Well, the final Windows 7 release is now upon us; in fact, I received my full retail Windows 7 pre-order copies this morning which I’ll be looking to install as soon as possible, that is once I’ve managed to get some new computer parts ordered to actually build a new computer with. It’s been quite a ride if you’ve been following the tech news of this operating system; it’s had various potential versions (especially for EU customers) and browser options talked about, but thankfully those issues have now all been settled and we have a fairly straight-forward line up of potential versions of Windows 7 to buy.
Unlike previous new Windows operating systems, I’ve actually been using it since they first released the Windows 7 public beta (which was surprisingly stable and reliable from the start) and subsequently the Windows 7 RC which I’ve been using as my primary operating system since it was released back in May 2009.
Suffice to say, I am like many other people out there who have already had the pleasure of using Windows 7 am a fan of it already, it’s certainly a big improvement of what has essentially become the foundations laid in Vista.
The official launch date for Windows 7 is the 22nd October 2009, however perhaps you have already received your copies as we have with our pre-orders or perhaps you’re lucky enough to have been chosen to host a Windows 7 house party, so you’ll also have received your copy of Windows 7 Ultimate. Microsoft has certainly given customers more options in terms of how you can buy it this time around, not only could you have pre-ordered it early for a cheaper price, but you can also buy Windows 7 as a student at a cheap price or save some money when you’re wanting to purchase multiple copies by opting for the 3-license Windows 7 Family Pack!
If you haven’t already ordered your copy of Windows 7 yet and are unsure as to why you should upgrade to Microsoft’s latest operating system, then be sure to read through our extended Windows 7 review below.
Part 1: The New Taskbar
Rightly or wrongly, Vista has been hated by the majority since its release in 2007. The taskbar didn’t add any extra functionality compared to Windows XP and needed a lot of resources for Aero. Cue Windows 7… Well, Aero is still there, but it’s got a purpose as well as a taskbar that adds functionality compared to XP and Vista.
The new taskbar is probably one of the first things you’ll notice if you’re looking at Windows 7 for the first time, as it’s distinctly thicker than the taskbar in Vista and comes with some quite nice features. For those of you into eye candy, the Windows ‘Orb’ glows whenever you hover over it with your mouse, almost like a child trying to get the attention of its parent. When I first started using Windows 7 it got on my nerves a bit, but you get used to it over time and it doesn’t constantly demand your attention, so no worries there!
Another thing you’ll notice about the new and improved taskbar is the appearance of various icons rather than the old style text descriptions of the running applications. When you log in for the first time, you’ll be presented with 3 icons: Internet Explorer, Windows Explorer and Windows Media Player. All 3 applications are ‘pinned’ to the taskbar by default, and can be opened by one click on the icon. If you right click on the icons, you’ll see what’s called a ‘Jump List’ containing pieces of information related to the application you click on, for example, when you right click on Internet Explorer’s icon, you’re presented with frequent web pages, tasks such as ‘Open new tab’ and the option to un-pin the application from the taskbar so it doesn’t stay there if you don’t use it or want it on the taskbar.
A feature I found particularly useful was being able to see the progress of a download right on the icon in the taskbar. When you start a download, a green progress bar appears over the active icon showing you the progress of your download. I found this to be a genuinely useful feature.
It’s easy to distinguish between applications that are currently open and those that aren’t, as when an application is running, a transparent square appears over the icon on the taskbar, so you can see at a glance what’s going on. Another great feature of the new taskbar in Windows 7 is Aero Peek. If you hover over an open application’s icon, you can see what’s going on in that window without having to switch applications or close the window you’re working in. If you have a program using multiple windows or multiple tabs, you can preview every single window using Aero Peek, and just hover over the one that you want to quickly preview. This is great when using Messenger too, as you can quickly hover over the icon and see who’s trying to talk to you, as that particular preview pane will be glowing orange.
The final feature I want to introduce you to on the new taskbar is the ‘Show Desktop’ button. You might not know it was there if it wasn’t pointed out to you, as it’s a very discrete, slim button located to the right-hand side of the taskbar. If you hover over it, you’re presented with a ‘preview’ of your desktop, so when you move the mouse away you return to the window you were previously working on. If you click on it, every window minimises so you can view and interact with your desktop.
Overall, I think the taskbar in Windows 7 is a huge improvement over the XP and Vista equivalent, adding functionality that not only improves productivity when working on multiple things at once but makes Windows generally nicer to use. If however, you’d prefer it to function a bit more like its previous incarnations, there is a way how to ungroup icons and apply text back onto the Windows 7 taskbar.
