In-Depth

Will Windows 7 Be Microsoft's Redemption?

Early versions of Windows Vista's successor could burnish the operating system's tarnished reputation in the desktop market.

It has been a dark couple of years for Microsoft in the desktop operating systems business. The uncontested leader in that market for close to two decades, the company sullied its reputation with the delivery of Windows Vista, which proved a crashing disappointment from the moment it stumbled out of the starting blocks. Despite expensive marketing campaigns and the sermons preached by top Microsoft executives about its advantages, IT shops clung to Windows XP.

But with the first betas of Vista's successor, Windows 7, trickling out in late December, new hope has risen. Given what appears to be an OS with vastly improved speed and performance, support for a greater number of devices, smoother installation and a sexier interface, Redmond has a chance at redemption in the OS market -- redemption much needed not just by Microsoft, but also by its thousands of application developers as the ongoing recession eats away at revenues and profits.

Indeed, much of the industry buzz is positive -- extremely positive. This has inspired us at Redmond to find out for ourselves if Windows 7 is all it's cracked up to be. Our approach? Interview a dozen readers who have all been beating on the beta. We quickly discovered the buzz was right on: This thing is really good. And it's still an early beta. Out of a dozen readers, only one came across as a real Windows 7 curmudgeon.

Vista was rightly slammed for large hardware requirements. While Microsoft says it runs in as little as 512MB of RAM, users know different. Large hard drives, multiple gigs of high-speed RAM and a hot graphics card are all needed to achieve reasonable performance.

Windows 7's requirements are seemingly higher, at least for RAM; Microsoft suggests a minimum of 1GB. The real story, however, is far different. Windows 7 performs briskly on all manner of systems. In fact, our readers are running it on everything from a single-processor system with 768MB of RAM all the way up to a multi-core system with 4GB. Not a soul reported anything but snappy, highly responsive performance.

Faster than a Speeding Vista
With Windows 7, Microsoft has attacked nearly every aspect of the OS's performance -- and it shows. In fact, most users wish Microsoft had paid this much attention to Vista. Redmond readers have spoken loud and clear through our surveys and countless e-mails sent over the last few years on this matter. IT wants smaller, leaner OSes and application suites. After all this time, Microsoft is finally listening.

"Windows 7 is what Vista should have been -- Vista on steroids!" exclaims Steve Birchfield, IT operations supervisor at AnazaoHealth Corp. in Tampa, Fla. "It's faster than both my machines running Vista and XP. I was shocked to see how fast the first few large file copies went."

Others are even more enthused. "First impression: Wow!" says Christopher A. Blanchard, an MCSE and customer engineer for EMC Corp. "I picked this system because I had nothing but nightmares with Vista's performance. It runs much faster with just the basics installed."

While few are surprised that Windows 7 outperforms Vista, the favorable XP comparisons are particularly shocking. "Windows 7 is noticeably faster than Vista -- and even my XP desktop -- for file copies across the network and USB locally attached drives. With the Aero desktop loaded, the performance is better than Vista with Aero turned off. I've copied large sets of files on and off of USB drives in Windows 7, and they're at least twice as fast as Vista. I can browse network resources much faster now as well," Birchfield concludes.

Many are pushing Windows 7 to the limit with little degradation. "I haven't had any problems with performance while multitasking -- the built-in CPU meter never maxed out to 100 percent," notes Bill Carreira, municipal information systems director for the city of Kingsland, Ga.

The new power-management features also mean that hardware is tasked less. Steve Chapman, founder of blog UX Evangelist, put Windows 7's power management to the test. "For certain basic word processing or Internet browsing, where my computer fan would've normally kicked on at certain times, I noticed a decrease in those times ... but only when not using the Aero Glass UI," Chapman explains.

"Windows 7 is what Vista should have been. Vista on steroids! It's faster than both my machines running Vista and XP."
Steve Birchfield, IT Operations Supervisor, AnazaoHealth Corp.

