Lucky seven?

Microsoft is tuning up the successor to the disappointing Windows Vista operating system for launch early next year. But will Windows 7 restore confidence in a company besieged by strong competition? E&T takes a look.

It was little over two years ago we reviewed Windows Vista. Its successor, Windows 7, was released to be tested by the general public in January 2009 with Microsoft seemingly ahead of target in making the new operating system available.

Windows Vista was released to manufacture (RTM) in January 2007 with a great deal of fanfare and anticipation, as there had been over a five-year wait since the release of Windows XP in October 2001. The reason for the long wait was because Bill Gates, Microsoft's then chief software architect, decided to divert a great deal of resources to bolstering the security of Windows XP with the introduction of Service Pack 2.

Microsoft had been caught off guard by the torrent of attacks by spammers, phishers, virus and worm writers who were quick to exploit any uncovered weakness in Windows XP. This inevitably delayed Vista.

The expectations of Vista were very high and, while in its 'Longhorn' development stage, Microsoft claimed that it would incorporate a revolutionary new file storage system. The system, WinFS, would be based on the same principles as a relational database - thus making searching for files and documents more intuitive and flexible.

However, WinFS was shelved. Additionally, Vista has been criticised for being resource heavy. While Microsoft claimed nearly all PCs on the market would run Windows Vista, the higher requirements of some of the premium features, such as the Aero interface, were not available on many machines.

According to the Times in May 2006, the full set of features would be available to less than 5 per cent of the UK's PC market. User frustration eventually led to a class action against Microsoft as people found themselves with new computers that were unable to use the new software to its full potential. The court case has made public internal Microsoft communications that indicate that senior executives have also had difficulty with this issue.

Therefore, with Windows 7, rather than concentrate on introducing a radically different user interface, the developers have focused on tidying up the features that were originally introduced with Windows Vista.

User interface

Gone is the Gadgets Sidebar, the area on the right-hand side of the desktop where all the desktop applets would appear. In Vista, this used a great deal of processing power - which often left even the most powerful machines unstable.

Instead, the desktop is far cleaner. The taskbar is slightly enlarged with all documents automatically grouped by application. You now have a full-screen preview of each document. The Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer reside here. Overall, it is a less cluttered and satisfying desktop.

Vista was criticised for introducing seemingly superfluous features such as the Aero interface. In Windows 7, Aero finally has a reason for being. When you drag the mouse to the lower right corner of the screen, all the open windows become transparent - enabling you to see what files are on your desktop. Dragging a window to the top of your computer screen maximizes it automatically. Dragging a window to the side of the screen resizes it for easy side-by-side comparisons to other windows.

Another vast improvement is the eradication of the constant stream of balloon alerts that would pop up from the task bar. The new Action Center consolidates alerts from subsystems, such as the Security Center and Windows Defender. All the user sees is a new alert in the notification area and you can go and find out more by clicking it or choose to ignore it for later investigation.

The folder management system has not been radically overhauled, but the tweaks that have been made are a significant improvement. The applications accessible from the start menu now have their own dedicated jump menu (see screen image on p32) where recent documents associated with the application can be opened. Even if you move a file from the desktop to another folder, for example, the jump menu will still be able to locate and open the document.

Energy and speed

The most impressive improvement is the speed of the system. We tested Windows 7 on a Samsung Q310 laptop running a 2.26GHz Intel Core Duo processor P8400 with four gigabytes of RAM. We benchmarked the speed with the installed Vista Home Premium edition running Microsoft Office Home and Student Edition 2007 with Acrobat Reader and Windows Messenger - what a typical user might run at home.

Windows 7 booted up and loaded in one minute and six seconds, compared to one minute 31 seconds in Vista - an almost 30 per cent improvement. However, there was no discernable difference in opening applications such as Word or Excel. But the speed of a graphics intensive application such as Google Earth demonstrated a 10 per cent improvement.

Windows 7 also includes new methods for squeezing more juice out of notebook batteries. The screen automatically dims when the computer detects it is idle for a short period of time, as well as dynamically lowering the internal timer speed. In Vista, the Q310 ran for four hours and 20 minutes on the 'balanced' power plan, whereas in Windows 7 it ran for four hours and 55 minutes.

Networking and device management

HomeGroup represents a new end-to-end approach to sharing in the home, an area in which Windows has provided many features before - the intuitive end-to-end is what's new. It recognises and groups your Windows 7 PCs in a simple-to-set-up secure group that enables open access to media files and documents in your home. With HomeGroup, the user can share files in the home, stream music to their Xbox 360 or other devices, and print to the home printer without the user worrying about technical setup or even understanding how it all works.

Printers and devices are now accessible from a single window where you can interact with your devices, browse files, or manage settings. When we connected external devices to our laptop, we were up and running in just a few clicks.

The revamped Device Stage architecture allows the user to see the status of all their devices and run common tasks from a single window. When the user first connects a portable device you'll see an image of that device on the taskbar. You'll easily be able to find and use all the features for each device you have connected, so you can synchronise contacts, capture photos, or create ringtones for your mobile phone.

Windows Photo Gallery, Windows Mail and Windows Movie Maker - which was introduced with Vista - have been removed in Windows 7. It is now part of the Windows Live suite of applications. Microsoft clearly sees these applications operating as part of Microsoft's cloud computing strategy.

If Windows 7 hits its deadline and is on store and Internet-ordered PCs in January 2010, customers will be spoiled for choice. They can either purchase an XP, Vista or Windows 7 machine. Alternatively they could opt for one of the flavours of Linux or a Mac running Snow Leopard.

Microsoft has learnt that, despite its dominance, it can never afford to rest on its laurels. Bill Gates is no longer at the helm of his company - and it is still possible that a new computer whiz kid could displace it.

Windows 7 minimum requirements
  • 1GHz processor (32- or 64-bit);
  • 1GB of main memory;
  • 16GB of available disk space;
  • support for DX9 graphics with 128MB of memory (for the Aero interface);
  • A DVD-R/W drive.

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