Part 2: Aero Features
Aero made its debut in Windows Vista with translucent windows, a newly designed taskbar and quite a bit of eye candy. Despite this, it never really added much functionality to the OS and to me it was more of a gimmick than a useful feature, although I did find myself using Aero Flip quite often. In Windows 7, however, it makes quite a few advancements with new features and improvements over old features.
I’ve already mentioned a little on some of the new Aero features in Windows 7, such as Aero Peek which is integrated into the new taskbar. In addition to Peek, there are two more key additions on the Aero scene named ‘Snap’ and ‘Shake’.
Aero Snap is a fantastic addition to Windows and helps my workflow become as productive as possible when working. Using Snap, if you have a window open that isn’t currently maximised, you can easily maximise it by dragging it to the top of the screen. When it’s dragged, you’ll see a preview pane showing that the window will become maximised, and then if you un-click the mouse, the window will move to that position. Similarly, if you drag the bottom of the window to the taskbar, the window will then match the height of the screen without fully maximising.
As well as allowing windows to maximise, Snap also allows you to position applications to the left and right side of the screen by dragging the window to either side of your desktop. This is the feature I use most often, especially when I’m working on a document, as it’s easy to place a word processor to one side of the screen, and then place your internet browser next to it on the other side. This makes it easier for me to research various things before I write whatever it is I’m writing. When you remove a certain window from either side of the screen, it automatically returns to the size it was at before you sent it to the side of the screen. This feature is best used on larger screens, as when I do it on my 13.3” laptop, it’s sometimes difficult to keep things as organised as I’d like.
Another addition to Aero is Aero Shake. If you have multiple windows open at once, and you want to be able to concentrate on the one that you’re working on without seeing all the others, you can ‘shake’ the window by dragging the window frantically around the screen for a second or two. When you do this, all other open windows will disappear, leaving you with just the window you want to be visible and the desktop background behind it. When you’re done and want all the other windows back, just shake the window again and they’ll all come back the way they were before you got rid of them. When you shake windows away they’re just minimised to the taskbar, so if you want them back you can just open them like you would any other window.
In addition to these newer features, Aero Flip is still present in the OS. If you press alt+tab, you’re presented with a grid of all the currently open applications. When you have a window selected, you’ll get a peek at what’s going on in that window, and if you let go of alt+tab, you’re sent to that window. This was also available in Windows XP, but you just saw the icons of open windows and had to go into the application to see what was going on. Flip 3D remains the same as it was in Windows Vista. Pressing the windows key + tab gives you a 3D view of all your windows, and you can flick through them by either using the arrow keys or the scroll wheel on your mouse. Aero Flip is one of the features I enjoyed in Windows Vista, and I’m glad to see that it hasn’t been lost in the transition to Windows 7.
Overall, I think the improvements to Aero in Windows 7 are a good step forward for Microsoft. Not only does it improve on the eye candy introduced in Windows Vista, but it helps you to be as productive as possible when working with various documents and using various sources.
Part 3: Security
Ah, User Account Control — arguably the most irritating feature of Windows Vista. Sure you had the option to turn it off somewhere deep in the control panel, but then you had a balloon demanding your attention in the bottom corner of the screen telling you to ‘Check your security settings’. When Vista was in development, Microsoft made a point about security, but the answer wasn’t exactly great. So what’s changed in Windows 7?
For starters, UAC is still here, but it’s more subtle than it was in Vista, as you have the option to choose between 4 levels of notification: Always notify when programs install software, make changes to your computer or if you change Windows settings (Vista…); the default option which is the same as the top level apart from not notifying you when you change Windows settings; the third level, which is the same as the default settings, except it doesn’t dim the screen when UAC appears and the fourth level, which doesn’t notify you at all. Unlike in Vista, there aren’t any annoying balloons demanding your attention on the quick launch bar when you turn UAC off either.
To be honest, I still don’t see the point of UAC. Quite frankly, the average computer user doesn’t know what UAC is all about, they just click ‘Yes’ because they want to install the program they’ve selected. They don’t know and most probably don’t care whether or not what they’re using could be dangerous to their PC. If Microsoft really wants to improve security in Windows, they need to implement something that’s all automatic and done as a background process, because the average user doesn’t want security alerts popping up on their desktop, they just want to access the internet or an application…
The other security precaution in Windows is, of course, Windows Firewall. I never really notice the firewall in Windows; I just tend to presume it’s doing its job unless there’s an error somewhere down the line. The only annoyance I’ve had with the Firewall in Windows comes when it doesn’t allow me to transfer files over my network because it doesn’t block the incoming or outgoing connection. Notice I’m using past tense, as so far it hasn’t been a problem in Windows 7.
