Thursday afternoon, I logged into my MSDN account, much like many of you did, and downloaded the beta release of Windows 7 that was announced this week during Steve Balmer's keynote address at the CES in Las Vegas. Like many of you, I've heard a lot of good things about Windows 7, from both fellow Softies and from the press (which is a refreshing change of pace) and I wanted to give it a try.
Several earlier adopters have already told me I should upgrade my main work machine to the new beta bits, that they've seen no issues. Now, it's not that I don't trust them, but I'm pretty skeptical when it comes to new versions of Windows, especially those generating as much buzz and Windows 7. So rather than run full steam ahead with a machine I depend on daily, I decided to really put the claims of Windows 7 being friendly to older, crappier hardware and pull my Toshiba M400 out of the storage room.
This is not what you would call a high-end machine. It has an Intel, dual core 2.0GHz processor with 2GB RAM. This was my primary work machine for about a year-and-a-half and spent a good amount of that time fighting with 32-bit Vista from a performance standpoint. I mean, to say it ran like a pig most of the time would be an understatement. I procured a new laptop about four months ago, a Lenovo T61p with an Intel, dual-core 2.5GHz and 4GB RAM running 64-bit Vista, that I really love, so the old m400 has been gathering dust and serving as a silicone-based crash test dummy.
Because of the hardware on the Toshiba, I decided to use the 32-bit version of Windows 7 Ultimate and burnt it off to a DVD.
Installing Windows 7 couldn't have been easier. There was an upgrade option available to me, but I decided to do a clean install (I had the M3 bits released at the PDC installed and wanted to make sure I blew any of the pre-beta stuff away). From beginning to end, the installation took about 20 minutes. Like the Vista installation experience, outside of choosing the system partition, there wasn't much for me to do but wait until the installer was done.
Windows 7 boots very fast. When I was running Vista on this machine, I would say that the load time averaged about 20-30 seconds. With Windows 7, I went from the BIOS screen to a blinking cursor on the login screen in about 15 seconds. So far, so good.
After logging in for the first time, my first thought was, "Wow, this looks a lot like Vista," which I happen to think is a good thing. Vista made a lot of significant improvements in the user experience with Windows, so I was glad to see they kept the "best in show" features. However, upon clicking around for about, say three seconds, I discovered there was a lot of significant changes. More on that in a bit.
The first thing I noticed when I started opening up applications was how responsive Windows 7 is. The pauses after selecting an application or double-clicking on a document that I've gotten used to in Vista over the past couple of years aren't there in Windows 7. For example, I opened Internet Explorer 8. The browser launched and rendered the MSN home page showing in less than three seconds. Later on, when I got around to installing other software, I noticed that this responsiveness was not unique to IE8.
I don't have any super sophisticated software to measure exact load times for applications in Windows, nor do I have the time to go look for some. So, I decided to run a smoke test and compare the application load times I was seeing in Windows 7 with those of Vista. After installing Visual Studio 2008 SP1 on the Windows 7 box and starting it for the first time (Visual Studio needs some customization information the first time it is launched), I rebooted both machines. Visual Studio tends to take a relatively long time to load on Vista and always has. As soon as both machines were fully booted, I went to the start menu on both machines and launched Visual Studio simultaneously.
Windows 7 beat Vista by almost six seconds. Nice!
After running several of these test on other applications, like Outlook, Excel and Sony Vegas Pro, I would posit that 32-bit Windows 7 is at least as fast as 64-bit Vista, and even faster sometimes.
The new task bar in Windows 7 is fantastic. It's pretty much par for the course for me to have several applications open at the same time, multitasker that I am. With applications like Internet Explorer that allows for multiple tabs, it's easy for me to lose track of the stuff I'm working on. To solve this problem, the new task bar in Windows 7 actually shows you thumbnails of your active applications.
In this example, I've got four different web sites up that I'm using. By simply moving my mouse over the IE icon in the task bar, Windows 7 shows me a thumbnail of each site. I can then move my mouse to the one I want and either go directly to it or even close it if I need to. Also, these four web sites are in multiple tabs in two separate browser sessions. With one click of the mouse, I can get to exactly what I want.
Another thing I like about the new UI is gadget management. I always thought that the sidebar in Vista was a very cool idea and I used my all the time, but having everything imprisoned in the sidebar was kind of a pain. In Windows 7, you can move those gadgets wherever you like on the desktop. Again, a small feature, but from the user experience perspective, it's giving me control of my environment, which is important when you spend as much time in front of a computer as I do.
