Microsoft Windows 7 review: Microsoft Windows 7

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.


Microsoft reinvigorates the Windows Media Player by allowing users to stream their media files to themselves. All it takes is two Windows 7 computers, an Internet connection, and a free Windows Live ID. (This image was taken from the Windows 7 Release Candidate, but looks and functions the same in the official version of Windows 7./Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

The new Device Stage makes managing peripherals significantly easier, combining printers, phones, and portable media players into one window. A large photo of the peripheral summarizes important device stats and makes it easy to identify which devices you're using. Device Stage can also be used to preset common tasks, such as synchronization. Device Stage support for older devices makes one of Windows 7's best features applicable to peripherals and externals that don't need to be upgraded. One annoying change is that Bluetooth driver support no longer comes baked into the operating system. If you need a Bluetooth driver, you'll either need the installation disc on hand or you'll have to go download it.

Search, touch screens, and XP mode
Windows 7's native search feature has been improved. Files added to the hard drive were indexed so fast that they were searchable less than 5 seconds later. Search result snippets now include a longer snippet, and highlight the snippet more clearly. This should appeal specifically to people who juggle large numbers of long documents, but it's a useful feature for anybody who wants to find files faster. However, the search field is available by default only in the Start menu and in Windows Explorer, and cannot be easily added to the taskbar.


Search snippets do a better job of highlighting relevant terms in your documents, exposing useful data even if it's not in the file name. (This image was taken from the Windows 7 Release Candidate, but looks and functions the same in the official version of Windows 7./Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Touch-screen features worked surprisingly well. The hardware sometimes misread some of the multitouch gestures, occasionally confusing rotating an image, for example, with zooming in or out of the image. Overall, though, there were few difficulties in performing the basic series of gestures that Microsoft promotes, and this places Windows 7 in an excellent position for the future, as more and more computers are released with multitouch abilities.

Experts and people or companies who hope to use Windows 7 for business situations will appreciate the new XP Mode. It doesn't have much of a practical application for the home consumer, but if you need to access programs designed for Windows XP that have not been upgraded to Windows Vista or 7, XP Mode creates a virtual environment within Windows 7 that should assuage any fears of upgrading without backward compatibility.


Windows 7 supports a feature that won't be useful to most users, but businesses might do a double-take. XP Mode is a free add-on for Windows 7 that creates a virtual XP environment in which you can run older programs. (This image was taken from the Windows 7 Release Candidate, but looks and functions the same in the official version of Windows 7./Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

It's not easy to set up once you've downloaded the XP Mode installer. You'll need to double-check that you have the right hardware, and can get the right software. Hardware Virtualization Technology, also known as AMD-V, Vanderpool, or VT-d, must be supported for it to work. Motherboards older than two years probably won't work, and even if you do have a newer one you might have to go into your BIOS and activate Hardware Virtualization. CPU-identification utilities are available from Microsoft that can tell you if you're in the clear or not. However, if compatibility is the issue, this hassle will be worth it to you. Users will have full access to peripherals connected to their Windows 7 hardware, including printers, and the clipboard can be used to cut and paste between the virtual operating system and the "real" one.

Security
User Account Control, or UAC, is back in Windows 7. Microsoft has tweaked the feature so that it's less intrusive, but it's not clear whether that means you're actually more or less secure than you were in Vista. UAC was one of the biggest changes in Vista. It tightened program access, but did it in such a way as to frustrate many owners of single-user computers. Windows 7 provides more options for user customization of UAC.

The default setting is to notify users only when programs try to make changes to the computer, one step below the most restrictive setting of Always Notify. Under Always Notify, anytime a program tries to access the Internet, or you try to make changes to the computer, Windows 7 will require user confirmation. The second-least restrictive option doesn't dim the desktop when UAC is activated, and will only notify the user when programs try to make changes to the computer. When the desktop dims, Windows 7 is locking it down and preventing access. Never Notify is the most relaxed option, and is only recommended by Microsoft for programs that aren't compatible with UAC.

UAC also displays a blue banner when confronted with a program from a known publisher versus a yellow banner and exclamation point when the program is from an unknown publisher. The number of clicks it should take to use UAC safely has been reduced, However, it's important to note that it's a less aggressive default posture by UAC.

A less glitzy, but no less important, change to how removable drives are handled also can affect your media. Unlike Windows XP and Windows Vista, Windows 7 will no longer AutoRun external hard drives and USB keys when they're connected. This kills off a risky vector for malware infections that has been the bane of many security experts.

Although Microsoft is working on a revamp of its antivirus and antimalware program, now called Microsoft Security Essentials, it won't be bundled with Windows 7. Users are still required to download a third-party antivirus and antimalware program, although the Windows Firewall remains intact. As with many features in Windows 7 that have been carried over from Windows Vista, people will notice there's far more granular settings control than before. Features like filtering outbound traffic, which were available in Vista but not exposed, are easier to access in Windows 7.