Introduced with 7 is a new network feature called ‘HomeGroup’ which allows you to create a home network which other users on the same network can connect to, enabling you to share files and printers with each other. As the Homegroup wizard sets up the network, there are no issues with firewall, and the Homegroup is password protected (you can choose the password at the end of the wizard) to prevent unauthorised access from other computers in the network.
In conclusion, I still don’t think that security in Windows 7 is perfect, and I don’t believe that Microsoft will get it right any time soon. User Account Control is less annoying than it was in Vista, but it’s still pointless in my opinion. The firewall does a good job of keeping out unwanted bad guys from accessing your PC and I’ve found I come across less firewall-related issues when setting up and using a home network to transfer files and share printers.
Part 4: Performance On Less Powerful Hardware
A lot of people are going to be upgrading from Windows XP straight to Windows 7 over the coming months, but not everyone’s going to get a brand new PC to go with their brand new operating system, so how will old hardware running an OS written 10 years ago cope with Windows 7?
According to Microsoft, the system requirements for 7 are a 1GHz processor capable of 32-bit or 64-bit; 1GB RAM if you’re installing the 32-bit version of Windows 7 or 2GB RAM if you’re installing the 64-bit version; 16GB hard drive space for 32-bit, or 20 for 64-bit and a DX9 graphics card. These requirements are almost identical to the stated requirements for Windows Vista, although if you wanted to keep your sanity when running Vista, you probably needed better specs than what Microsoft recommended…
To compare the performance of Windows 7 across the board, I tested Windows 7 Home Premium edition (most machines will have Home Premium installed, so it seemed a logical choice) on 4 machines:
- A desktop machine with a 2.4GHz quad-core processor, 4GB RAM and a 1GB DX10 Graphics card
- A 13” Unibody MacBook with a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB RAM (DDR3) and NVIDIA 9400M graphics.
- A netbook with a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB RAM and Intel GMA 950 graphics.
- A Dell Inspiron laptop with a 1.6GHz Intel Celeron processor, 512MB RAM (I had to upgrade the laptop’s RAM before I could install Windows 7) and Intel GMA 900 graphics.
Unsurprisingly, the desktop machine was extremely responsive with every feature of Windows enabled including full Aero support whilst driving dual 1080p monitors. If you look around, you can pick up a very similar configuration (excluding the monitors) for about £500.
Like the desktop machine, the MacBook also did an admirable job when faced with Windows 7. Again, every feature was enabled and handled no problem by the Macbook including aero. During regular tasks, (web browsing, word processing, e-mail client) CPU usage barely went above 5% and there was plenty of RAM to spare.
No surprises there, but what about the lower spec machines? Before I could test Windows 7 on the netbook, I had to prepare a USB drive to install it with as I didn’t have an external optical drive handy (look out for a how-to on the process soon) and installation took no longer than about 30 minutes. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Windows 7 actually booted quicker than Windows XP ever did on the machine, and it was fully functional on first boot, finding most of the essential components to get me up and running. What surprised me most was the inclusion of Aero, which worked flawlessly alongside a very responsive OS on a rather underpowered netbook. The only problem I ran in to was when I was multi-tasking with a lot of applications, and I found it to be a good idea to turn Aero off when running GPU intensive applications, otherwise the whole experience became slightly more painful. Overall I was very impressed with the performance of Windows 7 on the netbook, compared to Vista it ran very smoothly and was a welcome improvement over XP.
Enter the old Dell Inspiron with half the RAM of the netbook (512MB) and an older graphics chip. I wasn’t expecting much from the Dell in all honesty, but surprisingly it could handle Windows 7 rather well. Aero was a no go, but the lack of it wasn’t a terrible thing, because I still felt that I comfortably use the machine, which felt surprisingly responsive, without wanting to tear my eyes out. With only 512MB RAM, the performance took a noticeable nosedive when using multiple applications, but it was still useable.
All things considered, I’m very impressed with the performance of Windows 7 on the less powerful machines. In most cases, the system was just as fast as Windows XP was and even faster in some areas, so if you want to give that old laptop you have lying around a bit of a facelift, try Windows 7 out — it could give your ancient Dell Inspiron a new lease of life!
