Could Windows 7 accomplish everything that's expected of it? Probably not, but it makes a damn good attempt. We've tested the gold master, the final version going out on October 22. Upgrade without trepidation, people. With excitement, even.
Windows 7 is not quite a "Vista service pack." It does share a lot of the core tech, and was clearly designed to fix nearly every bad thing anyone said about Vista. Which ironically puts the demon that it was trying to exorcise at its heart. What that means is that Windows 7 is what Vista should have been in the public eye—a solid OS with plenty of modern eye candy that mostly succeeds in taking Windows usability into the 21st century—but it doesn't daringly innovate or push boundaries or smash down walls or whatever verb meets solid object metaphor you want to use, because it had a specific set of obligations to meet, courtesy of its forebear.
That said, if you're coming from Windows XP, Windows 7 will totally feel like a revelation from the glossy future. If you're coming from Vista, you'll definitely go "Hey, this is much better!" the first time you touch Aero Peek. If you're coming from a Mac, you'll—-hahahahaha. But seriously, even the Mactards will have to tone down their nasal David Spadian snide, at least a little bit.
The Long Shadow of Windows Vista
The public opinion of Windows Vista—however flawed it might have been—clearly left a deep impact on Microsoft. While we've got final Windows 7 code, it's hard to look 2 1/2 months into the future to predict what the Windows 7 launch will be like. However, based on this code, and the biggest OS beta testing process in history, it sure won't look like the beleaguered Vista launch at all.
If you installed Vista on your PC within the first month of its release, there was a solid chance your computer ran like crap, or your gadgets didn't work, since drivers weren't available yet. That's not how it shakes down with Windows 7. The hardware requirements for Windows 7 are basically the same as they are for Vista, the first time ever a release of Windows hasn't required significantly more horsepower than the previous one. And it runs better on that hardware, or at least feels like it does.
We ran real-world benchmarking on two test machines, a nearly two-year-old Dell XPS M1330 with 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo, 2GB RAM, an Nvidia 8400M GS and a 64GB SSD, and an 18-month-old desktop with 3GHz Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, an Nvidia 8800GT and a 10,000rpm drive. Results suggest there's little actual difference between Vista and Windows 7 performance-wise on the same hardware, as you can see:
Ambiguous benchmarking aside, our experience during the beta period was that Windows 7 actually ran beautifully, even on netbooks that made Vista cry like a spoiled child who'd had its solid gold spoon shoved up its butt sideways, so the difference isn't based entirely on "feelings." Even Microsoft never attempted to market a Vista for netbooks, but is gladly offering Windows 7 to that category.
Installing XP, Vista and Windows 7 on the same hardware over the space of a week also proved that point: Hardware just worked when I booted up Windows 7 for the first time, while my machines were practically catatonic with XP until I dug up the drivers, and gimped with Vista until I dutifully updated. Hitting Windows Update in Windows 7, I was offered a couple of drivers that were actually current, like ones for my graphics cards. Centralizing the delivery of drivers is huge in making the whole drivers thing less over whelming. (It helps that manufacturers are actively putting out drivers for their gear this go-around, rather than waiting until the last minute, as they tended to with Vista.)
Microsoft has even corrected the pricing spike that Vista introduced, even if they didn't fully streamline that confusing, pulsating orgy of versions. A full version of Windows 7 Home Premium is $200, down from $260, and if you were lucky, you could've pre-ordered an upgrade version for $50. (Microsoft says that deal has sold out, but we wouldn't be shocked to find it re-upped in the near future, possibly even as we head toward the October 22 launch.) So yes, most of the early Vista problems—performance, compatibility and price, to an extent—will likely not be early Windows 7 problems.
Windows 7 is the biggest step forward in usability since Windows 95. In fact, over half of what makes it better than Vista boils down to user interface improvements and enhancements, not so much actual new features.
Its fancy new user interface—the heart of which is Aero Peek, making every open window transparent except the one you're focusing on at the moment so you can find what you're looking for—actually changes the way you use Windows. It breaks the instinct to maximize windows as you're using them; instead, you simply let windows hang out, since it's much easier to juggle them. In other words, it radically reorients the UI around multitasking. After six months of using Aero Peek and the new launcher taskbar, going back to Vista's taskbar, digging through collapsed app bars, or even its Peek-less Alt+Tab feels barbaric and primitive. I wouldn't mind an Mac OS Exposé ripoff to complete the multitasking triumph, though.