Chapman managed to slow Windows 7 down, but only on his 32-bit machine, "and when I have upward of 15 tabs open in an Internet browser. Waiting for the right-click fly-out menu has a way of testing one's patience," he says.

Redmond reader David Aflak, a senior manager at Esurance Inc., runs Vista on a newer HP 6910p machine and Windows 7 on an older 6400. The performance is virtually the same.

Running Windows 7 while clogging network connections poses no problem. "I downloaded the Office 2007 installation code -- one 500MB-plus file -- across the network. Though the system was pegged, I had no trouble using Outlook to read e-mail while the process was going on in the background," says C. Marc Wagner, services development specialist, UITS, Student Technology Centers, at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.

Wagner also noticed that Windows 7 uses far less RAM. His Vista Service Pack 2 (SP2) machine shows 1.14GB of RAM in use with IE and Outlook running, while the same apps on Windows 7 have a footprint of just 600MB.

No Shortage of Apps
Being IT pros, Redmond readers don't just load up a beta OS and start to play -- they throw on as many apps as they can find. So far, the compatibility is impressive. And in some cases, installation time is surprisingly fast. MCSE Blanchard installed Microsoft Office 2007 Enterprise Edition and got it running in half the time it took on his Vista machine.

But the breadth of compatible apps is what's really impressive. Rocco Santori, a consultant with Rocconet, runs three browsers: Chrome (which is itself still in beta), IE and Firefox. He also runs the Microsoft Media player, OpenOffice.org, Download Accelerator 9, Total Commander v7.04a, Brother printer software, Norton 360 beta and SugarSync. The only trouble he had was with McAfee Internet Security, which he swapped for Norton 360 beta.

Microsoft has publicly warned that some security tools and other bits of low-level code, such as imaging apps, may not work with Windows 7.

Wagner also had problems with security. Symantec AntiVirus didn't work, so like Santori he switched over to the beta of Norton 360.

IT experts believe Windows 7 will be an easy upgrade, especially for Vista shops. "If you're familiar with Vista and prepared your applications and drivers to function with it, Windows 7 should slide right in," says Patrick Dunlap, a client configuration manager. "The only thing that didn't work was Symantec Endpoint Protection R3. Also, Microsoft Virtual PC 2007 has a significant lag time problem in processing graphics, but that could be a video driver issue," he continues. "I used all of the IBM Vista drivers for the install without errors. I'm guessing all of the shims we learned to use in Vista will work in Windows 7."

Custom and vertical software is off to a decent start.

Carriera is running Incode Financial Software and Police RMS Software. "They work just fine," he says. "Our Status View application that keeps track of our employees -- in and out board -- will not function, but it didn't work in Vista either." Like others, Carreira's only surprise was not being able to run Norton AntiVirus.

Birchfield is also having good luck with custom software. "I'm running our in-house, custom-written ASP.NET app, as well as VMware Infrastructure Client, VMware Converter, Google Chrome, Firefox 3, Microsoft Dynamics Solomon, SQL 2008 Express tools, VNC, Office 2007 and Winamp -- which all installed cleanly and work fine," he says.

"The only non-working application is Server 2008 RSAT, and the Verizon FIOS Internet Security Suite wouldn't download from Verizon's Web site," he continues. "It reported the OS as Windows 98/ME. The Cisco AnyConnect client works, but did blue screen once. I restarted the computer and it has been stable ever since."

Driving Devices
One of the biggest Vista bugaboos is the lack of device drivers. From early Redmond reader reports, Windows 7 is off to a pretty good start in addressing this seemingly perpetual problem.

Take Birchfield, for example: He had no problems installing external USB drives, a Zebra ZM400 or his Ricoh multifunction printer. "I used Vista drivers for the devices that couldn't be found. All of the hardware on the laptop was automatically found during installation," he says.

