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Dipping into the Windows 7 mailbag

With the release candidate of Windows 7 now out the door, CNET News' Ina Fried goes through her in-box and answers reader questions about the new operating system.

With Windows 7 reaching the near-final stage and due out later this year, lots of folks are trying to get their heads around the next version of the operating system.

I've gotten a lot of questions from readers, mostly centered on key issues such as what Windows 7 has to offer, whether it will work with their existing software, and if they should buy a PC now or wait for Microsoft to offer Windows 7, or at least a free upgrade.

In this post, I will try to tackle some of those issues.

"Will programs that didn't work with Vista but did work with XP work in Windows 7?" (several readers)

Windows 7 is a lot like Windows Vista under the covers. So, in general, programs that run fine in Windows Vista will run fine in Windows 7. That also means that, in most cases, those programs that did not run in Vista also won't run in Windows 7. There are a couple of exceptions. In particular, Microsoft has done some work to "rescue" certain applications that did not run in Vista so that they can indeed run in Windows 7.

Microsoft has also added an "XP Mode" to some versions of Windows 7 that allows programs that won't run natively in Windows 7 to run via an XP virtual machine. XP Mode does require more memory as well as a machine whose processor has hardware support for virtualization, something many older machines and some current machines don't have.

"How does Windows 7 compare with Windows XP?" (Jim Lawrence, technical writer, Glenn Rock, Penn.)

For those used to Windows XP, Windows 7 will be a significant change.

It brings with it both a lot of the good and the bad from Vista--albeit with some improvements--as well as new features of its own. It shares the more modern graphics engine, desktop search, and security architecture that are part of Windows Vista. As part of an anti-malware feature known as User Account Control, XP users will also be asked to verify certain changes to their system. Microsoft has worked to lessen the number of such prompts in Windows 7, but since XP has no similar feature, it may still seem like a lot of intrusion to some.

Windows 7 also brings features of its own, most notably the taskbar at the bottom of the screen that allows quick access not only to frequently used programs, but also one-click and two-click access to commonly used actions within those programs. Windows 7 also adds Internet Explorer 8 and built-in support for multitouch gestures, provided you have a machine with a compatible touch-screen display.

For a nice side-by-side chart comparing Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7, check out this piece from my colleague Seth Rosenblatt.

"Do you have any sense of 'free upgrades' from Vista to Windows 7 for people like us who will purchase just prior to the release?" (David Derr, Reading, Penn.)

Microsoft hasn't made public the details of such a "technology guarantee" program, but it appears all but certain it will do one. It did a similar program with Windows Vista, and given that it has now said Windows 7 will ship this year, to not do so would probably slow sales until its release.

In an interview last week, Senior Vice President Bill Veghte would not offer details but suggested that such programs have proven useful in the past and indicated one is likely for Windows 7. Rumors of the program have been around for a while, with many pegging July as the start for such a program.

"I have a licensed copy of Office 2003. Will I be able to install it on the Windows 7 machine?" (Haim Snyder, Petah Tikva, Israel)

Microsoft says "yes" on that one. Office 2003 should run fine on Windows 7.

If Windows 7 is installed on a Netbook will Windows Aero (its fancy graphics) work?

Microsoft says that, "if you have Windows 7 installed on a Netbook, Aero will work with any version except for Starter."