Microsoft Windows 7 Release Candidate Review

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  • Pros

     

    • Extremely stable
    • Best Windows taskbar ever
    • Runs almost all Vista apps

     

  • Cons

     

    • No must-have features
    • No huge performance gains
    • No better than Vista SP1

     


by Dustin Sklavos

Ever since Microsoft popped the lid off Windows 7 there’s been a lot of buzz around the OS. And unlike the release of Windows Vista, the Windows 7 buzz has been good buzz. I, like many software-obsessed geeks, have been following any and every piece of news dropped about Windows 7 with vigor, and have played with a couple of early releases. Now, with the Release Candidate in hand and most (if not all) of the features nailed down, I can offer a dfinitive answer as to whether 7 is the best Windows ever, or just Vista 2.0.

I’ve spent at least a week running it full time on my main desktop, the specs of which are as follows for those playing along at home:

CPU: Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 (overclocked to 3GHz)
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-X38-DS4 (X38 chipset)
Memory: 8GB DDR2-800 Corsair XMS2
Video: ATI Radeon HD 4870 512MB
Audio: Asus Xonar DX
Storage: 4x Western Digital Caviar Blue 640GB; two in RAID 0, two in RAID 1

My system is a little high on the power curve due to the high-definition video work I do on it, which the Radeon HD 4870 is sorely needed for, I swear. I keep the OS and important files and apps on the RAID 1 for those who were curious and tech-minded.

WINDOWS 7 VERSUS VISTA

The $199 question is likely going to be: Is Windows 7 really better than Vista? Or even Windows XP for that matter? I know there are a lot of XP stalwarts out there; I myself was one for a while before Vista was finally fixed (and it was fixed). The answer is a reosunding yes — depending on what you mean by “Vista.”

Historically I’ve been (in print at least) pretty avidly against Windows Vista, but for the past couple years I’ve actually been running Vista 64-bit on my desktop, so I have to eat some crow. Before we get into how Windows 7 improves on Vista, there are things we should address about Vista.

Vista’s launch was abysmal. It was rushed out the door, not nearly enough vendors had drivers ready, and some even took their precious time producing quality, stable Vista drivers (Nvidia, I’m looking at you). So when you have an operating system that’s unstable and not running software it ought to be running, your first inclination is going to be to blame the operating system. Microsoft did mismanage the driver situation early on, but they’re not the only ones we should throw under the bus.

Unfortunately, by the time Service Pack 1 was released and the driver situation was largely rectified, the damage was done. Public opinion was (and still largely is) against Vista, even though I can report I’ve been quite happy with it. Vista has one major coup: it legitimized a 64-bit operating system and — make no mistake — this is the future. Vista 64-bit is outstanding in every respect.

The problem now is that the Vista name is cancerous. One could interpret the race to release Windows 7 as damage control, and they wouldn’t be entirely mistaken. If Microsoft just released the exact same OS with virtually no changes and called it Windows 7, I suspect consumers would be much happier with it.

Fortunately, this isn’t the case. Microsoft went back and changed their design philosophy with 7 to substantially refine the user experience. There are certainly changes under the hood, but the focus seems to be on the “feel” of the operating system.

NEW FEATURES OF MERIT

The big one to me is honestly the refinement of Vista’s eye candy. The Aero Glass user interface was a cute idea that needed some more time in the oven; Windows 7 put it back in the oven, waited for the DING!, and popped it out smelling fresh and delicious.

Windows 7 Aero Glass peek feature

Windows 7’s Aero Glass feels snappier and has extra features, like being able to “peek” at the desktop by hovering over a glass rectangle at the far right of the system tray. There’s really a whole lot of peeking in general that makes it work, actually; mousing over the pop-up thumbnails from the taskbar will make every other app transparent, allowing you to see the individual application you’re hovering over. Whether or not this is actually useful doesn’t even strike me as being particularly relevant — it looks cool and makes the computing experience more flashy and enjoyable without being silly.

Windows 7 quicklaunch taskbar

Speaking of the taskbar, this is of course the major change that’s drawn sharp criticism from some circles. It essentially feels like what would happen if Apple’s dock made sweet, sweet love with the old Windows Vista taskbar, and it’s really the best of both worlds in my opinion. It only took a little getting used to for me, but for some it may require more time and effort.

The way it works is basically like a hyper-useful quicklaunch bar. Applications can be pinned to it as shortcuts, and when you click one, it gets a glass pane image around it signifying that it’s running. When you mouse over the running applications, thumbnails of the window(s) for that application pop up with text descriptions. You can then highlight them and “peek” at the individual windows, and even close windows from the taskbar. It’s swanky.

Windows 7 jumplists

Right-clicking applications on the taskbar produces what Microsoft calls “Jump Lists;” this functionality is pretty limited right now, but for certain applications (Notepad, for example) the Jump List reveals a list of recently opened documents for that application. In fact, when I right-click Adobe Premiere Pro on the taskbar, it gives me a list of the projects I’ve been working on recently, allowing me to load them directly.

