Review: Windows 7 -- a closer look

Now that Windows is in the can, what is the final verdict? Is it worth upgrading?

It's time to take a close look at all the features of Microsoft's Windows 7.

You might think that, because there are so many similarities between Windows 7 and Windows Vista, Windows 7 is essentially just a big Windows Vista service pack. But in reality, Windows 7 is a solid, well-performing operating system, free of many of the glitches that bedeviled the launch of Windows Vista. Speed improvements, interface enhancements and easier ways to manage your documents make this a new operating system in its own right, and one that's well worth the upgrade.

Installation and performance

In order to examine all the pros and cons of the new OS, I installed the Windows 7 release to manufacturing (RTM) edition on a Dell Inspiron E1505 notebook with 1GB of RAM and a 1.83 GHz Core Duo processor. (The RTM code is identical to the shipping version.)

I performed a fresh install, rather than an upgrade, which took approximately 45 minutes (including the usual restarts one has come to expect from Windows installations).

The install was largely uneventful, with two minor anomalies. After Windows 7 installed, it did not recognize my video card and used a generic VGA driver. This was problematic on my laptop, because the display cannot use the full 1280 by 800 resolution. However, Windows 7 soon resolved the problem itself: It automatically downloaded the proper driver via Windows Updates. After a reboot, all was well.

I've found similar problems with every prerelease version of Windows 7 I've tried, including RC1. RTM is a slight improvement over RC1 in this respect, because with RC1 I had to manually find and update the driver myself. In RTM, Windows 7 did it by itself. Still, clearly it would have been better if the initial Windows 7 installation used the proper driver. We'll have to wait and see when Windows 7 hits retail shelves whether this becomes a common issue.

More problematic was a blip that I also had with several prerelease versions of Windows 7. I was unable to get Windows Aero to work, even after the new driver downloaded. So I turned to the Control Panel Troubleshooting applet and clicked "Display Aero desktop effects," and Windows discovered the problem -- the Desktop Windows Manager was disabled. The troubleshooter enabled it, and the problem was permanently fixed.

On the earlier versions, the problem was back each time I rebooted, and I had to run the troubleshooter each time. Although RTM is an improvement, this is not how an operating system should run on installation.

On the plus side, performance, even on my aging Dell, was surprisingly zippy and certainly superior to that of Windows Vista on the same machine. Aero worked like a charm, windows and dialog boxes appeared quickly, and I experienced no slowdowns. The Control Panel and its applets opened nearly immediately, without the delays common in Windows Vista.

Checking out the new taskbar

At first glance, Windows 7 doesn't look much different from Windows Vista -- but spend a few minutes with it, and you'll find some significant changes.

The most noticeable is the new taskbar, which replaces both the old Quick Launch bar (for launching applications) and the old taskbar (for switching among running windows). The new taskbar combines the two features, doing double-duty as a task launcher and task switcher, similar to the Mac OS X Dock. In general, it succeeds admirably.

Windows 7 RTM

The new taskbar does double-duty as a program launcher and task switcher.

Click to view larger image

Large icons on the taskbar are used to launch applications, as well as to switch to different windows running in those applications. As with the old Quick Launch toolbar, you click an icon to launch the associated program. If you've already launched the program and have more than one window open in the taskbar, the application's icon changes to show multiple icons stacked against one another.

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