Review: Windows 7 RC1 adds speed, UI improvements -- and promises more to come

Microsoft has made an impressive OS even more so with a number of useful tweaks. But Windows XP Mode is still in the wings.

Windows 7 Release Candidate 1 (RC1), prematurely available on BitTorrent file-sharing sites and due to be more widely available on May 5, is a polished piece of work, ready for prime time. This hotly anticipated version arrives with a variety of nifty new changes to the interface and some important refinements under the hood.

Most of the changes in RC1 are not earth-shaking, but in general the operating system has been tweaked in numerous small ways to improve productivity and overall usefulness. In this review, I'll look only at changes made between the beta that was released last January and RC1.

Windows XP Mode

Perhaps the biggest surprise -- and for Microsoft Corp., possibly the biggest boost -- is a feature that has been announced but not yet available: Windows XP Mode, which will run XP applications in an XP compatibility box, but make them appear as if they are running directly in Windows 7 itself. In this way, Microsoft hopes to give users the best of both worlds -- the compatibility of XP and the shinier new Windows 7 interface.

The feature sounds underwhelming until you dig into the details. According to Microsoft, you won't actually have to manually run Virtual PC to run those XP applications once you've installed them; instead, they will appear to work directly within Windows 7. You'll just have to run Virtual PC the first time and run the application -- from that point on, it will appear to be just other application running directly in Windows 7 (at least, that's the promise). And you won't have to buy XP separately -- your Windows 7 EULA (end-user license agreement) includes XP as well. In essence, you get two operating systems for the price of one.

This solves one of Microsoft's biggest problems with XP very cleverly -- it's such a solid, stable operating system that people simply don't want to give it up to move to a newer operating system. Now they don't have to -- they can run XP as if it were a part of Windows 7.

Microsoft says Windows XP Mode will soon be ready for download, and as soon as it is, I'll follow up with a report on how well it works.

Speeding things up

I installed RC1 on a Dell Inspiron E1505 notebook with 1GB of RAM and a 1.83-GHz dual-core processor. Even at that configuration, the operating system was surprisingly fast, seemingly even faster than the beta, which represented a significant performance improvement over Windows Vista. However, I did run into one installation issue: Windows 7 didn't properly recognize my video card and used a default, generic video driver, which would not allow Aero to run and could not use the notebook's highest resolutions. When I asked Windows to rescan my hardware, it was still unable to properly recognize the card. I had to manually download and install the Windows Vista video driver. After that, the laptop worked like a charm.

On the other hand, when I previously tested the beta build, I had problems getting Aero to work, even though Windows recognized the video card, and I had problems with wireless networking as well. Those problems were solved in RC1.

Overall interface improvements

RC1 includes a host of subtle user-interface changes that, taken together, represent an improvement over the beta.

For example, Windows 7's task bar is the most visible improvement over Windows Vista. In the beta, the task bar was already impressive; in RC1, it has been tweaked to become even more useful.

Microsoft Windows 7 RC1

You can view the contents of any window by highlighting it in the task-bar file list.


If you frequently open many files in a single application, you'll welcome the new feature Microsoft calls "task bar thumbnail overflow." As with the beta, when you have many files open in an application and hover your mouse over its icon on the task bar, you'll see a list of files open, rather than their individual thumbnails, because that many thumbnails simply can't fit on your screen.

In RC1, this list view has been juiced up, and it works more like the thumbnail view. Highlight any file on the list, and you'll "peek" at the highlighted window, just as you can do in thumbnail view. In addition, you can close any window by clicking a small "X" in the same way as you can in thumbnail view.

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