Part 5: File and Software Compatibility
The majority of testing I’ve been doing with Windows 7 has taken place on my Unibody MacBook. Every time I install Windows on one of my OS X machines, one of the first things I do is install Mac Drive so that I can read files from my OS X partition. You can imagine my surprise when on first boot, my ‘E’ drive, also known as ‘Snow Leopard’ was visible in Windows Explorer, with every file on the partition visible.
Functionality is limited, as from what I can tell from testing, you can only read from the HFS formatted partition — whenever I try to write to it, I receive an error message telling me that I don’t have the privileges to write to the drive. Even so, being able to read from my Mac’s partition without third party software in Windows is a very nice addition to Windows 7 for us Mac users!
ISO Image Disc Support
Another useful addition to Windows 7 is out of the box support for ISO disc images. If you had an ISO file in previous versions of Windows, you needed a third party application such as MagicISO or PowerISO to mount or burn it. In Windows 7, you can burn an ISO file to a CD or DVD without any third party software at all.
Although this is a good step for Microsoft to be taking, (a lot of software distributed through MSDN is in the format) it felt to me like a half-hearted attempt. A considerable number of people who use Windows 7 will be using it on a netbook that doesn’t have an optical drive built-in, and a lot of people who have an ISO image they need to use might not have a blank CD or DVD lying around. I can’t help but wonder why Microsoft included support for burning ISO files, but couldn’t include support for mounting them. Don’t get me wrong, what it burns works perfectly, but I’d much rather mount an image, install whatever it is that the image contains and be able to unmount it again without wasting a DVD or having to write over a re-writable DVD.
XP Compatibility Mode
As I mentioned in my previous section, a lot of people will be making the switch to Windows 7 straight from Windows XP, so to prevent any upgrade worries, ‘XP Compatibility Mode’ is available for Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate versions. The download basically consists of 2 downloads: Windows Virtual PC — a free download from Microsoft anyway and a virtual drive pre-loaded with a fully functional version of Windows XP. Once installed, you’re presented with a folder of your virtual machines, and a separate folder containing your virtual XP applications. If you select an application from the virtual XP folder, they’ll launch like a native application in Windows 7. Performance of the virtual machine and its applications will depend on how powerful your machine is, as with any virtual environment. Microsoft recommends at least 2GB RAM to use Virtual XP. I personally am more comfortable with 4GB RAM, so that I can dedicate 2GB to the host machine, and give the Virtual machine 2GB too, but that’s down to personal preference.
Overall, I think that it’s a good improvement for Microsoft to allow users of Windows 7 to use Virtual XP, especially for business users who are using older software designed for Windows XP.
Part 6: Included Applications
When you use Windows 7, you may notice the lack of included applications compared to previous versions of Windows. You won’t find a messenger application or a movie maker without downloading them from Microsoft, but don’t worry! You still have Paint, Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center, the three applications that this article concentrates on. You may question why Paint is included in the list, as we’ve had it in every version of Windows since 1.0 in 1985, but it’s undergone quite a facelift that might get your attention…
The first thing you’ll notice when you open Paint in Windows 7 is the fact that it’s equipped with an Office-like ribbon interface. Before now, I thought of the ribbon as that huge office logo in the top left-hand corner of your window, but the ribbon is actually designed like the ribbon in the upcoming Office 2010, with a very subtle button in the top left of your window, that presents you with a menu of options. You can send your picture in an e-mail (not a feature I’d use very often considering my talent, or lack of, as an artist) or set whatever you’re working on as your desktop background.
Cropping, resizing and rotating tools are all readily available on the ribbon, and you also have a host of brushes to choose from when doodling in your free time… In addition to this, there are also some gimmicky shapes to choose from, including a love heart and a lightning strike on top of the usual arrows and speech bubbles. So MS Paint is still a pointless application, but what I like about it is the fact that it doesn’t take itself seriously. Microsoft knows that it’s not going to be used for serious artwork, and have updated it in quite a nice way, adding a few more tools for procrastination along the way.
Windows Media Player
Another version of Windows means another version of Windows Media Player. My first interaction with it was playing a video clip I downloaded from the internet. Like QuickTime X, it has a very minimalist feel to it with video controls fading in when you roll your mouse over the window and disappearing again when you move your mouse away. When the window isn’t maximised it looks good, but the complete lack of controls look quite strange in full-screen mode, and there’s no title on the window which also looks strange to me, but that’s probably down to personal taste.
You’ll also find a picture viewer, which shows all the images in your personal ‘Pictures’ folder. By default, they’re displayed in a grid format, and to enlarge a picture, you can double-click on it. Similar to when you’re watching a video, the control bar appears and disappears depending on where your mouse is, and a slideshow of your pictures appear.