Other new UI enhancements that I really like are:
- Jump Lists: Move your mouse over an application icon in the task bar and right-click with the mouse. This will show you a list recent documents you've accessed via that application. This is extremely handy with applications like Word, Excel, Adobe Photoshop, Visual Studio and Expression Blend.
- Windows Docking: Do you ever have to compare information in two different windows, like when you're comparison shopping online? Windows 7 will automatically dock these windows for you. All you do is click and drag one window off to one side of the screen and do the same for the other window on the opposite side of the screen. Viola! And the best part is that, when you undock the windows, they go back to their original size.
- Window Transparency: If you have an application shortcut or gadget on your desk top that you want to see, just drag your mouse to the lower right-hand corner of the screen and all the open windows become transparent, allowing you to look at your desktop. If you need to get to something on your desktop, just click the mouse in the same place and all your windows get minimized.
User Access Control and Security
Arguably one of the least liked features of Vista, the intrusiveness of User Access Control (UAC) in Windows 7 has been toned down considerably. Philosophically, I doubt anyone could argue with the intent of Vista implementation of OS level security. It isn't just marketing fluff that Vista is the most secure version of Windows ever released. That being said, I think of UAC like the TSA staff at the airport security line: They may be annoying and intrusive, but ultimately they're there for your protection.
My initial impression of UAC in Windows 7 is that the product team "right sized" it. For example, I didn't get a single UAC nag when I was installing software on Windows 7 from a local source. It just did what I asked it to do. The first application I tried to install from the web, though, needed a confirmation from me to continue. That seems to me very reasonable. If I'm installing software from a DVD I've had for years, Windows shouldn't worry too much about that -- I know it's safe. Double checking when I'm attempting to install something from a web site, that's something that we all need.
Overall, what I've seen is a significant decrease in unnecessary and duplicated UAC prompts, making the prompts that I do get more visible and impactful.
Software and Hardware Compatibility
As you'll recall, I mentioned that I wanted to fully vet Windows 7 before taking the move of replacing Vista on my work machine. If that machine is down, I'm in trouble. Besides evaluating the performance and stability of Windows 7, I wanted to make sure that all the software and hardware devices I use on a daily basis would continue to work.
Yesterday afternoon, I finished installing the last piece of software on the M400, essentially making it a mirror of my Lenovo. I've opened and, to varying degrees, used all the applications I'd installed and didn't experience one problem. Everything I have installed on my Vista machine not only work on Windows 7, but they all load considerably faster. In fact, since I'm planning to install Windows 7 on my home machines as well, I check and yes, World of Warcraft runs on Windows 7 as well.
Also this afternoon, I hooked up my Zune, the HP Laserjet printer in my home office, my Samsung i760 cell phone and my Nikon D70 digital camera to the M400, all of which installed right away and worked the first time. Windows 7 uses the same device driver model as Vista, ensuring that if your device works on Vista, it will work on Windows 7. It also appears that Windows 7 has at least the same number of device drivers that Vista SP1 has, so whatever you're using will likely install without issues.
And actually, that's another cool thing about Windows 7: The new Devices and Printers screen. Essentially, Windows 7 provides access and configuration options to all the attached devices on your system in one location.
So far, everything I've seen in Windows 7 has really impressed me. The one thing I wasn't really excited about was the base memory footprint of the OS. When I saw Steve Sinofsky's keynote at PDC in October, it was specifically mentioned that the notoriously large memory footprint of Vista would be reduced in Windows 7. The M400 is running fine with Windows 7 as it has 2GB of RAM, but this might cause problems for my daughters' laptops, as they only have 1GB of RAM a piece.
I'm running the standard installation package and haven't had a chance to dig in and see what is actually running in the background. That will be one of the next things I evaluate. My hope is, now that the feature set for Windows 7 is pretty well locked in, the product team will focus on reducing this footprint by RTM. In fact, not even knowing if it's possible, it would be great to see this down around the 200MB mark that Windows XP had. Hey, a guy can dream, can't he?
Overall, I'm really excited about what I'm seeing with Windows 7 these first twenty-four hours. I've found a few "interesting" items that I think are probably bugs that should be taken care of by RTM. In fact, the beta has a ubiquitous means of reporting these issues. Just about every Windows 7 window has a link in the upper right hand corner inviting you to Send Feedback.
The Windows 7 beta was made available for public download yesterday afternoon. I highly encourage you to go download it and evaluate it for yourself. You can download it from here. Also, please feel free to share any of your favorite or not-so-favorite features of Windows 7 in the comments section below. I'd love to hear from you!
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