Oh, Windows. You inform and entertain us. You are inescapable, and your Start menu is full of items relevant to our productivity. You move us. Sort of. To be honest, we're not sure what sort of state this fair planet of ours would be in without the ruggedly functional operating systems the folks at Redmond have handed to us over the years, and while Windows Vista might have proved that Microsoft wasn't invincible, it did nothing to demonstrate that Windows as an idea -- and for most, a necessity -- was at all in jeopardy.
Windows 7 arrives on the scene three short years after Vista, shoring up its predecessor's inadequacies and perhaps offering a little bit more to chew on. We've been playing with the OS ever since the beta, along through the release candidate, and now at last have the final, "release to manufacturing" (RTM) edition in our grubby paws. Does it live up to its understandable hype and the implicit expectations of a major Microsoft release? Let's proceed on a magical journey to discover the truth for ourselves.
Install / boot times / shutdown
It's the most base of operating system functions. Install, turn on, turn off. But first impressions matter, and Microsoft made sure to give Windows 7 a nice sheen when it came to these things. You can read through our full installation guide for an in-depth look at the pitfalls and triumphs of Windows 7 in this department, but in short: it's fast and lightweight, but the real performance gains can be found on netbooks and with clean installs. Otherwise there's really nothing to put Vista to shame -- though the amazing breath of fresh air a clean install provides should really set cruftware-happy vendors to a bit of soul searching.
Since Windows 7 is a sort of streamlined Vista underneath -- same hardware requirements, same hardware compatibility model, a bit less cruft -- you'll have to look to the basic UI for Microsoft's most visible additions to the OS. Makes sense, we suppose. Here are some of the highlights:
Everybody who's used a modern operating system for more than five minutes has been met with the hassle of juggling too many windows, and Aero Peek seeks to alleviate some of that. Available with any machine capable of "fancy mode" translucent window graphics, Aero Peek lets you hover over a "show desktop" field in the right of the task bar and show the outlines of every window currently open -- which usually amounts to chaos.
More helpful, however, is the ability to hover over the fly-out thumbnails that pop up from the taskbar app groupings, and isolate that specific window while all other windows are sent to outline mode. It serves as both geography lesson and a rapid navigation method, without feeling as clunky or "all-or-nothing" as previous attempts at windows management in Windows. Check out the video demo below to see how this plays out in practice:
What we first thought was merely a gimmick has become one of our favorite features: merely grab the titlebar of a window and give it a vigorous shake to minimize all other windows. Great when you're changing tasks and want to rid yourself of the clutter of your previous activities, and we hardly know how we've made it so far in life without it.
Mac OS X might have Spotlight, but Windows now has great instant search as well, and the Windows key has a new lease on life. Merely pop open the Start Menu and start typing and search results start populating. It's not nearly as comprehensive as Spotlight, but it also doesn't seem to be faced with the same slowdowns of its Mac OS X counterpart, and typically tracks down what we're looking for (apps, usually). The Start Menu has also been enhanced with a refined layout and supplemental menus for frequently used items -- offering access to recent items used by that application, along with the new "tasks" list that Microsoft has snuck into the OS, but which are currently only used by a few Microsoft-built apps.
Perhaps our favorite day-to-day improvement of them all, Aero Snap offers a surprisingly smart way of working with windows, using the mere power of a click and drag. Windows can be maximized by being pulled to the top of the screen, or set to fill one half of the screen by being dragging to the far left or right edge of the screen. An Aero Peek-style outline lets you preview what you're doing, and it's easy enough to bounce away from the "sticky" edges, or pull an already maximized window away from its moorings. Windows Key + Left Arrow or Right Arrow accomplishes the same thing for filling one half of the screen with the current window, and is perfect for lining up document comparisons.
This one gets all the press, but it's really more a product of Aero Peek than anything clever in and of itself. Basically it takes some ideas from the Mac OS X dock like larger icons and app launcher duties (icons can be "pinned" to remain in place whether the application is open or not, a melding of Windows' old Quick Launch Bar into the taskbar proper), and adds in traditional Windows taskbar activity like the listing of open windows. The default functionality is fine, which keeps everything "stacked" in its respective icon, but the real money is in the "combine when taskbar is full" view, which can be accessed from the taskbar properties. This brings the benefits of verbose item names -- always a big win for Windows over Mac OS's icons-only approach -- without sacrificing the fancy Aero Peek features or the pretty icons. What's not so elegant is how hidden icons in the far-right system tray are now housed in an ugly little pop-up menu.