When viewing your music collection, you can view either by artist, album or genre. Again by default, your albums are displayed in a grid. Like previous versions, as you view an album, all the songs are displayed in a list you can choose what you want to play.
To me, Windows Media player feels incomplete, although there are some quite nice features. You can play songs from your iTunes library (DRM songs are a no go, but that’s expected right?) and you can control it from your taskbar without having to go into the media player itself. Personally, I’d rather stick with iTunes than use Windows Media Player as the interface feels more polished and easy to use than WMP.
Windows Media Center
I’ve been using Windows Media Center ever since it made its introduction on Windows XP Media Center Edition, and I always enjoyed using it to play my music and watch movies on the big screen. At first glance, not much has changed — the home screen has a similar feel to that of Vista’s Media Center, where you can browse through all your photos, videos, music and watch TV. A great feature of the Media Center is menu navigation whilst you’re watching a video. Rather than show the menu and continue to play the video in a small window by the side of it, the menu appears over the video, which continues to play in full screen. Not only does it look good, but it allows you to carry on watching your movie while you’re rooting around the menu.
When you’re looking through your music, all of your albums are displayed in a grid view across the screen, so you can easily see your albums and pick out the one you want. If you have a lot of music and it takes too long to go through the grid, you can also search for the track you want. When you’re playing an album or a song, the album art appears by the song information, and a grid of all the other albums in your library appear behind it faded out. The album art goes from one side of the screen to the other, fading out the menus until you roll your mouse back into the window to view the menus again, which is also a nice effect.
The new additions to Windows Media Center in Windows 7 make it well worth checking out and a great addition to the media capabilities of Windows. Unfortunately, I don’t have a TV tuner on my computer set up yet, but when I do, you can expect a full review of its capabilities!
Part 7: Compare & Choose Which Version To Buy?
If you’ve been following Windows 7 review week, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of the various features included in Windows 7, but like Vista, there isn’t just one version of Windows 7, there are 6.
You’ll probably only come across 3 though, which are Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate editions. If you buy a new PC from a manufacturer, you won’t have to decide which version to buy as it will come pre-installed on the PC. Most home computers will ship with the Home Premium version, although more expensive builds may ship with Ultimate.
So what’s the difference? The obvious difference is the price, with pricing at £99.95, £147.95 and £157.29 respectively for Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate version of Windows 7. (Pricing taken from PC World – who somewhat surprisingly have the cheapest prices for each of the Windows 7 full versions I could find!)
As Microsoft is so fond of showing information in charts and tables, there’s an easy to understand comparison chart of the different features in each version on the Microsoft website or you can compare the Windows 7 versions on the chart below.
The most notable feature missing from the Home Premium version of Windows 7 is XP mode, allowing backwards compatibility by emulating Windows XP to run older applications. This feature is available in both the Professional and Ultimate versions of 7. Quite a few people have been complaining about the lack of XP mode in Home Premium, but the feature is aimed at business users more than home users. Also, if you’re going to be using your computer on your work’s network, then you may need the Professional or Ultimate version of Windows 7 because you can’t connect to a domain in Home Premium.
In addition to this, although all versions of Windows 7 come pre-installed with a backup feature, which allows you to back up your data to a local drive or DVD, if you want to back up your data to a network, you can’t do this with Home Premium.
Finally, if you want to use BitLocker drive encryption, you’ll need Windows 7 Ultimate. If you haven’t heard of it, BitLocker was introduced in Windows Vista to encrypt the data on local drives and has been updated in Windows 7 so it can now encrypt the data on removable drives too. When you encrypt a drive, you can choose to either unlock it with a password or a smart card.
Most people who use Windows 7 will opt for the Home Premium version, as the price difference is quite significant between Home Premium and the Professional and Ultimate versions, and the features that aren’t included in Home Premium probably won’t be needed by the average home user, although I would like to have some form of BitLocker on all the versions of Windows 7, so the average user can keep their data safe against hackers and loss of their computer. Another feature I’d quite like to see included in Home Premium is the ability to back up to a network drive, although this feature is aimed more at business users backing up to a server rather than home users.
What version of Windows 7 will you be buying, if you’re planning on using Windows 7 at all? Let us know in the comments section and check back for our Windows 7 how-to guides coming soon!
Hoping to study Computer Science at University in the near future, you’ll seldom see John without a computer in touching distance! His interests include building computers, reading all sorts of literature and of course writing for Zath to keep you updated on all the latest in the world of tech! You can follow John on Twitter as @british_geek.