Windows 7: Deja Vista
Windows 7 adds a few cool features, but look, feel and performance are not much different from its predecessor.
A new Microsoft Windows operating system is always big news. The last really stable OS to find widespread acceptance was Windows XP. Windows Vista added a lot of user-friendly options but was more or less branded as a consumer product and not really suitable for businesses.
And now we have Windows 7, which attempts to keep most of the niceties of Vista while maintaining the businesslike status that XP enjoyed.
We loaded the install DVD for Windows 7 and were surprised that it could run from the drive like a normal program and not need to be booted.
Once it scanned our test computer, it asked if we wanted to upgrade our existing OS or install a clean version of Windows 7. Because we were upgrading from Vista, we chose the upgrade option, which did keep all of our existing programs in place.
At this point, the program warned us that the install could take hours and that our system would reboot several times. On these points, it was correct. The time from when we clicked OK to the time Windows 7 was ready to go was 1 hour, 40 minutes on our test system, which had a 1.6GHz dual-core processor. We didn't notice a reboot until the end of the install. There's a nice progress bar at the bottom of the install screen that shows how far along you are. It's a guess at best, but at least it gives some indication as to what's going on.
Familiar Look and Feel
After Windows 7 booted up, we gazed at the new desktop and saw ... Vista. What? Here's the dirty little secret that Microsoft is definitely not telling anyone: If you hated Vista because of the interface, then you're going to hate Windows 7, too. Vista totally changed the look and feel of Windows from XP, but Windows 7 only marginally changes the look and feel from Vista. In fact, 90 percent or more of the interface is exactly the same -- as in, identical. Going on just the look and general behavior, Windows 7 is little more than what Microsoft could have delivered in a free service pack to the Vista operating system.
On the bad side, most of Vista's annoyances have remained intact. You're still bombarded with constant "Are you sure you want this program to run?" questions, even if Windows 7 is running an internal process. Luckily, you can go into the control panel and turn those notices off.
Performance is also unchanged overall on a system running Vista compared with Windows 7. We benchmarked several systems running Vista and then benchmarked them again once they converted to Windows 7. They were unchanged. Going from XP to Windows 7 resulted in a slight performance decrease, much like when going from XP to Vista. When we tested a beta version of Windows 7 early this year, we found its performance to be faster than Vista's. But with all the special functions added to the final release there's no difference, at least with the Ultimate Edition we tested.
Of course, not everything is the same. Several of the improvements are quite good. For one, users don't get fooled when trying to shut down the PC. Under Vista, clicking the button with the international symbol for power throws it into hibernate mode. In Windows 7, the power button actually says Shut Down and turns the system off.
Other improvements can be lumped into one of two categories. The first is visual appeal, or window dressing, if you will. These things are nice but not essential. The second covers performance improvements.
The jump lists feature spans the area between visual appeal and performance improvement. Each program that runs on Windows 7 will spawn a jump list (see Figure 1). The list contains frequently used documents and features of that program, and it will change to match a user's patterns. Users can add features to a jump list or even pin a favorite feature or document to the task bar. So, if you have a spreadsheet you work on every day, you can jump right to it without any intermittent steps.
[Click on image for larger view.]
|Figure 1. Each program running under Windows 7 will have a jump list so you can jump to important documents or features.
Snap is another interesting feature that could improve productivity. Basically, it has preconfigured setups for screen windows that most users need. The most popular is putting two windows side by side, such as when you're comparing prices on various Web sites. All you need to do is drag a window into the area, and it will snap into place. You can also place important documents into the task bar if you like. If you don't enjoy those features, you can always disable them, though we think they make the interface better.
A fun but less useful feature is Shake. Grab any window with your mouse, and give it a little shake. Like magic, all the other windows disappear. It's perfect for users who are easily distracted. Oh, and a second shake brings it all back.
Aero Peek is similar to Shake, but it lets you make any window disappear by hovering your mouse over a little square in the lower right side of the Windows 7 task bar. Moving away restores the desktop. Clicking on that square keeps hidden windows away until you click again.
The Search function of Windows 7 is vastly improved over Vista and XP. When you begin typing in the search window, the computer is already looking for matches. You'll likely have what you're looking for in the time it takes you to type your query. If you think you've found the file you need, you can preview it by clicking in the search results window without opening it.
We've already determined Windows 7 won't make your computer run any faster. And if you're upgrading from XP, it might run slightly slower, just as with Vista. But there are several things Windows 7 does better than any other Microsoft OS, and they do increase performance.
Computers that go to sleep now do so extremely quickly. Even our most modest test systems were able to snooze in seconds. More impressively, they came back out of sleep mode in just a few seconds too, even going so far as to automatically reconnect with our wireless network.
USB devices have become extensions of PC use these days, be it in the form of portable hard drives, USB mice, digital cameras or even music players. With Windows 7, these devices are almost instantly ready to use. The first time you plug in a portable hard drive to a system running Windows 7, it will be ready to go in just a few seconds -- and any other time, there's almost no delay at all.
Ease of use 20%
Key: 1: Virtually inoperable or nonexistent 5: Average, performs adequately 10: Exceptional
Windows 7 is a good OS with a lot going for it, and it's stable. But it's not really anything new. We hate to be the reviewers who say that the emperor has no clothes, but there's so much hype surrounding Windows 7 that most people are probably expecting an entirely new OS. What they'll find is an improved version of Vista, with the same warts and flaws and a few improvements. That's really it.
It's hard to justify paying $319 for the Ultimate Edition to get snap windows, the ability to shake your mouse and slightly improved performance with USB drives. Most government agencies will likely purchase Windows 7 Enterprise Edition, which, with typical government discounts, will sell for much less.
If Microsoft had come out with a free service pack for Vista and called it "Windows 7," it would be one thing. But we just don't see enough of a change to warrant the purchase of an entirely new OS. Windows XP Service Pack 2 changed that OS a lot more than moving from Vista to Windows 7 will.
So if your computers are running XP and everything works fine, there's no need to jump to Windows 7 right away. And if you've already moved to Vista, you pretty much have Windows 7 already, albeit without a couple nice additional features.
Price: $319 for full Ultimate Edition
John Breeden II has run the Government Computer News testing lab for eight years. He is the author of "Guide to Webcams" (Prompt, 2000) and "Exploring Microsoft Office XP" (Cengage Learning, 2001).