Even worse is the fact that dragging a file to an app icon in the taskbar doesn't allow you to open that file with the app, but instead asks if you want to "pin" the file to that app. Newsflash: we'd rather not. With a bit of work you can re-add the old fashioned Quick Launch set of mini-icons for drag and dropability, but that's pretty silly. We're glad there's enough customization available to make this livable, but we'd say Microsoft could have done a better job of thinking through its defaults.
Quick display switching
Windows + P = magic! Really, it's the little things that count, and Microsoft has made managing multiple displays and switching between commonly used configurations a total snap.
Microsoft got a lot right with its new UI tweaks, but it certainly could've taken things a few logical steps further. For instance, it's odd that there's no built-in support of multifinger trackpad gestures -- why is this something that third party vendors have to figure out all by themselves? We understand that the hardware isn't universal, but we'd like to see Microsoft driving the adoption of such functionality by building clear, reliable support for it into the OS. Two finger scroll in particular: it's the best thing to happen to trackpads since tap-to-click, and we think everybody should've figured that out by now.
On the multitouch front, Windows 7's support for multitouch display interaction is laudable but hardly sufficient. Microsoft itself has poured plenty of R&D into finger-friendly interfaces, and we would hope that they'd be building some of that innovation into the OS by now -- the release of the Surface-inspired Microsoft Touch Pack is a nice start, but doesn't go far enough. We shudder to imagine the haphazard implementations of smartphone-style multitouch innovations we're undoubtedly going to be seeing from OEMs in the coming years.
Overall, Microsoft has failed to establish a cohesive styling and operation model to its own applications, which range from the relatively new "ribbon" toolbars of Office, (and now WordPad, above, and Paint), to the website-like Control Panel navigation, to the ancient Device Manager trees, to the tabbed properties panes, and so on. In an attempt to simplify many of its interfaces, frequently used actions have been slowly popping up as buttons where menu bars used to be, while the deep functionality of "true" menus has been hidden elsewhere in the interface. All of this wouldn't be so horrible if Microsoft was the only builder of applications for Windows, but given thousands and thousands of developers out there making widely disparate application interfaces for Windows, we'd really appreciate it if Microsoft took a bit more leadership and more clearly defined a UI design language that was consistent and useful for users.
Notable app changes
Windows Media Center
We've gone way in-depth on this over at Engadget HD, but suffice it to say that Windows Media Center in Windows 7 is vastly superior to Windows Vista's version, and most all of the bugs from the Windows 7 beta seem to be ironed out quite nicely. The interface is a real treat, the extender functionality to the Xbox 360 and 3rd party boxes is much improved and quite snappier, and a truly marvelous amount of hardware is supported.
Windows Media Player
It's pretty much Windows Media Player, you know? The good news is that Microsoft has greatly expanded the codec support, to something bordering on comprehensive:
Pulled from Microsoft's Engineering Windows 7 blog
What's even more fun is the new "Play to" function, which can beam a locally-controlled audio playlist to computers that are part of your HomeGroup, DLNA devices like the PS3, or Media Center Extenders like the Xbox 360. Remotely shared libraries are also automatically detected off of DLNA or Home Server devices, and everything pretty much "just works."
If you're really feeling crazy you can tie your media library to your Windows Live ID and access your home media from anywhere over the internet.
It's hard to quantify most of the changes to the basic file browser activities in this release, other than to say "it just works" quite a bit more frequently than it did in Vista. It's smarter about spotting file types, there are solid in-pane previews of music, pictures and video (if you know to turn on the preview pane), and the particular folder we're targeting with a drag and drop is lined up in the simplified left hand sections of "Favorites" and "Libraries" more often than not. Unfortunately, it's not all roses: some media files we knew the OS was perfectly capable of playing through its Windows Media Player-powered preview pane had somehow been "claimed" by Zune and disabled for playback from within Windows Explorer. Looks like somebody missed a meeting.