Comparing Windows: XP vs. Vista vs. 7
Windows XP Windows Vista Windows 7
Minimum hardware
  • --Processor: 300MHz
  • --RAM: 128MB
  • --Super VGA graphics device
  • --HD: 4.2GB (for SP3)
  • --Processor: 1GHz
  • --RAM: 1GB (32-bit), 2GB (64-bit)
  • --Support for DirectX 9 graphics device with 128MB of memory
  • --HD: 20GB (32-bit), 40GB (64-bit)
  • --Processor: 1 GHz
  • --RAM: 1GB (32-bit), 2GB (64-bit)
  • --Support for DirectX 9 graphics device with 128MB of memory
  • --HD: 16GB (32-bit), 20GB (64-bit)
Interface
  • --Luna theme
  • --Introduces task-based windows options
  • --Skinning possible but difficult
  • --Desktop Cleanup Wizard automates removing old icons
  • --Aero theme
  • --Introduces transparent panes, window animations, live thumbnails of running programs
  • --New desktop sidebar supports gadgets
  • --Supports touch screens
  • --Aero theme
  • --Supports slideshow backgrounds, RSS and theme packs
  • --Introduces Aero Shake and Aero Snap
  • --Desktop gadgets can be placed anywhere
  • --Supports multitouch on touch screens
Explorer
  • --Replaces tree navigation by default with task pane
  • --Improves image handling
  • --Offers thumbnail previews and group views
  • --Supports some metadata
  • --Task pane integrated into toolbar
  • --New breadcrumb navigation
  • --New metadata display
  • --Improved icon resolution
  • --Some documents can be edited from the preview pane
  • --Support for federated searches and libraries
  • --Virtual folders aggregate content from local and networked drives
Start menu
  • --New layout
  • --Devices and some Control Panel options appear in menu
  • --Added search box
  • --All Programs folder changed to a nested format
  • --Configurable power button
  • --User profile picture
  • --Taskbar jumps appear in the Start menu and replace the right column when viewed
  • --Documents, Pictures, Music buttons now link to their libraries
  • --Control Panel options have been integrated into search results
Taskbar
  • --New look
  • --Hideable icons in System Tray
  • --Refreshed look
  • --Alt-Tab hot key now shows preview thumbnail of program
  • --Interactive mouse-over preview panes
  • --Replacement of the Quick Launch bar with pinned programs
  • --Program-specific jump lists based on pinned programs
  • --Aero Peek for mouse-over desktop viewing
  • --Revamped System Tray
Devices
  • --Introduces Universal Plug-n-Play
  • --New driver library allows for downgrading drivers when necessary
  • --Debuts portable device API, designed to communicate with cell phones, PDAs, and portable media players
  • --Introduces Sync Center for managing data synchronizations
  • --New Device Stage provides a centralized, unified window for managing all aspects of printers and portable devices
Misc.
  • --Introduces context-menu CD and DVD burning from Windows Explorer
  • --Supports multiple versions of a single DLL to prevent programs from overwriting each other
  • --Introduces Hibernate and Sleep modes
  • --Remote Desktop for accessing a computer from another location
  • --Fast user account switching
  • --Built-in drive partitioning
  • --More powerful screen-capturing tool
  • --Hybrid Sleep and better configuration options for more nuanced power management
  • --User-based file-type associations
  • --Previous Version automatically backs up changes to individual files
  • --Expands Windows Explorer disc burning to include ISOs
  • --Introduces XP Mode
  • --Expanded options for disabling components
  • --Can search text in scanned TIFF
  • --Additional power-saving features for laptops

Performance
Windows 7 feels faster than Windows XP and Vista, but it turns out that's not always the case--sometimes, it's the slowest out of the three operating systems. CNET Labs tested four 32-bit Windows operating systems: Windows 7 RTM build 7600, Windows 7 Release Candidate build 7100, Windows Vista with Service Pack 2, and Windows XP SP3, all on an Inspiron Desktop 530 Mini Tower running an Intel Core 2 Duo Processor E4500 at 2.20 GHz, with a 128MB NVIDIA 8300 GS graphics card, 4GB of RAM, and two 320GB SATA 7,200rpm hard drives.

Microsoft Office Performance (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Windows Vista SP2 (64 bit)
571 
Windows 7 RTM Build 7600 (64 bit)
600 
Windows 7 RTM Build 7600 (32 bit)
684 
Windows 7 RC Build 7100(32 bit)
752 
Windows Vista SP2 (32 bit)
673 
Windows XP SP3 (32 bit)
483 

iTunes encoding (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Windows Vista SP2 (64 bit)
199 
Windows 7 RTM Build 7600 (64 bit)
199 
Windows 7 RTM Build 7600 (32 bit)
187 
Windows 7 RC Build 7100(32 bit)
188 
Windows Vista SP2 (32 bit)
189 
Windows XP SP3 (32 bit)
187 

Boot time (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Windows Vista SP2 (64 bit)
60 
Windows 7 RTM Build 7600 (64 bit)
50.3 
Windows 7 RTM Build 7600 (32 bit)
41.25 
Windows 7 RC Build 7100(32 bit)
44.81 
Windows XP SP3 (32 bit)
40.03 

Shutdown time (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Windows Vista SP2 (64 bit)
5.68 
Windows 7 RTM Build 7600 (64 bit)
5.32 
Windows 7 RTM Build 7600 (32 bit)
5.1 
Windows 7 RC Build 7100(32 bit)
6.2 
Windows Vista SP2 (32 bit)
5.69 
Windows XP SP3 (32 bit)
29.9 

Cinebench
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Oct. 22, 2009
  • Category Software suite
  • Compatibility PC
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