vista users and XP holdovers alike.