We'll be honest: we avoid IE like the plague, and recommend you do as well. Microsoft continues to make improvements to the browser, and the nagging, over-protective "training wheels" approach to security is probably appropriate for those naive enough to use this thing, but the fact is that there are too many faster, better and "free-er" browsers out there to really waste much time in Microsoft's default. Anecdotally, the browser hard crashed a couple minutes into us writing this paragraph.
Notable app omissions
It was never the highlight of the OS, but Microsoft has for some reason decided to ship Windows 7 completely without a mail application, unless you count the browser. You're encouraged to download Windows Live Mail with the Windows Live Essentials app pack, but while it does an alright job, it's hardly a first string effort, and we're not sure why Microsoft has decided that emailing people isn't really a core functionality of a modern operating system, much less something that Microsoft should have an industry-leading app for inside the box.
Windows Movie Maker
Another item relegated to the Windows Live app pack, and this time slapped with a "Beta" moniker for extra shame. We actually have a bit of a soft spot for Microsoft's no-frills approach to movie editing for the everyman, and if YouTube is any indication, Movie Maker certainly gets the job done for a lot of people. Still, this is probably something that should be spruced up and packed in with the OS, and we're even more sure that it should support the now-defacto AVCHD format by now.
Windows Live Photo Gallery
You guessed it, another one kicked to Windows Live Essentials land, where supposedly "essential" apps go to die. Unfortunately, this particular app seems an even more logical omission, given its too-strong ties to a Windows Live account (something we've owned for years without managing to upload a single photo to, strangely enough).
Other sundry necessities
We could probably understand this app scarcity a decade ago -- Microsoft's job is only really half done when you buy the OS, they also need to keep that Office team afloat -- but given its modern day competition (Apple and Google, to be specific), it's hard to understand why Microsoft is shipping this OS without a calendar app, PDF viewer, lightweight office replacements or an IM / video conferencing solution. Microsoft blames anti-trust laws, stating that it's hard for it to work in all the "services" it wants into its apps if it bundles with the OS, but we'd say most of its applications could do with a bit more "open" when it comes to services (Flickr, YouTube, anything that isn't Windows Live, etc.) anyways. In any case, most computer vendors will be striking a deal with Microsoft or Google or whomever to supply some of these necessities with their shipping computers, but we can't help but think that Microsoft is leaving some vital elements of the operating system incomplete and wide open to inconsistent experiences by neglecting all of these app types in this way.
Security / networking
Microsoft had already done a lot of work since the initial release of Vista on not bugging us incessantly with pop-up security nags, but Windows 7 strikes an even better balance. What is disconcerting is how often security warnings include an "unknown" as the publisher -- it's not really teaching anybody to be judicious about what pops up in the warning if the warning itself doesn't even know what's going on.
In the end we'll find out just how secure Windows 7 is once it's in the wild and hackers start hammering on it, but with the abundance and ease of Windows updates these days, most anybody with an ounce of common sense and a speedy internet connection should be able to steer clear of danger. Meaning: we're all doomed.
On the networking front, HomeGroups are a new Windows 7-specific method of simplifying networking between computers on a local network, and we're really in love. After decades of being stymied by complicated Windows networking setups, we've finally been able to reliably and rapidly connect multiple computers and share files / media / printers / whatever without resorting to a sneakernet or inviting our smarter friends over with their fancy Computer Science degrees to figure it out for us.
Check out our upgrade guide for more info on our specific compatibility issues, but the long and the short of it is that anything we found to work in Vista seemed to work just fine (in some cases better!) in Windows 7. That goes for hardware and software, but of course the real test will be when this OS is unleashed upon the masses -- your mom's brother's 25 year old printer might not make the cut, and we'll be sure to pour out a 40 upon its behalf.
In truth, Microsoft does a very good job with keeping a truly insane quantity of hardware and drivers and vendors happy, but we still think they could do better. New and improved utilities to detect and install hardware are present in Windows 7, but they still don't feel entirely smart enough -- we had to track down plenty of drivers manually, and even dipped a toe now and then into the (shudder) Device Manager, which has hardly received an improvement since World War II. There has to be a better way to make sure people don't have to be smart, patient and lucky to get all their hardware working with their OS.
