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Issue 8.1


Windows 7

Issue: 8.1 (November/December 2009)
Author: Dave Mancuso
Article Description: No description available.
Article Length (in bytes): 9,045
Starting Page Number: 10
Article Number: 8102
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Full text of article...

Windows Vista was a decent operating system. Its bad reputation seems to be a lesson to developers: don't always give users what they want. Vista addressed every note, every gripe, and every bad PR story about Windows XP. It was made to be safe, sleek, and sophisticated. Unfortunately, Microsoft bit off more than it could chew. Vista's huge development team had grand ideas but little substance to show for it. The new WinFS file system was dropped, as were other major features. The main priority became shipping Vista before software client contracts expired (and not renewed by customers who had run out of patience). Vista became a slow, cumbersome OS whose elegant features were buried under the weight of its overhead. More annoyingly, it infamously asked you for permission to perform (seemingly) every simple little task you tried to perform. Vista, the powerful OS that kept you connected and in control, got in your way. Vista was arguably and unfortunately Microsoft's black sheep of the Windows family.

Enter Windows 7. Microsoft's main goal for Windows 7 was to lighten the load. It trimmed little used features and whole applications like Windows Mail, Photo Gallery, and Movie Maker. It tightened up every performance feature in the OS, notably all Aero interface features. The goal and mantra for Windows 7 was to make it simple, snappy, and light. Users are supposed to get what they need with a minimum of muss and fuss. In a way, Windows 7 is the first real version of Vista, almost as if Vista were an early beta of what has now shipped on October 22.

Windows 7 is available in both 32 bit and 64 bit versions. I opted for the 32 bit version (note that this was the Release Candidate from summer 2009, although the current final shipping version is virtually identical). I installed Windows 7 in a new Parallels virtual machine on my Macintosh. Since I wasn't running Windows natively, I expected the same slow performance I have with Vista. The installation, however, proceeded cleanly and smoothly. More importantly, it installed more quickly than previous versions of Windows. I've read of issues with Windows 7 installs, but I experienced no problems at all, even on my virtual hosted OS. This could be the 4 GB of RAM in my laptop, although my Parallels virtual machine is configured for a recommended 1 GB of RAM. Regardless, so far so good.

The 32 bit version of Windows 7 booted in one minute and thirty seconds from a cold start. Reports are that the 64 bit version takes longer. More importantly, Vista's boot time on my laptop is excruciatingly slow. When it does boot, it's incredibly sluggish for a few minutes until everything finishes initializing. Windows 7 is ready to use once the desktop appears. Things don't happen instantly, but they're noticeably snappy and responsive.

The desktop itself is much lighter and cleaner. I felt that Vista's reputation was in large part undeserved, but its dark, thick look certainly didn't help. Windows 7's lighter default theme is a huge improvement. In fact, the first thing I did was to set the window theme to be a but darker for better contrast on my screen. The Personalize settings are new, and the rotating desktops are a nice touch. You can set multiple desktop pictures to change on a timed basis of your choosing. It's a nice touch, although changing the screen upon each restart would be even nicer.

Dragging a window to the side of the screen snaps it to a half screen zoomed window. It's easy to snap two windows side by side on the screen, a useful feature that's surprisingly easy to pick up and make a habit. This cannot be understated, especially for Mac users. This is the first time that I've used a Windows feature that made me think "Why shouldn't it be this way? Why didn't someone think of this before?" It's a typical Apple move to create a solution to a problem you didn't know you had, only now it's in Windows. Windows 7 developers have obviously made a paradigm shift in their user interface design. Shaking a window to hide all other windows is another nice touch. Information about these features can be found easily by exploring the OS, or on the Microsoft website. In each case, features are easy to use and remember, yet valuable for everyday use.

The Microsoft Windows 7 website deserves a mention as well. Microsoft reportedly spent over 300 million dollars on marketing for Windows 7, and it shows. The seven second demo videos on the site each showcased a nice feature that you could use every day. More importantly, they were quick, funny, and not afraid to have a little fun. Microsoft is trying not to take itself too seriously with its approach, and it's fairly successful (although spending 300 million dollars to present this persona seems heavily serious on closer examination). It's the first time I've seen some warmth for Windows that comes across as genuine.

The applications that come with Windows have been given facelifts as well. WordPad is the most drastically different, with a Ribbon interface a la Office 2007. Even Notepad seems a bit new, and Calculator is new for the first time since Windows 3.1, seemingly. Solitaire is new too. The only application apparently left untouched is the venerable Command Prompt, probably to appease DOS purists.

The most important application to run on Windows 7 is arguably REALbasic. I used a demo copy of REALbasic 2009 Release 4. It started smoothly, and compiled a few projects cleanly. There hasn't been much in the online communities about Windows 7 and REALbasic, although you may hear more by the time you read this. Things definitely seem to be workable. As a side note, REALbasic looks pretty good running in a Windows 7 themed environment.

Windows 7 isn't without annoyances. As in Vista, it notified me that I was missing anti-spyware and antivirus software. I checked off Windows Defender for an easy answer, but I installed the open source antivirus software ClamWin instead of my usual AVG. Windows 7 refused to recognize ClamWin even after repeated efforts and multiple restarts. Perhaps I missed something simple, but Windows 7 is all about not fighting the user. It's also clear that some interface elements are unchanged from older versions of Windows, making workflows clunky at odd times. Frankly though, Windows 7 is a huge change to smoother, more organic interface. The leftovers can be overlooked in the hopes that they'll be steadily upgraded over the next few years.

The one real annoyance with Windows 7 are its versions. Having three versions (Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate) is better than Vista's versions, but can't it be two versions, or (dare I say it) one? Also, upgrade paths are confusing at best. It's hard to tell how and if your copy of Windows is upgradeable to Windows 7 (this may be a personal issue, since my Vista launch promo license has no upgrade path whatsoever). If you need a new license, places like Tiger Direct or NewEgg are your most likely sources of new OEM versions of Windows 7 (Home Premium $109.99, Professional $149.99, Ultimate 189.99). Upgrades, if you qualify, are more expensive than the OEM versions: $119.99 for Home Premium, $199.99 for Professional, and $219.99 for Ultimate. These websites, along with Microsoft's site, have charts detailing the features in each version.

It's clear that I think Windows 7 is a winner. I've been a Mac user for twenty years, since System 6. I've been a Windows user since Windows 3.0 and DOS 3.3. This is the first time that I can say that Microsoft has an OS that I could use on a daily basis as an alternative to the Mac OS. It's the biggest upgrade from a usability standpoint since Windows 95. It fulfills the promise that Vista made. Finally, it makes me very interested in what Microsoft does next, and perhaps that's the most important thing of all.

End of article.