The refined taskbar is the biggest and most obvious change in Windows 7, and it’s a major improvement in my opinion. Other changes are more refinements than anything; the traditional Explorer windows have been cleaned up and streamlined to improve usefulness, WordPad and Paint now sport the “Ribbon” menu style introduced in Office 2007, and applications like Windows Mail and Windows Movie Maker have been removed from the operating system entirely in favor of being able to download Windows Live versions from Microsoft.

PERFORMANCE

Talking about the performance of Windows 7 is going to sound a lot like spin, but bear with me. I have no stake in the success or failure of Windows 7.

First, Microsoft’s major achievement: 7 is the first operating system they’ve ever released that performs equally or better than its predecessor on the same hardware. Performance improvements here and there aren’t terribly major and most applications will run about the same.

The crucial difference comes in how 7 feels. A standardized benchmark may have a hard time bearing this out, and benchmarks released on the internet show little difference in overall performance between Vista and 7. For the most part, this is true. If you’re looking at absolute figures, you’re not really gaining a whole lot, if anything, by switching to 7.

That said, 7 feels snappier in general, and this has been a pretty universal sentiment. Microsoft claims to have made improvements in the memory management of Windows 7 compared to Vista, and I believe it.

The best way I can describe the difference is is (surprise) with a gaming analogy. Let’s say you’re playing a computer game and it runs at an average frames-per-second of about 60, and the minimum is about 20. When the game dips to 20 FPS, you’re going to feel that stutter. In many ways, that average isn’t even that relevant — between 30 and 60 isn’t a huge deal. That average is your absolute performance. But what you’d really like is that minimum frame rate to increase; even an extra five frames is going to make a big, perceptible difference. Windows 7 feels like it gives you those extra five frames per second — or the equivalent performance boosts — with almost every application.

In general application performance I’ve found 7 to be on par with Vista, but in gaming I’ve found that while 7 isn’t on the whole faster than Vista, it’s oftentimes at least a little smoother. That said, remember that I’m running on an ATI Radeon HD 4870; the last set of benchmarks I read had Nvidia hardware running for the most part on par with Vista in Windows 7 except for the odd game that took a swan dive, while ATI’s Radeons were performing generally on par with Vista. The odds of this being a continuing issue are very slight, and Nvidia may already have this kink worked out.

STABILITY

In my experience, even since playing with early builds of Windows 7, the operating system has been phenomenally stable. Much more stable than Vista was for its first year in retail actually. I don’t mind saying the Windows 7 Release Candidate is probably ready for primetime, and the vote of confidence should be that I’m running it on my most important machine without dual booting to Vista.

Windows 7 is rock steady. I’ve had virtually no issues with it; driver issues have been minimal to non-existent, and applications run just fine.

In fact, now would be a good time for an anecdote.

While I love ATI, quality control seems to be sorely lacking. The first 4870 I bought had a problem with one of the power leads, and the first 4870 my friend Jon bought was just plain unstable. So unstable, in fact, that when he asked to test it in my desktop to make sure it wasn’t just a problem with his computer, it actually single-handedly screwed up my system.

First, Windows just plain wouldn’t boot. Then, the computer wouldn’t even post. So I popped his bunk 4870 out and popped my working one back in. Windows 7 had a fit trying to boot, but then something unexpected happened: on the third failed boot attempt, Windows 7 asked if I wanted to run a routine to repair it. I shrugged, said “sure,” and in five minutes I was back at my fully operable desktop.

To be sure, this repair routine is the same one you’ll find if you boot to your Windows Vista CD and run it from there. But 7 has integrated it, and it’s a life-saver.

So there you have it. Windows 7 is generally stable, and when it’s not, Windows 7 will make itself stable.

COMPATIBILITY

Hand in hand with stability is software compatibility, but I’m pleased to report this situation is essentially unchanged from Windows Vista. This isn’t a huge surprise; Windows 7 is fundamentally Vista with an extra coat of paint.

That said, just about every game and application that I’ve tested in 7 has run without a hitch. I’ve seen a couple of odd rendering errors in Mozilla Firefox, and that’s really been the extent of it. I had some problems with Far Cry 2, but I narrowed those down to a setting in my sound driver and not Windows 7 itself. Beyond that, Far Cry 2 is frankly pretty unstable on its own no matter what you run it on.

Going beyond applications, the driver situation is a simple one. While a Windows 7 native driver is ideal, Windows Vista drivers actually run just fine in a pinch, reflecting the core of the operating system being essentially the same.

Bottom line: If it runs in Vista, it runs in 7.

 

 

CONCLUSION

My experience with Windows 7 has been a very pleasant one, and a large part of that is because of something simple: It works. That seems like an obvious thing, like giving a Boy Scout a badge because he happens to be a boy who scouts, but a largely trouble-free operating system is nothing to scoff at. Windows 7 isn’t going to have the teething problems Vista did, and it brings more to the table. It’s what Vista probably should’ve been.

I can’t in good conscience recommend Joe Average User to make the upgrade to the existing Release Candidate, but I will say that when 7 is released, it’s going to be the one you want. As for me, I’ll be more than happy to keep running the Release Candidate until the retail version arrives.

It really is just that good.

PROS

  • Extremely stable
  • Best Windows taskbar ever
  • Runs almost all Vista apps

CONS

  • No must-have features
  • No huge performance gains
  • No better than Vista SP1



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