Of course, it's not a small problem to surmount. The brand new Device Stage seems to best illustrate the scope of this issue. Microsoft has presented a sort of candy-coated exterior to the Device Manager in the Devices and Printers view, which displays devices it recognizes as large, lickable icons, and lets you drill into further functions with a right click, or a double click if you're feeling lucky. Unfortunately, there's only a very small set of devices the OS seems truly at ease with. Sure, it picks up on most anything we plug in over USB, seeking out drivers over the internet and installing them quite painlessly, but actual functionality usually leaves a lot to be desired -- a double click usually gives us only the driest of driver-management options. Of our oodles of devices, most are represented by a generic NAS icon, many are represented with bizarre names (or eight names, in the case of our E71) and only two devices we tried offered a true Device Stage view, which was merely populated with battery and storage status.
It's simultaneously a testament to the insane diversity of devices Microsoft has to deal with, along with the implicit reliance on vendors to provide drivers in a logical and consistent manner. We don't imagine the Device Stage will be populated with truly useful infos on our favorite devices for many months (or years) to come.
Overall speed / stability
Speed is really one of Windows 7's major selling points. Particularly for the netbook set, Windows 7 can turn a machine that's nearly unusable under Windows Vista (especially if it's been saddled with the manufacturer's own set of crapware) into a quite potent workhorse. That's partly to do with the slimmed down kernel of the OS, which has lower memory requirements than Vista, but it's also due to Microsoft's rework of GUI scheduling, which means less bottlenecks and less unresponsive moments.
Still, it's not perfect. On the well-appointed machine we performed an in-place upgrade from Vista on (trust us, a clean install is worth the hassle, learn from our mistakes) we found Gadgets taking a while to load on boot, occasional system-wide slowdowns when we were doing a tad "too much" with media, and Internet Explorer felt pretty sad compared to the competition.
While streaming Windows Media Center to our Xbox 360 we had trouble maintaining an internet connection, or perhaps a network connection -- it was unclear which was dropping. After we disconnected and reconnected the network would work again, but would break soon after. We eventually gave up and restarted, after which things seemed to work just fine.
Our worst experiences, however, were with a clean install to a quite modern netbook. The OS became increasingly unstable over time -- Windows Explorer itself seemed to be the main culprit -- and the machine eventually failed to boot entirely. Luckily, the Startup Repair utility managed to jump to the rescue and found a System Restore point that booted fine, though we lost the few customizations we'd made up to that point and were face with basically a fresh install again. It was nice of Windows 7 to recover itself so well, but we would obviously have preferred to not run into that issue in the first place.
As for pricing and SKU confusion? Well, you'll have to decide that one for yourself:
Madness? Yes. But there are still some decent options for most people, and if you've gotten a jump on things you might have already scored yourself that $50 upgrade -- don't you feel smug? In the long run, most people will end up getting Windows 7 with a new machine, so perhaps it doesn't matter so much, but we still wouldn't mind if Microsoft did a bit more work trimming down these full version pricetags. Doesn't Microsoft want those too-cool-for-school Apple hipsters dabbling in the dark side via Bootcamp?
Where Vista felt like a sprawling mess, Windows 7 has patched up the holes and feels like a tight, unified mechanism. It's hardly full of surprises, but that's usually a good thing when it comes to operating systems. If you've never been a Windows person, there's hardly anything here that will change your mind about that. However, most human beings on this planet have some sort of interaction with Windows on a regular basis, whether by choice or necessity, and Windows 7 is great news for those millions of souls.
Instead of switching up the formula, Windows 7 is really an extension and a refinement of the true tenets of Windows (that we just made up): broad hardware compatibility, coatings of usability over deep functionality, and a "everything for everybody" approach to feature sets and SKUs. With such broad aims, and such a diverse userbase, it's no wonder that there are plenty of spots where the OS still falls short, but taken as a whole it's clear that Microsoft has taken a strong step forward with Windows 7. The world will know on October 22.
How-To: Install Windows 7 and live to tell about it
Windows 7 Release Candidate 1 impressions, insights, and expectations
Windows 7 multitouch: it's a gimmick (for now)
Windows 7 Beta in-depth impressions