Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Windows 7: Four Reasons to Upgrade, Four Reasons to Stay Away

By Matt Lake

August 04, 2009 — Computerworld —

The release of Windows 7 to manufacturing begins a tale of two operating systems: the one you want and the one you don't. It is packed with improvements and cool stuff, but it still carries a whiff of Vista that may put XP diehards off. That said, people who have gotten used to Vista will enjoy the fact that Windows 7 looks the same but acts a whole lot better.

Like many people who compute both at home and at work, I use XP and Vista as well as Mac OS X Leopard, and I like elements of all three. So I've been watching the beta and RC versions of Windows 7 very closely. Does the final "release to manufacturing" (RTM) code -- the same code that will ship with new PCs and retail versions of Windows 7 in October -- merit a jump from any of my current platforms?

Well, yes and no.

Little features like the ability to burn CDs from single ISO image files are great -- I don't need to install third-party tools to create CD-Rs anymore. And Windows 7 definitely boots up faster than XP or Vista on identically configured machines. You can't knock the advantage of 60 seconds less boot time.

But grrr! Just when things were going well, I tried to do a little light video editing, only to discover that Windows Movie Maker isn't included with Windows 7. It's now part of Microsoft Live, and it's still in beta. In its present form, it's much less capable than the app that ships with XP. So after ten minutes with Windows 7, I found myself booting up an old XP machine for an everyday task.

(I later discovered that there is a downloadable version of MovieMaker that works with Windows 7, although Microsoft's download page doesn't list Windows 7 among the supported OSes. Nevertheless, it's not nearly as elegant as having it included with the OS.)

What other joys and disappointments does the new Windows bring?

Finding stuff is easier...

Keeping track of your work is always going to be a chore. Fortunately, Windows 7 concentrates much of its efforts on making files accessible. Windows 7 clusters different file types into shortcuts called Libraries -- they look like Vista's Documents, Pictures and Videos folders, but they lead to files of the pertinent type whatever folder they are actually located in. You can add your own folders to Libraries at will to keep your project files accessible.

Then there are Jump Lists, a zippier way of previewing your open applications and folders. Moving a mouse over the taskbar pops up easy-to-scan lists of open windows, and right-clicking on them shows not only what's running, but a brief history of what you've done with those programs -- files opened, sites visited, and other handy pointers. That feature alone has the makings of a much more efficient workday.

And Windows 7's Search is streets ahead of earlier iterations: Like Mac OS X's Spotlight, it begins delivering results as you type -- before you've even finished a word -- and narrows the list as you enter more characters. You can also preview the contents of search results before deciding to open them.

Chalk up several productivity pluses for Windows 7.

...but it's just as tough to find the right version of the OS

When Windows Vista was released, one of the loudest complaints was about the overwhelming array of versions it came in. And while XP didn't initially ship with quite as many flavors, later additions such as the Media Center, Tablet PC and Professional x64 editions upped its version count as well. Despite pleas from pundits to reduce the number of versions available for Windows 7, however, things haven't gotten any simpler.

There's a Starter Edition for netbooks, two Home versions (Home Basic and Home Premium), plus a Professional, an Enterprise and an Ultimate edition. (There has been some confusion about whether there will be different versions for the European Union to comply with EU regulations; the latest from Microsoft appears to be that the EU will receive the same versions as elsewhere.) And, of course, most of these are available in both full versions and lower-priced upgrade versions for people with licensed retail copies of Windows 2000, XP or Vista.

Windows 7 is still easier and more efficient at networking in general -- from handling multiple Wi-Fi hotspots to setting up on my domain-based Exchange network -- than XP was and a worthy successor to Vista. In short, Windows 7 is one slick glad-hander of a networking animal.

...but Microsoft is keeping XP as a stand-in

Even though Microsoft officially cut off XP more than a year ago, saying it could no longer be sold preinstalled on new computers, the company has issued a series of reprieves for sales of the aging OS. Dell and other computer makers have also taken advantage of a loophole that allowed Vista Business and Ultimate versions to be downgraded to XP Professional, an option that has proven very popular with new PC buyers.

With Windows 7 close to shipping, Microsoft is still hedging its bets a little. Microsoft's enterprise licensing will allow businesses that buy PCs through early 2011 to downgrade Windows 7 (which will come preinstalled) to Windows XP. When enterprises have figured out how to migrate to Windows 7, they can catch up later.

For people who can't get an enterprise license, Microsoft will also provide XP Mode -- a full updated version of Windows XP Service Pack 3 that runs in a virtual machine in Windows 7 -- which is available as a separate download to Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate users.

All of which makes me wonder, "If Microsoft isn't letting go of XP, why should I?"

Bottom line

Even after extensive testing of the various pre-release versions of Windows 7, I still don't know whether its virtues outweigh its pain points overall. For Vista users, upgrading to Windows 7 is a no-brainer; the new OS handily fixes the worst of Vista's mistakes. My advice to them: upgrade early and often.

For XP users, however, it's not so clear. You'll be getting some nifty and useful new features, but you'll also be giving up the way you've been used to working for the past several years.

Windows 7 may be a far, far better upgrade than Vista ever was before, but in the end, you have to answer this honestly: Is this the best of times or the worst of times to take on an unfamiliar interface? Only you can answer that question.

© 2007 Computerworld Inc.

1 comment:

  1. Its surely good news that Win 7 will allow for faster start-up. Vista has the tendancy to take ages to start-up. With greater efficiency towards networking, I am not going to complain.