At 6:00 AM yesterday morning I started downloading the Windows 7 x64 release. By 9:30 AM I was installing it. Yes, I admit it, I’m a keener. I’ve used every Windows beta since Windows 3.1 in 1992, and I still find it a thrill to be on the bleeding edge of new technologies. I also grabbed the x86 version, just in case, before Microsoft closes off the downloads (now extended to January 24th).
My first impressions of Windows 7 are pretty positive.
I installed the software in a separate disk partition on a desktop PC at my home. This PC is an Acer M5620 desktop with the Intel Q6600 Core2 Quad processor, four gigabytes of memory, 500G SATA hard disk and a dual-head ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro graphics card. The Windows 7 installer is nearly identical to the Windows Vista installer, which means that the process is pretty painless. You can start it, and go have coffee or a run, which is what I did.
The installation missed a few key drivers.
- It failed to detect my HP Color Laserjet CLJ1600 printer. The Windows Vista x64 driver for the CLJ1600 worked just fine, however.
- It had no drivers for the Intel ICH9 family of host controllers, which meant that the system management bus had no driver whatsoever. Sevenforums.com, however, had a link to a full set of Intel SM bus drivers for Windows 7.
- It misidentified my Samson C01-U condenser microphone as an “other” device. Interestingly, although Skype can see the C01-U as a microphone, Windows 7 provides no volume input controls for it.
Beta performance is really no better than Windows Vista, and perhaps a little worse. However, this is beta code. Microsoft has a history of delaying optimization of the code until just before release.
- Windows Experience Index score under Windows Vista is 5.1 for this hardware, but just 2.9 under Windows 7. The offending score is hard disk performance. I assume that Windows 7 is simply missing an optimized version of a low level system driver such as a bus driver or hard disk controller.
- Boot times were noticeably poorer under Windows 7 compared to Windows Vista, despite Microsoft’s claims to have optimized this aspect of the experience. I timed both Windows 7 and Vista from the point of pressing the enter key at the dual-boot screen to the login screen, and from the entry of a password into the login screen to the point that the Start button became active. Windows 7 scored 52 seconds from cold start to the login screen, and 17 seconds from the login screen to the start button active. On Vista, however, the times were 34 seconds and 12 seconds.
Visually, Windows 7 is very similar to Vista, with some small improvements. For example:
- The task bar and system tray have been optimized. Gone are the text labels in the task bar. Each icon on the bar represents a single application, and if an application has multiple tabs, the pop-up preview for that application shows all the tabs. Right clicking on the icon produces a “jump list” which has all of the recently accessed documents for that application. Support for these features must be implemented by the application, which means that few of the applications you use on a day to day basis will benefit immediately.
Display tabs opened in IE 8
Jump list for the file manager.
- The system tray now has a small pop-up so that all of the items that run as background processes, but aren’t required day to day, can be hidden on a menu out of site. An on the right side of the system tray, beside the clock, is a small vertical bar that can be used to minimize all windows, or if you hover the mouse pointer over it, it will turn the Windows transparent so the desktop itself is visible.
System tray with pop-up.
- And why would you want to make the Windows transparent? To see your gadgets. Gone is the Windows Vista sidebar. Now gadgets can be installed anywhere on the screen in their minimized or maximized forms.
- Windows that are opened now have some new behaviours. When you drag a window to the left or right, eventually it will snap to the side, consuming exactly 50% of the desktop. If you drag it up to the top of the screen it will maximize. Dragging it down will make it minimize. If those new behaviours seem superfluous, it’s probably because you’re still using a mouse. Windows 7 includes support for touch screens, and these new Window gestures are clearly targeted at the finger-pointing crowd.
There are lots of other small changes throughout. Suffice it to say, if you’re a Windows Vista user, Windows 7 isn’t going to feel like a radical change. Rather, it will seem to be a logical and useful refinement.
Software compatibility seems to be quite good. I installed Office 2007, Windows Live Sync, Live Mesh, Skype, Tweetdeck (plus Adobe Air), iTunes, Safari, and Firefox and experienced no problems. The major problems I encountered were:
- Google Chrome (my preferred browser these days) just flat out doesn’t work. Windows 7 warns of compatibility problems, and indeed there are. Chrome doesn’t display any web pages, at all. Period.
- Browsing to Google Analytics with the IE 8 beta included in Windows 7 caused IE 8 to crash. The black bar in the image below is IE 8’s attempt to render the performance graph. The same page was easily rendered in Firefox and Safari however.
IE 8 failure to render Google Analytics page.
- In general, IE 8 beta has intermittent compatibility problems with web sites under Windows 7. For example, it renders several of the pages in our own Calliflower conference call service incorrectly. Users of Windows 7 will want to use IE 8 as the primary browser in order to use the tabbed display of open sites in the task bar, but have a backup like Firefox or Safari (but unfortunately not Chrome).
Some of the built-in Windows applets and features also get updates. For example:
- Paint now sports a ribbon interface reminiscent of Office 2007. This is a welcome update. Paint hasn’t fundamentally changed since Windows 3.1.
- The printers window has now been rechristened as the “Device Deck” and shows all of the devices attached to the computer.
- Windows Media Center has an updated look and feel as well, with an apparently more internet-centric focus.
There are some new applets as well:
- A handy snip tool that lets you quickly capture images from the screen. This is way more convenient that shift-print-screen, paste into paint, followed by select / copy, which is the way most people do this.
- A handy ISO burner. If you download an ISO file (for example, the Windows 7 beta DVD!) you can now burn it directly to media without needing to buy a copy of Nero or some other DVD burning tool.
- A sticky note tool that lets you tack notes to yourself on the screen. Again, way handier than opening notepad, which is what I do now.
Power management improvements seem to be on the way with Windows 7 also. Although the Acer has the hardware to support sleep states, Windows Vista never supported it well. I would regularly find the PC hung over night and need to reboot it in the morning, unable to return it from the sleep state. I was pleasantly surprised this morning to find that Windows 7 has no such problems.
Security is also apparently a focus. The new “Action Center” consolidates UI for security and trouble shooting into one system tray icon. When clicked it produces a window enumerating all of the fixes and issues that it has found.
Note that Microsoft is working with Kaspersky, AVG, and Norton to provide anti-virus support for Windows 7 users.
So should you install Windows 7 beta? If you’re a savvy PC user, comfortable with searching for drivers that may not be in the current release, and don’t mind dealing with a few small bugs, by all means. It’s stable, compatible with the software that most people use on a day to day basis, and provides some nice enhancements to the Windows Vista experience. Do, however, install it in a separate partition if you can. Don’t start off by upgrading a Vista PC. And back-up before you do anything.
There’s a small history lession in all this. If you can remember back to the dark ages of the PC industry, in 1990 Microsoft shipped Windows 3.0. A technically ambitious product for its time, it was the first version of Windows to incorporate protected mode memory management. Needless to say, it wasn’t perfect. Not until Windows 3.1 – the “dot” release — shipped in the spring of 1992 were the complaints about 3.0 were finally put to bed. Windows 3.1 introduced some minor user interface changes, but fundamentally it was the release that fixed the Windows 3.0 problems.
Based on what I’ve seen in the last 24 hours, when Windows 7 eventually ships it should put to bed the complaints about Windows Vista once and for all. Windows 7 is the “dot” release to Windows Vista.