Windows 7. Microsoft. Home Premium upgrade, $119.99; Professional upgrade, $199.99; Ultimate upgrade, $219.99.
Don’t buy Microsoft’s hype about Windows 7. Don’t buy any of the hype. But do buy the operating system: it’s a very worthwhile upgrade from either XP or Vista. In fact, Windows 7 is in many ways what Vista ought to have been: it retains the advances of that little-loved OS while subduing many of its most egregious faults, such as extremely long boot times.
There is little that is game-changing in Windows 7, and that is part of what makes it so good. Whether you replace XP or Vista with this new OS, you will be able to adapt fairly quickly and will get a boost in productivity and (especially if you have been running XP) security and networking capability.
The problems that led many XP users to refuse Vista upgrades – constant and overdone security warnings, compatibility issues affecting both hardware and software, plus the aforementioned glacial boot and reboot pace – are solved in Windows 7. True, there are some new irritations, such as the absence of integrated E-mail, video editing and calendar programs; but in fairness, this is not Microsoft’s fault – its bundling of functional programs with its operating systems has cost it many years of lawsuits and many billions of dollars. And all the programs that are no longer included can be downloaded for free.
What Windows 7 does is make a user’s interface with the computer more pleasant, easier and speedier. The new, taller taskbar now lets you pin icons of often-used programs anywhere you like, and move them around as you wish. Then, hovering over a taskbar icon brings up a small preview showing the program in miniature view – a refinement of a similar Vista feature, since now every open window in the program shows up separately in the preview screen and can be brought to full size simply by moving the mouse over it. If you do that, all other desktop windows become transparent in a neat appearance trick called “Aero Peek.” Being able to close windows within the preview screens is another refinement.
Actually, taskbar icons do even more – maybe too much for some people’s tastes – by providing popup menus listing recent files used or frequent actions taken. This feature takes some getting used to, but can really speed work along – or be ignored if you don’t care for it.
Microsoft went for some cuteness as well as practicality in Windows 7, for the first time. The “Snap” feature lets you turn windows into full-screen size by dragging them to the top of the screen, or half-screen size by dragging them to the left or right edge; and “Shake,” a feature that sounds silly but is actually great fun to use, lets you make your current window the only operating one by simply grabbing its title bar with the mouse and shaking – at which point all other windows disappear. Very neat.
Among other improvements in Windows 7 is a “Libraries” feature that pulls together all files of a specific type, such as Documents or Pictures, no matter which folder or hard disk you keep them on – although this does take some getting used to and can be confusing until users adapt to it. There is also, thank goodness, a security-warning feature (“User Account Control”) that is easily adjustable, so you can decide how sensitive to changes you want your computer to be – a significant improvement over the intrusive Vista version, which was much harder to alter. Furthermore, hardware and third-party software generally run far more easily and better in Windows 7 than in Vista, although it’s a good idea to check out your programs’ compatibility by downloading and running Microsoft’s free Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor before trying to install the new OS.
As for which version of Windows 7 to install: well, Microsoft really hasn’t made that decision much easier than in earlier operating systems. It continues to offer multiple flavors for this latest OS. They range from Starter, which comes preloaded on netbooks, to Ultimate, which packs in everything Microsoft could think up, such as the ability to switch among 35 different languages. The business-oriented Professional version is helpful if you need to access a company network remotely, but otherwise, it is overkill. Most users can and should opt for Home Premium, which is sufficiently full-featured under the vast majority of conditions.
Upgrading, though, can be a chore – not if you are going from a version of Vista to the identical version of Windows 7, but very much so if you are changing versions or upgrading from XP. A same-version Vista upgrade is as close to a pleasure as any change in OS could ever be: you simply install Windows 7 over Vista and keep all your settings, programs and files, all in an hour or so. And the hardware requirements for Windows 7 are, thankfully, just about the same as they were for Vista (a welcome change from Microsoft’s previous habit of requiring ever-more-powerful hardware for each new OS). Unfortunately, an upgrade from XP is far from easy. It requires you to back up all your files, wipe your hard disk, install Windows 7, then reinstall all programs (including re-downloading and reinstalling any patches and upgrades) and files. This is extremely time-consuming and is not helped much by Microsoft’s Easy Transfer utility, which moves files but not programs. It is still worth doing – XP is, after all, eight years old, and was actually designed back in 1999, which makes it a real relic. But be prepared to invest considerable time and effort in the upgrade (or, of course, you can always stay with XP until you buy a new computer with Windows 7 preinstalled).
Incidentally, upgraders should remember to stick to the same type of operating system they are used to when moving to Windows 7. The new OS comes in 32-bit and 64-bit versions, and the 64-bit one can improve performance by letting computers use more random access memory (RAM). If you do buy a new computer with Windows 7 already installed, it will likely have the 64-bit version. And there are 64-bit Vista computers out there, and even a few 64-bit XP ones. However, the admirable compatibility of Windows 7 with existing applications – and, more significantly, with older hardware – has a greater chance of breaking down in the 64-bit world, since not all third-party hardware and software makers have created 64-bit drivers for all their products. What this means, in simple terms, is that if you are satisfied with the way your programs and peripherals run on your current computer, and you have the more-common 32-bit OS (either Vista or XP), then you should go to 32-bit Windows 7 and wait to buy a new machine for the 64-bit version.
The increasing use of the 64-bit version of Windows 7 on new computers points to the fact that this OS seems poised to take advantage of some computer features that exist in only rudimentary form today – in other words, it is more forward-looking than earlier Microsoft operating systems. For example, Windows 7 has a touch-screen feature that lets users move windows, flip through photos and more – the sort of thing iPhone owners, for example, have come to expect. But the special screen required to use this feature is not yet widely available. Still, when it is, Windows 7 will show another of its strengths.
This is not to say that this OS is all strengths. Its networking feature is improved – for one thing, you can now see all available networks by clicking a single taskbar icon – but it remains on the cumbersome side. Its “HomeGroups” feature, intended for easier sharing of files among home-network PCs running Windows 7, does not work particularly well and requires the use of long, complex and irritating passwords. And because Microsoft continues to dominate the OS world and is therefore highly attractive to spammers and scammers, users still need third-party antivirus and other self-protection programs to keep malware away and defend their computers (Microsoft’s own efforts at protective software are not robust enough to keep up with the bad apples out there). This need for protection is not a flaw in Windows 7, but it is a fact of life for users of any Microsoft OS – and, it should be said, would become a factor for Apple users if that company’s computers ever took over enough market share to make attacks on them sufficiently profitable for botnet creators and other thieves.
In effect, what Windows 7 does, in addition to adding a few nice-to-have features, is to take all the good things that Microsoft built into Vista – and there were many of them, despite that operating system’s bad reputation – and make them easier to use and less intrusive. One good example of this (among many) is the Start menu, whose improved layout and instant search capability build on what Vista had (although – fair warning – it can still get cluttered as you install third-party software) and make the menu significantly more enjoyable to use. Yes, the word is “enjoyable.” Windows 7 does not make any huge strides in the OS world, but the small ones it makes almost all work well, giving users a relatively clean, uncluttered interface with improved usability, better speed, easier access to whatever they want, and a generally more pleasant working and playing environment. It’s a very, very fine operating system – to which users of Vista and XP should seriously consider upgrading.