By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, May 5, 2009 at 2:49 am
Windows 7 is here–sort of. Yes, Microsoft still isn’t talking about when it’ll ship the final version–all evidence suggests it’ll be sometime this Fall–but the company is unleashing the Windows 7 Release Candidate today. It’s a free, all-but-final version of the operating system, and it’ll work until March 1st, 2010 before Microsoft forces you to uninstall it or overwrite it with a paid-for copy of the final edition. In short, if you’re itching to give Windows 7 a try, you can.
I’ve been using Windows 7 in various prerelease incarnations since last October, and for the more part, I’ve liked what I’ve seen. (So did most of the Technologizer community members who took our survey on the beta.) For the past few days I’ve been running the Release Candidate–mostly on an Asus EeePC 1000HE, and to a lesser extent on a Dell XPS M1330 laptop. (Full disclosure: The latter machine was loaned to me by Microsoft for Windows 7 testing.)
I’ll be writing about this beta a lot in the coming months–right up until the time that I get my hands on a version of W7 that’s even closer to being ready to roll. After the jump, some questions and answers about the Release Candidate and Windows 7 in general.
The usual caveat applies, at least officially: Don’t use pre-release software for mission-critical work. You might break a PC that’s working well, or discover that some of your applications are incompatible only after you’ve installed W7. That said, I’ve preferred prerelease versions of Windows 7 to Windows Vista for months now–even though it’s an unfinished product, it’s run faster and more smoothly on every computer I’ve put it on than theoretically time-tested Vista.
I’ve also had good luck with compatibility–I’ve installed Microsoft Office 2007, Google Chrome, Adobe Acrobat and Photoshop, and other applications, and they’ve all run just fine. My Verizon USB EVDO modem works, too. Even Symantec’s Norton 360 security suite didn’t completely choke–security suites aren’t really supposed to work on new versions of Windows–although I did get an error message about an incompatible heuristics driver. (Symantec says it’s finishing up work on a Win 7-friendly version of the product.)
The biggest glitch I’ve encountered so far: My HP OfficeJet Pro 7500 doesn’t seem to want to install, even when I use W7’s compatbility feature to attempt to fool the HP installer into thinking that it’s in Windows Vista. I’m not done troubleshooting it, though–and come to think of it, getting it to work with my Mac was also a struggle.
In short, I don’t think you have to be foolhardy or even particularly brave to take Windows 7 for a test drive. I would, however, recommend installing it alongside your current version of Windows rather than an top of it. You’ll have no choice if you’ve got Windows XP–W7 doesn’t support XP upgrades. But even on a machine that currently runs Vista, I wouldn’t advise overwriting a shipping OS with a prerelease one. It’s simply safer to keep your old OS on hand in case anything goes wrong.
Yes–even though Microsoft doesn’t support overwriting the earlier beta with the Release Candidate. For one thing, Microsoft fixed lots of bugs and made many meaningful improvements since the beta (some are detailed here and here). Besides, the beta will time out in August of this year, forcing you to replace it with something else.
Yes, and it’s simple: Read Ed Bott’s installation advice.
As ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley reported, Microsoft recently released its final recommended minimum requirements for W7: a 1-GHz CPU, 1GB of RAM, (2GB for the 64-bit edition), 16GB of disk space (20GB for 64-bit), and graphics that can handle DirectX 9 with a WDDM 1.0 or higher driver. I don’t think those are wildly out of whack with reality, but they are, indeed, minimums. The old rule of thumb that it’s not a bad idea to have twice the RAM that Microsoft suggests still holds; nearly all new computers except netbooks ship with 2GB of RAM, and it’s a dirt-cheap upgrade for older machines.
PCs that ran Windows Vista adequately should be in good shape to be happy homes for Windows 7. Many XP systems should be ready, too, but if you’ve got an aging PC, be careful. It’s possible to turn an adquate computer into a slug by installing an OS that it’s just not capable of running well.