Windows 7 brings back a sense of a tightness and control that was sometimes missing in Vista—there's a techincal reason for this relating in part to the way graphics are handled—moments where I've felt like I wasn't in control of my PC have been few and far between, even during the beta and release candidate periods. The more chaste User Account Control goes to that—the frequency with which it interrupts you was grating in Vista, like standing under a dripping faucet. But it actually works as Microsoft intended now, with more security, since you're less likely to repeatedly hammer "OK" to anything that pops up, just so it leaves you the hell alone.
Other super welcome improvements are faster, more logical search—in the Music folder for instance, you can narrow by artist, genre or album—and more excellent file previews, though they're not quite as awesome as what OS X offers up. (And why aren't they on by default?) There are lots of little things that make you say, "finally" or "that's great," like legit codec support baked in to Windows Media Player, Device Stage when you plug in your gadgets, or the retardiculously awesome background images.
In short, Windows 7 is what Windows should feel like in 2009.
What's Not So Good
There are a few spots Microsoft rubbed polish on that still don't quite shine. Networking is much, much better than Vista—the wireless networking interface isn't completely stupid anymore—but the Network and Sharing Center still doesn't quite nail it in terms of making networking or sharing easy for people who don't really know what they're doing. I wouldn't turn my mom loose inside of it, anyway. The HomeGroup concept for making it easy to share files sounds good in theory, but in practice, it's no slam dunk. I imagine regular people asking, "What's up with crazy complicated password I have to write down? Can I share files with PCs not in my HomeGroup? What's all this other stuff in my Network that's not in my HomeGroup?"
Not all parts of the user experience are sweeter now. Microsoft, just fix the unwieldy Control Panel interface, please. (Hint: Steal OS X's. Everything's visible and categorized.) And Windows Media Player's UI while you're at it. If it makes iTunes look simple, it's got problems. I'd really like to be able to pin folders directly to the Taskbar as well, not simply to the Windows Explorer icon in the Taskbar. It's kind of confusing behavior, actually—why can you pin some icons (apps or files) and not others (folders)?
Internet Explorer 8 ain't so great, either. It's better than IE7, sure, and actually sorta supports modern web standards. But you'll be downloading Firefox, Opera, or Chrome as soon as you get Win 7 up and running, since IE's not better than any of them. And while you could argue you wouldn't be so inclined to use Microsoft's own mail application either, you might, but you'll have to download it first. Instead of being app-packed, Windows 7 gives you an optional update for Live Essentials, with apps like Mail, Photo Gallery and MovieMaker. Some people might like the cleaner install, but this is a fairly senseless de-coupling—not including a mail app with your own OS? I know those European regulators are ridiculous, but come on.
I suppose the biggest thing missing from Windows 7 is any sense of daring (psychedelic wallpapers aside). It's a very safe release: Take what was good about Vista, fix what people bitched about, and voila. We get it, people want a safe operating system, not an experiment in behavioral science. But even as Windows 7 restores some of the joy in using Windows, you get the sense that it could've been more, if it hadn't been saddled with the tainted legacy of Vista. I wonder what Windows 7 would have been without Vista.
Windows XP was a great OS in its day. Windows Vista, once it found its feet several months in, was a good OS. With Windows 7, the OS is great again. It's what people said they wanted out of Windows: Solid, more nimble and the easiest, prettiest Windows yet. There's always a chance this won't be a huge hit come October, given the economy and the state of the PC industry, but it's exactly what Microsoft needs right now. Something people can grab without fear.
The User Interface
Here's everything that's improved in the Windows 7 UI. Win 7 kept the glassy Aero desktop from Vista, but added many more usability improvements on top of it. Basically, they extended the efforts of Vista to get the eye candy bar up higher while continuing to get the functionality up to match. There's the new taskbar, jump lists, Aero Peek, pinning, Aero Shake, Left/Right alignment, full-desktop gadgets, themes and new shortcuts in Windows Explorer. Again, see the big list here to get you started on what changed, UI-wise, from Vista to 7.
In addition to surface and usability improvements, Microsoft addressed one of the big complaints about Vista—drivers—with Device Stage. Device Stage gives you a way to organize the pre-installed drivers (with, hopefully, much less driver compatibility issues now) along with stuff you can do with these third-party hardware add-ons. There are services, taskbar and other popup menu integration with these devices, which you should check out here.