Carreira has had mixed, though generally positive, results. "So far, all the printers we've connected to the machine work just fine. The drivers for the Ethernet device and onboard video were found automatically. Our video device is a generic onboard integrated device without hardware acceleration, so some of the graphics -- such as games -- that require the hardware acceleration don't function properly," he explains.

Not all driver stories are as heartwarming. MCSE Blanchard had a glitch trying to get his Mobile Intel 915GM/GMS, 910GML Express Chipset Family to be properly recognized. "It showed up twice in device manager: one working, one failed. I clicked on the failed driver to see what the issue was, and it read: 'Windows has stopped this device because it has reported problems. (Code 43).' When [I clicked] on OK, despite having made no changes, the system prompted me for reboot because changes were made. I rebooted the system per the instructions. After reboot, the issue went away, although it continued to show two video drivers," Blanchard says.

The way devices install has changed a bit. "With my 64-bit laptop, I had hardware that wasn't recognized by Windows 7, but only a few items," UX Evangelist blogger Chapman says. "Installation of those devices went smoothly with a very obvious reduction in pop-up dialog boxes bugging you for answers compared to Vista. This is more than likely due to the new User Account Control [UAC] settings with a default set to one notch below Vista's. As for the process of installing new devices manually, things haven't changed much. You can either do it through Device Manager, click on the pop-ups when you insert your new device or simply run the app containing the driver for your device." But, he warns, "XP users won't be any more comforted in Windows 7 than they were in Vista -- the driver model is essentially the same in that realm."

A minority of beta users contacted had device issues. "I'm an avid user of all Windows OSes: XP, Vista and Windows 7. I've used all versions of 7 -- every build," says IT professional Michael Hickman. "Windows 7 is good, but it's still Vista-ish. You would've thought they would have changed the complete operating system. It's a bit of a let down. Windows 7 is really quick, but I have problems with drivers. If I can't find a driver, I use Driver Genius or Driver Scanner. But when you need a driver, the scanner finds XP drivers."

7 Magnificent Windows 7 Features

AeroPeek: This feature, like a browser preview, shows what the window you may want to open or toggle to actually contains -- just by hovering over the thumbnail.

BranchCache: When Windows 7 is used in conjunction with Windows Server 2008 R2, files move across the WAN far more quickly thanks to new caching technology.

Direct Access: Mobile users no longer need a VPN to access corporate networks.

Green: Microsoft believes Windows 7 is its greenest desktop OS yet. Some power savings come from the smaller footprint, but the bulk of the gains are in power management, especially when the system isn't in use.

Windows 7 offers more power settings, allowing IT or end users to truly minimize electric use. These can also be customized for specific uses.

HomeGroups: Windows 7 is designed to be easier to set up on a home network and let nodes share files. Through HomeGroups, PCs on the network will discover each other and identify shared files. The system comes locked down with a password, so only allowed family members can share.

If you have a corporate laptop that belongs to your corporate domain, it can also join HomeGroups, while at the same time keeping sensitive company data safe. Windows 7 will also automatically detect if the PC is at home, at work or out in public and adjust accordingly.

While aimed at consumers, HomeGroups may well be useful for sharing files within small and remote offices.

Libraries: Libraries are how users see content that's shareable across the network. Microsoft has worked hard to make them intuitive, so you aren't seeing cryptic descriptions, complex path names or files that really aren't meant to be shared.

Libraries can also be organized by media type, such as video, documents, music and so on.

Taskbar: The new Taskbar is set by default to show large icons, which Microsoft believes make it easier for users to recognize what they're launching. It's also designed to be the one place where users launch programs, files and tasks.

–D.B.

Steady as She Goes
There's nothing more frustrating or less confidence-inspiring than an OS that regularly and inexplicably crashes. Vista and all client versions of Windows before it earned some well-deserved flack for their tendency to blue screen or simply hang. While Windows 7 is far from crash-free, it's earning high marks for stability.

"It seems to be the most stable version of Windows so far," Santori says.

