October 22, 2009 marks the official release of Windows 7. There are hundreds of reviews of this anticipated product floating around on the Internet, but we want this review to be a valuable addition to your understanding of what Microsoft’s latest operating system has to offer. Read on to learn more how well Windows 7 succeeds in achieving its goals and how it can help you get more out of your computer, your media, and your life. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or send us an email; we’ve been using Windows 7 in Beta, RC, and RTM form for over eight months, and are glad to answer any questions you might have.
How’s the pricing?
Pricing usually isn’t the first thing to come up in an Operating System review, but in these particularly challenging economic times, it’s more important than ever.
To put it plain and simple, the best and easiest way to experience Windows 7 is on a new PC. With the cost of new computers lower than ever, those who are planning to purchase a new system anyway should absolutely opt for Windows 7 on their new system. It outclasses Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Mac OS X in essentially every relevant area, as you will read more about below.
If you already have an up to date system, moving to Windows 7 is definitely not a bad idea. Pricing, however, is all over the map. There are several basic ways to move to Windows 7.
- Free Upgrade: If you’ve purchased a PC running Vista since June 26, 2009, you’re eligible for a free upgrade, which is obviously a no brainer.
- Student Upgrade: If you are a college student with a .edu email address, head over to www.win741.com to pick up a copy of Windows 7 for just $29, a price you won’t regret paying.
- Pre Order: Earlier this year, Microsoft offered pre order copies of Windows 7 upgrades starting at $49; if you purchased one of those, you’re in great shape.
- Retail Upgrade: If you are just a regular computer user looking to move to Microsoft’s latest, retail upgrade copies are available from various online and brick and mortar stores starting at $99, including a well priced 3 pack for $149.
- OEM Upgrade: If you want the best possible experience in an upgrade, we recommend backing up your data and applications doing a “clean install.” Computer retailers such as SciencePro Tech offer this service, or you can do it yourself with an external hard drive and an OEM copy of Windows, starting at $99.
What about the editions?
Many cynics enjoy making an issue out of the different versions of Windows. However, there is really not much to be confused about. Microsoft has three main editions available for purchase.
Windows 7 Home Premium
- The most appropriate version of Windows for the vast majority of computer users, and is what SciencePro Tech recommends. Home Premium includes the attractive Aero interface, Windows Media Center, and a variety of features optimized for both mobile and desktop users in a variety of applications.
Windows 7 Professional
- Unlike Windows Vista Business, the Professional version keeps the consumer centric features of Home Premium intact as it adds support for incoming Remote Desktop Connections and the ability to connect to a Domain, among other business oriented features like Windows XP Mode. Professional is the best choice if you need the functionality it provides; otherwise, stick with Home Premium.
Windows 7 Ultimate
- Windows 7 Ultimate offers a few minor feature boosts compared to the Professional version. Most new computers will not even be available with Ultimate, and it is not worth the extra money unless you absolutely need the best of the best. It is also available as the Enterprise edition for business customers.
Many netbooks will continue to ship with Windows XP, but most will ship with Windows 7 Home Premium or Starter. Windows 7 Starter is essentially the successor to Windows Vista Home Basic; it lacks Media Center, Aero, and other features, but is well suited and well priced for inclusion on netbooks.
32 bit or 64 bit?
Short answer: 64 bit. During the past two years, nearly all computers have shipped with 64 bit Windows, and this is the best choice. At this point in time, driver and program capabilities are essentially a thing of the past, and 64 bit operating systems are the only way to use 4GB of RAM or more in a computer.
Unlike Apple’s problematic Snow Leopard, Windows 7 64 Bit is a true 64 bit operating system. If you are running Windows 7 64 bit, you are fully utilizing a 64 bit kernel and full 64 bit program compatibility. Snow Leopard, on the other hand, loads a 32 bit kernel by default. Only a small handful of Mac systems are 64 bit compatible, and as Power PC based Macs are completely incompatible with Leopard, the vast majority of Mac users will remain in a 32 bit world.
The only reason to choose a 32 bit operating system is if you know you have a very specific piece of hardware or software that is only 32 bit compatible. Otherwise, stick with 64 bit: it’s the future.
How fast is it?
One of the biggest claims about Windows 7 is designed to fix one of the biggest complaints with Vista: speed, or lack thereof. Despite what many media outlets will tell you, Windows Vista, specifically SP1 and SP2, perform admirably on current hardware. Windows 7 improves on this.
The most notable improvements center around bootup, shutdown, and sleep times. On our tests of 9 systems at SciencePro, Windows 7 showed measurable improvements in bootup times on every one. Shutdown times showed more drastic improvements. Sleep-resume times showed a slight uptick compared to Vista, but it’s nothing to write home about.
Using Windows 7 on a daily basis just feels faster than any release before it. Programs leap open, application windows paint swiftly and smoothly, and you are never left waiting for the Control Panel to load.
Network sharing and copy speeds are much improved with Microsoft’s innovative new HomeGroup technology, which is breathtakingly easy to use and makes it incredibly easy to share files and printers instantly. The “workgroup” model of file and print sharing is definitely outdated, so HomeGroups are a welcome improvement to the home network scene, where average users are often left scratching their heads over why they cannot print.
With Windows 7, Microsoft has made an interesting move by not including their excellent suite of Windows Live photo and video editing tools within the operating system, instead offering them as a separate download. Microsoft says that this makes the Windows 7 install lighter and faster, and makes it easier for them to update Windows Live Photo Gallery, Windows Live Movie Maker, and other products on a more regular basis, which is likely true.