I can’t provide a definitive answer to that question–there are, after all, a lot of netbooks out there, from bare-bones rigs to surprisingly potent ones. But I’ve been using the Release Candidate on my Asus Eee PC 1000HE, and it’s been a happy experience. I’m sure that the fact I blew $25 to upgrade the machine from 1GB to 2GB of memory helped–even with Windows XP, it was a slowpoke with only 1GB.
Windows 7’s Windows Experience Index benchmark rates my Eee PC at 2.1 out of a possible 7.0, but the stuff I’ve tried to do has been acceptably zippy for a $400 computer. Windows XP remains in place on another partition on the hard drive, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I never feel the urge to return to it.
Microsoft, by the way, is targeting Windows 7 Starter Edition, which is largely limited to running only three apps at a time, at basic netbooks. The limitation is driven by financial considerations, not technical ones–a netbook should be as capable of running more than three apps at a time as a comparable full-blown notebook with the same amount of RAM.
Oddly enough, most of what I like about Windows 7 has nothing to do with it letting me do things I couldn’t do before. It’s just that it’s so much less blah, rickety, and annoying than Windows Vista. Here’s one of those automotive metaphors I keep failing to avoid: Windows 7 is like a really good redesign of a car model that left a lot to be desired. Many of the underpinnings are the same; the trim is recognizable; but there’s a great big leap in refinement.
I like the new Taskbar, which holds both running apps and ones you’ve “pinned” onto it, lets you peek at all the windows associated with a running app, and provides access to context-sensitive Jump Lists of common tasks associated with a particular app. The new System Tray (aka Notification Area), which stores icons away in a little repository unless you drag them out, is the first incarnation of this Windows feature in years that doesn’t make me grit my teeth. The ability to dock windows on the edge of the screen by dragging them there has me enthusiastic about window tiling (!)–for the first time ever. The new User Account Control is more configurable and less grating.
I’m not sure if Microsoft brought in new UI designers for W7, but all of this stuff looks and works better than alleged Vista signature features like Flip3D and Aero, which were gimmicky, ugly, and not all that useful. In general, Windows 7–at least on the machines I’ve tried it on so far–works better than many shipping versions of Windows have. It boots up swiftly and shuts down reliably. So far, it stays out of my way in a manner that I’m not used to modern versions of Windows doing. Even Windows Media Player, which has a minimalist “Now Playing” mode, is worth a fresh look.
I’m not enthralled with the Homegroup feature, which lets you get at music, movies, photos, and other content stored around your home network. (Or is that the HomeGroup feature? It’s spelled both ways, sometimes in the same dialog.) It works better than it did in the W7 beta, but it still requires that every machine involved be running Windows 7–a scenario that won’t come true in most households for quite a while. It also assigns the Homegroup an impossible-to-remember password and doesn’t make clear that you can choose your own. All in all, the amount of complexity is high for the benefit it delivers.
And while Windows 7 is a meaningfully less annoying operating system than Vista or XP, it can still be aggravating. For instance, itdoesn’t do anything to prevent applications from larding up your desktop with icons as you install them, and mine is already messy with stuff I didn’t want there. Despite the new control you get over the System Tray, I’ve still gotten a lot of those pesky word balloons alerting me to things that I didn’t need to be alerted to. And the new Action Center, which queues up problems that the OS wants to tell you about, is kind of alarming–it’s like getting a week’s worth of Windows Vista word-baloon warnings all at once.
Then there’s the fact that Internet Explorer 8 is merely okay. But that’s okay, since there are plenty of other browsers to choose from. (Google Chrome has been my primary browser on most of my W7 computers.)
That isn’t a question, but you’re right–and that’s a virtue. When Microsoft tries to change everything, you end up with half-baked new features, compatibility problems, and performance issues–the sort of things that have given Vista its crummy reputation. When the company concentrates on refinements rather than major upheavals, it products products like Windows 3.1, Windows 98, and Windows 2000–some of the best versions of the OS ever. I’m optimistic that Windows 7 will earn the right to be compared favorably to those editions.