Deserved or not, Microsoft had dug itself a cool, deep, dark hole with Windows Vista. Users demanding that Redmond extend the life of Windows XP wasn't exactly something they could be proud of, either. Bombarded by complaints and negative press even after the first service pack was released, the bar had been set high for Vista's successor: Windows 7. This review is based on an official copy of the Windows 7 RTM that Microsoft provided to CNET on July 30, 2009.
Luckily for Microsoft, Windows 7 is more than just spin. It's stable, smooth, and highly polished, introducing new graphical features, a new taskbar that can compete handily with the Mac OS X dock, and device management and security enhancements that make it both easier to use and safer. Importantly, it won't require the hardware upgrades that Vista demanded, partially because the hardware has caught up, and partially because Microsoft has gone to great lengths to make Windows 7 accessible to as many people as possible.
It's important to note that the public testing process for Windows 7 involved one limited-availability beta and one release candidate, and constituted what some have called the largest shareware trial period ever. As buggy and irritating as Vista was, Windows 7 isn't. Instead, it's the successor to Windows XP that Microsoft wishes Vista had been, and finally places it on competitive footing with other major operating systems like OS X and Linux.
Microsoft is offering six versions of Windows 7: Starter, Home Premium, Professional, Ultimate, OEM, and Enterprise. The three versions that Redmond will be promoting most heavily are Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate, although Starter will also be available to consumers.
Windows 7 will support both 32-bit and 64-bit systems. The bare minimum requirements for the 32-bit include a 1GHz processor, 1GB RAM, 16GB available hard-disk space, and a DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM 1.0 or higher driver. 64-bit systems will require at least a 1 GHz processor, 2GB RAM, 20GB of free space on your hard drive, and a DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM 1.0 or higher driver. A touch-screen monitor is required to take advantage of the native touch features. Do note that some users have claimed to have limited success running the Windows 7 beta with less than 1GB of RAM, but that's not recommended.
Microsoft is offering several paths to install Windows 7. People can buy a new computer with the operating system already installed, upgrade from Windows XP or Vista, or do a clean install on a computer the user already owns. The clean installation took us about 30 minutes, but that will vary depending on your computer.
The upgrade procedure is different depending on whether you're running Windows XP or Windows Vista. Vista users merely need to back up their data before choosing the Upgrade option from the install disc. Both XP Home and XP Pro users will have to back up their data, then choose Custom from the install disc. Custom will have the same effect as a clean install, although it'll save your old data in a folder called Windows.old. Once you choose Custom, you'll need to select the partition of your hard drive that contains Windows XP, and then follow the instructions to enter your product key and allow the computer to reboot as needed.
If you're not sure if your current computer can run Windows 7, you can download and run the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor from Microsoft.
Features: Taskbar and Aero Peek
Although the look of Windows 7 may seem to be nothing more than some polish applied liberally to the Vista Aero theme, make no mistake: This is a full replacement operating system, and more than just "Vista done right." From driver support to multitouch groundwork for the future, from better battery management to the most easy-to-use interface Microsoft has ever had, Windows 7 is hardly half-baked.
The first thing that should stand out is the new taskbar. This is one of the best improvements Microsoft has made--third-party program dock makers are going to have to do some serious innovation when Windows 7 goes public. Besides incorporating the translucent style of Aero, the new taskbar is arguably even better than the Mac OS X dock. It features pinned programs using large, easy-to-see icons. Mouse over one and all windows associated with that program appear in preview. Mouse over one of those preview panes to reveal an X to close the window. Hover over the preview to show a full-size preview of the program, or click on the window to bring it to the front. Because of the button size, people with touch screens should find it especially easy to use.
Jump lists are another new taskbar improvement that make recently opened documents easier to get to. Right-click or left-click and drag on any program icon pinned to the taskbar to see a list of files that you've recently used in that program. In Internet Explorer, this will show recently visited Web sites, although it doesn't yet seem to work in Firefox.
If you've noticed the missing Show Desktop icon, that's because it's been baked into the taskbar itself. Mouse over to the right corner. Hovering over the Show Desktop box reveals the desktop, and then hides it when you mouse away. Click on the box to minimize all your programs.
Resizing programs has been simplified and improved by the capability to drag a window's title bar. Drag a program window to the top of your monitor to expand it to full screen. If you want to work in two windows simultaneously, drag one to the left edge and one to the right edge of your screen, and they'll automatically resize to half the width of your monitor. Dragging a program away from the top or sides will return it to its original size. This is an entirely new feature in Windows 7, but it should prove easy to adopt because it mimics and expands on the maximize/restore button that people have been resizing windows with since Windows 95.
Theme packages also make it much faster to change the look of Windows 7. From the Control Panel, you can change the theme under Appearance and Personalization. Microsoft has created several theme packages to give people a taste for what the feature can do. Click on one to download it, and it instantly changes the color scheme and background--no need to reboot. Users can create their own themes, as well.
Windows Media Player and Device Stage
One of the biggest new features makes Windows Media Player useful again: you can now stream media files from one Windows 7 computer to another, across the Internet and out of network. Even better, the setup procedure is dead simple.
When you open Windows Media Player, there's a new Stream option on the toolbar. Click it, and you're presented with two choices. Both require you to associate your computer with your free Windows Live ID. When you've associated a second Windows 7's WMP with that same ID, you can remotely access the media on the host computer. Windows Media Player's mini mode looks much slicker, emphasizing the album art--sometimes at the expense of clearly seeing the controls, but it's a definite improvement.