What is included is the excellent Windows Media Player 12. Gone is the lag found in Windows Media Player 10 and 11, and WMP 11 offers a fresh new interface and tons of cool features, such as “Play to another computer,” which allows you to easily play your music collection to any computer in the house. WMP 11 offers a slick low profile interface for basic tasks such as MP3 or CD playback, which eliminates the need to launch the full application to quickly play back a media source.
Windows DVD Maker is also included, and this simple but complete program offers slight revisions compared to the Vista versions to make it simpler to transfer video files, both SD and HD, onto DVD and Blu-Ray for easy sharing.
Windows Live Photo Gallery and Windows Live Movie maker remain excellent choices for editing and organizing photos an videos. Particularly slick is the built in YouTube upload option from Movie Maker: it’s the simplest way to share video out there, and it’s incredibly polished.
Windows 7 also includes ISO burning functionality out of the box, a welcome addition and one that will come in handy for users who often download programs and operating systems from the internet.
Windows continues to hold above 95% of worldwide marketshare, and as a result, is the most likely target for malicious software. Like Windows Vista, Windows 7 includes User Account Control technology to prevent unauthorized programs from running without permission. It works well in Vista, and is even faster and more unobtrusive in Windows 7.
Windows 7 includes a built in Firewall and Windows Defender anti-malware technology. However, Microsoft also offers Microsoft Security Essentials, a completely free security solution for anti-virus and anti-malware protection. Essentially, Microsoft is providing everything you need to be completely secure for absolutely no additional charge.
While Mac OS X continues to have a far lower number of threats than Windows, it has become a more popular target in recent months, so much that Apple has felt the need to include Anti-Virus protection with Snow Leopard. No matter what operating system you use, it’s important to be cautious in what websites you visit, and to never run unfamiliar programs or download unexpected email attachments.
Windows 7 will feel right at home to any user of Windows Vista; the basic elements haven’t changed. However, Windows 7 has completely re-done the venerable Windows taskbar with the new SuperBar. It offers a polished way to view thumbnails of all open windows and browser tabs, access recently used files and functions through JumpLists, and quickly rearrange open applications. It is a very well thought out upgrade to the Windows UI and is a welcome improvement for any serious multi-tasker, and significantly ahead of what the Dock offers in Mac OS X.
The Windows 7 Aero GUI offers a handful of new improvements. The window buttons (minimize, maximize, close) have been enlarged and optimized for Touch use. Aero Shake offers an easy way to focus in one window and hide the rest. Aero Snap is a particularly useful function that lets you quickly maximize, resize, and compare windows side by side in seconds; it’s something you’ll use every day and appreciate.
Our overall consensus on the Windows 7 GUI is that it’s natural, logical, simple, and attractive. The improvements are the sort of things where you’ll wonder why it wasn’t like that already; they just make sense.
While many of the changes in Windows 7 are evolutionary, Microsoft raises the bar in several areas. One of the most notable is Windows Touch. Like the technology found on many of today’s smartphones, Windows PCs can now sport multi-touch displays so that you can manage windows, manipulate media, and interact with programs through the use of multi-finger gestures. Nearly a dozen multitouch laptops, desktops, and displays are available from many major OEMs. SciencePro Tech offers a choice of multitouch displays to complement your new system.
Device Stage is a great way to see what’s going on with the media players, printers, smartphones and other devices connected to your computer. Device Stage shows devices status, available capacity, settings, and a high-resolution image of the device on one screen, with easy access to settings and programs related to the item. The problem is, the vast majority of devices aren’t fully supported by Device Stage. We hope that manufacturers update their drivers to fully utilize this great new area of Windows 7.
All versions of Windows 7 now include the complete version of Windows Backup, a feature complete backup tool that offers both full image backups of your PC as well as incremental file backups. It works very well and it’s easy to configure, backup, and restore. Windows 7 doesn’t have the flashy flying-through-space imagery of Apple’s Time Machine, but Previous Versions allows you to easily role back to a previous version of a document or other file; just open the Properties window for the file, and look in the Previous Versions tab. Previous Versions works automatically and doesn’t even require an external hard drive to work, unlike Time Machine. If you have a Windows Home Server, Windows 7 is fully supported, so you can backup up your system and share media easily.
Media Center has gotten a UI refresh and brand new Netflix integration that offers an even more seamless way to utilize your Netflix streaming service. Media Center continues to be the benchmark for computer-based media consumption, and nothing yet can match the ease of use and features it offers. Apple still offers no way to view or record TV on a Mac; with Windows 7, you can record HD or SD content from cable or over the air, share it with other computers around the house, and sync it with portable media players.
Windows 7 touts improved power management and mobile features. Battery live on our test systems doesn’t appear to have improved much compared to Vista; perhaps improvements will be more noticeable with batteries and chipsets designed for Windows 7, but right now it’s nothing to write home about. Windows 7 does make it easier to set up for presentations and change mobile preferences such as screen brightness and network privacy.
Windows 7 is definitely not perfect, but nothing else is as good. It offers greater compatibility with existing software and hardware out of the gate than any other previous Windows release; based on the problems people are having with Snow Leopard, it’s probably the best ever in this regard.
If you have Windows Vista and are happy with it, Windows 7 is not a must-have. But if you’re buying a new computer, or you’re interested in experiencing the latest that Microsoft has to offer, you won’t be disappointed. Windows 7 builds on the changes that Vista started, and is the right operating system at the right time.