Carreira still hasn't had a single problem: "It's very stable and has been operating without a reboot since we installed it."

Birchfield has also seen near-constant uptime: "So far, the OS has been very stable. I have only had one blue screen with the Cisco AnyConnect application, but since then nothing has seriously crashed or hung the system. I'm surprised that pulling USB drives out and changing laptop docking states hasn't affected Windows at all."

However, as with Vista, some users report flawless performance with Windows 7 while others run into glitches. "It blue screened several times. I've applied the update, and so far have not seen a repeat," Aflak says. "XP was stable. Vista blue screens every month or so. This one has blue screened six times today."

Blanchard even has problems with Windows 7-specific Web content: "I went to the Windows 7 Web site and played a few of those fancy videos telling us what a great OS it is. When trying to play them, the system locks up and is unresponsive. Pressing and holding the power seems to be the only option, as both keyboard and mouse become non-functional. Also, I'm having issues with computer management requiring that the installation media be accessible before any options will appear."

Instant Install
Sometimes beta software is a bear to install -- especially an OS. But for some users, Windows 7 has been a piece of cake. "I installed it on an ASUS AMD 64 machine without a flaw. I had a little problem with a Linksys application for the wireless card, but 'going direct' worked," says Bill Bates, business analyst for Penchant Software Inc., a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner based in Minneapolis.

Aflak had even fewer problems. "Installation was very easy, cleaner than Vista. You load the DVD and the entire process is GUI-driven. The only thing it asks for in the first part of the install is the partition setup. I had the system installed in about 30 minutes. The first boot loaded basic video drivers, and then the system did a search on the Internet and loaded the correct drivers for video and sound. After that, it rebooted, and the system was operational," Aflak says.

"If you're familiar with Vista and prepared your applications and drivers to function with it, Windows 7 should slide right in."
Patrick Dunlap, Client Configuration Manager

Carreira installed Windows 7 as a full-fledged member of his organization's network. "I joined it to my Domain and have established a test user in the Administrator group. We're putting it through its paces with Active Directory and GPOs, and so far the machine hasn't crashed and has been running since the day of the beta leak. Some of the advanced features we can't use because the machine's video card isn't robust enough, but everything else is working better than expected," he says. "I'm even using the RDP to 'play' on the machine on my XP desktop. I've tested Vista and Windows 7, and right now 7 is the winner. Even some of my older apps run better on 7 versus Vista. My staff and I will continue to hammer this OS and make it do what Vista couldn't."

The install is also pretty fast. "It took less than a half hour. Even on a clean install, it prompts the user to connect to an available wireless network," Wagner says. "It downloads all updates, and it needed no drivers from Dell. Whether that means it found what it needed out on the Internet or that the code was already in the ISO file that I burned to DVD, I don't know, but I didn't need to do anything."

Others had a glitch or two. "I upgraded an existing Vista installation first and it ran through fine. However, when I ran Outlook and Word, the performance was slow and the applications crashed," Birchfield says. "I tried uninstalling the applications and it wouldn't allow me to do so. I installed the OS clean and added all of my applications on with much better results. The OS loaded quickly and all of the applications have run well. The only negative aspect of the install was the multiple reboots. The OS rebooted three or four times during the clean install and possibly more on the upgrade. I didn't watch the entire upgrade process because it took so much longer, but there were file operations taking place that required reboots not needed in the clean install."

Santori also had a minor problem. "The only thing that didn't migrate automatically was the network printer. I spent some time discovering that the Work network was needed to remap it," he says.

As far as installation, low-end hardware is not a negating factor. "I was trying it out on a laptop with 768MB of memory and was prepared for it to not work well. I was pleasantly surprised," says Ron Rosenthal, an IT supervisor.

The Windows 7 OS itself has a revamped look and feel, and readers have plenty of other comments about their experiences with it. Look for the second part of this feature-which will cover changes in the GUI, Taskbar, UAC and much more -- in the April issue of Redmond.

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