Of course there's Windows Media Player 12 and its ability to stream music to devices on the network. You select "Play to..." and up pops a menu showing what's on the network that you can pump your music or video out of. For more details on that click here, but keep in mind compatibility is constantly being upgraded, and the list of compatible devices and content formats will grow once people are using the OS en masse.
And Media Center! One of our favorite features on Windows improves on the Vista experience with usability fixes and a handful of new features like more transparency so you can keep an eye on what you're watching while navigating menus. There's quite a lot of new stuff here, so if you're a Media Center user you should familiarize yourself. As a whole, we still have the belief that Media Center is the best TV-DVR platform out there, beating TiVo for the fact that it's connected to a computer, and can be easily (and cheaply) expandable via Xbox 360s. If you can set up a CableCard PC running Windows 7, you'll be set for a while. Also, the 360 gets the new Windows 7 UI as well in Extender mode, as long as its host computer is running Windows 7.
It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Windows 7 is finally where Microsoft got their security implementation right. After blundering their User Account Control—a smart idea that works to make sure users don't allow programs to access sensitive parts of the system— in Vista by making it too annoying, they found a good balance in Win 7. You also have Action Center, which lets you access everything from just your taskbar, and built-in support for biometric devices.
Another major complaint in Vista was networking; specifically, wireless networking and how lousy it was to use. Windows 7's implementation is much improved, and changes basic network implementation for the better as well. There's also a new concept called HomeGroup, which basically gets your multiple PCs on the network sharing files and resources with each other by joining a "group". It's supposed to be easier than the old method of joining workgroups and making sure each PC has the correct name and setup, and for the most part it is, even given the limitations mentioned in Matt's review. Check out HomeGroup in detail here.
For the more esoteric input devices, there's the multitouch, pen controls and writing recognition. It's basically taking Microsoft Surface and porting it to computer that you can actually use. Although no machines are on the market right now that really take advantage of the features in such a way that it really makes a difference, you can bet your ass that if the Apple Tablet pushes the tablet form factor forward, tons of manufacturers are going to follow up with machines that make use of Windows 7's multitouch inputs. And if you want to know what using 7's multitouch is like, look here for the basics, and here for the optional Windows 7 Touch Pack.
Late Breaking Features
Microsoft even added new features up until the release candidate, surprising us with lots of cool tricks. There's streaming your music library over the internet with Windows Media Player and Windows XP mode, which gives you a full-fledged Windows XP virtual environment (a desktop within a desktop). Both of which are the kind of extras you wouldn't expect to be integrated inside an OS—there are third-party utilities made just to do these kinds of functions—but Microsoft wanted to give a little more to its users.
Here's one thing you should definitely read before you install Windows 7. Why you should go 64-bit. The one big reason is that 32-bit Windows only have access to 4GB of RAM, max. You may think that 4GB is enough now, but think about those big-ass apps that you'll be using in a couple years. Future-proof yourself now and go 64-bit. There won't be a whole lot of downside to making the jump.
Then there are the miscellaneous small features that are cool to have that you may not know you need until you stumble upon them a few months after you install:
• Native ISO burning
• Native Docx file handling
• An expanded send-to menu
• Virtual Wi-Fi, a way to share one Wi-Fi adapter into many for sharing a hotspot with your friends (or other devices)
• GPGPU, a computing paradigm that allows your graphics card to help shoulder the burden of all those calculations. You won't see this every day, but just know that it's making your experience faster, on the whole
• The calculator now has a mortgage payment calculator
• Oh man, look how useful the Windows key is now
• Windows 7 also ramps up the Performance Meter to 7.9
• Libraries are the new way Win 7 organizes your music and videos. It's basically a smart folder that aggregates multiple regular folders together
• The Problem Steps Recorder, a way for you to automatically generate a document that goes step-by-step through whatever it is at your computer, is still there. We thought this would be taken out after the beta/RC stage, but you can still use this to generate problem reports and remotely figure out why your parents are crashing their computer whenever they "click an icon"
Win 7 vs. Snow Leopard
And as a bonus, we compare Windows 7 to Snow Leopard. The Snow Leopard vs. Windows 7 feature comparison is pretty much final, but it's not a review, because Snow Leopard isn't out yet. Once Snow Leopard is released, we'll revisit the subject, in case Apple decides to sneak in something crazy at the last minute.