Windows 7 Improves on Vista

New, economical task bar and faster response times make Microsoft's new OS well worth an upgrade.

Microsoft has decided to pull back the curtains on Windows 7, less than two years after Vista appeared on the market. Windows 7 is still in beta, but it’s evident that Microsoft has taken several steps in the right direction by tweaking some of Vista’s great features.

Installation of Windows 7 seems simpler than for Vista. I noticed fewer screens that require user input during a fresh install. Windows 7 uses Vista's installer process — a smart decision because it’s leaps and bounds ahead of the XP installer. After the Windows 7 installation was complete, the first thing I checked was which drivers it did not find in the device manager. To my surprise, it found almost everything.

End-User Advantages

Compared with Vista, Windows 7 has improved on the user experience in several ways. Anyone who has ever used Vista knows all about User Account Control. Windows 7 has made several changes to remedy the problems with this feature by adjusting the default settings. The UAC in Windows 7 seems to know the difference between requests from a user and requests from a program. I was rarely prompted by the UAC to perform normal day-to-day tasks as I was in Vista.

Windows 7 also has completely changed how the taskbar works. The new taskbar combines the normal shortcuts available in the Quick Launch bar with windows of running programs. For instance, if you have a shortcut for Firefox in the new taskbar and you click on that shortcut to start Firefox, it does not open a tab in your taskbar for Firefox. Instead, Windows 7 will treat the Firefox shortcut as a placeholder for that tab. Moving your mouse over the shortcut will display a small preview window of all the Firefox sessions you currently have running.

There are some pros and cons with this new system. First, when Vista and Office 2007 came out, users were frustrated by the change in appearance because they could not locate certain features. The same thing might occur with the taskbar when people expect to see a new tab for each program they open, although by default new installs of Vista and XP Service Pack 3 group similar programs together in this way.

The new taskbar can keep things organized and lets notebook users with smaller screens move between many applications at once. (On my Lenovo X200 tablet, which has a 13-inch screen, if I have more than six or seven applications running at once in XP and Vista, the taskbar becomes unusable.) Personally, I am a huge fan of the new built-in search that was introduced with Vista and continued with Windows 7. Pressing the Windows button and then typing in part of the program or file you want to open will present you with very accurate results and is more efficient than clicking on shortcuts.

Another visual change in Windows 7 is the Aero interface. Microsoft made it possible to go directly to the screen resolution window by right clicking on the desktop. The personalization options make it easy to control the look of Windows 7: Dragging a window to the top of the screen maximizes the window, and dragging a window to the side reduces the window so that it takes up only 50 percent of the screen. The Aero Peek feature allows you to view Windows 7 gadgets behind application windows.

Why It Works for IT

Boot times for Windows 7 on a fresh install were 10 to 15 seconds faster than for Vista on my X200. I found Windows 7 to be very quick and responsive but not a noticeable improvement over Vista. Both Vista and Windows 7 tablet installations are much quicker than the older XP tablet edition. Windows 7 64-bit edition is a must for those who require more than 3.5 gigabytes of RAM. There were times when I had several applications open and was using more than 6GB of the 8GB of RAM on my desktop. The system did not seem any slower than if I had only a single application running. Copying files over the network is still slow in Windows 7, a problem that started with Vista and its new TCP/IP stack.

Windows 7 has been tweaked to make it easier to set up connections to wireless networks. A noticeable change: After you join a wireless network, it will ask you if it is a home or work environment. If you choose home, it will ask if you would like to create a HomeGroup, which provides a way to share pictures, music, printers, documents and so forth. This feature only applies when connected to a home network; other users will not have this privilege.

DirectAccess is a new network feature in Windows 7 that allows built-in virtual private network-like connections that require only an IPv6 connection. DirectAccess lets IT administrators deliver full network resources to mobile users without setting up complicated VPNs or sacrificing network security.

AppLocker is a new security feature in Windows 7 that allows an IT administrator to prevent unauthorized software from running on a user's computer. AppLocker is basically a group policy that can be applied to filter out what publisher, checksum or file name can run on your computer. This will lower the number of help-desk calls and reduce malware infection on large networks. BitLocker also has been improved on Windows 7 to make it easier to protect and share your data.

Windows Explorer received a few welcome changes in Windows 7, such as libraries that are a collection of physical folders joined together so you can view them all at once. For example, let's say you have four folders with pictures in them on your computer in separate physical places on your hard drive. With a library, you can add those four folders into your pictures library to quickly view all of them at once. The viewing window is also modified to display the correct columns depending on what type of file you are looking at in the library. This feature is sure to make the user experience easier. You can even create play lists for Windows Media Player using the new Windows Explorer.

After spending a few weeks with the Windows 7 beta, I really enjoy it. For a beta, it is very stable and fast, and the much-needed changes from Vista make it worth your while to upgrade. I do believe that Microsoft is remarketing Vista as Windows 7, but this is not a bad thing. I have always had a great experience with Vista, and Windows 7 has only made that experience better. If you are planning to roll out a large upgrade from XP to Vista, wait until Windows 7 is released. It is a very solid operating system that improves on Vista in almost every way.

Disadvantages

Although Windows 7 promises to be a great product, there are a few things we can quibble about. The beta release that I tried did not come with Blu-ray support, which makes no sense. However, I was able to make Blu-ray work with third-party software. Windows 7 also does not support .pdf or .rar files out of the box. Again, you can make it work with third-party software, but these formats have been around forever, are among the formats most often used, and the third-party software that supports them is free — so why the omission? One last thing: There is no way of mounting an .iso file as a local drive. But these are by no means deal breakers; Windows 7 is a very solid operating system.

Jun 04 2009

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