Windows 7 could be one of Microsoft's greatest operating systems, if it fulfills the promise shown by the unofficial beta version (build 7000) we have been testing for the past couple of days.
Let me preface these quick impressions of Redmond's latest opus by saying that I came to Windows 7 after having happily run the much-maligned Windows Vista on my Intel Core 2 Duo-based PC for the past 18 months (alongside Ubuntu).
I found Vista to be a worthy upgrade from Windows XP SP2. Despite its obvious flaws (can you say "resource hog"?) and the acknowlegement that some of its features need to be disabled by default, Vista at heart is a much more stable and usable operating system than XP, which was first released in 2001.
The release of Service Pack 1 and gradual driver improvements have built on Microsoft's somewhat-shaky Vista beginning.
Coming from this background, I have been pleased to discover over the past several days that Microsoft appears to have built on Vista's strengths and addressed most of its weaknesses with the beta release of Windows 7.
I found the Windows 7 beta a painless install. Out-of-the-box driver support on our test machine was perfect, and it took only half an hour and two quick reboots to begin running a stable desktop environment, though we wondered why Windows 7 created a 200MB partition in addition to its main partition. The 33MB of updates quickly came down the pipe upon loading the desktop.
Basic desktop performance was strong; the reports that Windows 7 is simply faster than Vista appear to be true. Certainly, Windows 7 had no problem simultaneously installing and launching applications, downloading files, browsing the Web, and carrying out other tasks on our modest 2.7GHz Pentium 4, which has only an 160GB IDE hard disk and 512MB of RAM.
Vista's most visible annoyance, User Account Control, has been pared right back on its default setting, and we encountered it only a couple of times throughout a whole morning of installing applications. However, if you feel nostalgic for UAC's old behavior, you can easily change it back via Windows 7's new Action Center, which now centralizes all of the security updates and warning alerts that Windows throws your way.
Windows 7 recommended that we install a third-party antivirus package (it suggested Kaspersky and AVG), but its antispyware package Defender comes preinstalled. Microsoft appears to have an antivirus package installed under the hood; when downloading new software with Firefox, we were told that our downloads were being scanned for viruses.
I particularly like the new photo-realistic device icons, and the overhaul of the way Windows handles and ejects USB storage devices. Microsoft appears to have wiped out a lot of the Windows XP-era interface quirks of Vista; the result is a much more simplistic, unified experience for common tasks.
I also enjoyed the overhaul of the Windows taskbar, especially the slick graphics, but a bug prevented us from being able to use the preview function (it showed a black rectangle instead), and you'll want to play with the taskbar settings to get this piece of the Windows 7 puzzle just right. It's easy to get minimized windows mixed up with launcher buttons, for example.
I want to stress that we didn't test the Windows 7 beta exhaustively, and business users will need to closely examine deployment software and how the operating system integrates into their existing environments, as well as its ability to work well with third-party software. For example, we couldn't get Adobe Systems' Creative Suite 3 to install on Windows 7 beta; the installer told us we needed to quit Internet Explorer first.
But perhaps the most important thing to note about the software is that at first glance, it has much more of that nebulous "Windows XP feel" than Vista ever did. Even on our modest machine, Windows 7 didn't thrash the hard disk or ever feel unresponsive, except when we were installing Apple's iTunes, a notorious pain on Windows systems.
In general, this signals that Microsoft has spent a lot of effort with Windows 7 on delivering a solid operating system that won't "wow" anyone but will satisfy them on a much deeper level. In other words, just what the doctor--and the customers--ordered.