Windows 7 RTM: Is it really better than Vista?

Now that Windows 7 RTM is out, it looks like Vista's replacement is just around the corner. Here's a rundown of all the major features.

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Windows Search (improved)

Searching from both the Start menu and Windows Search has been improved. Search can now return results from libraries and external resources (SharePoint, Web sites, etc.). Windows 7 employs an enhanced search algorithm and now highlights related words, features dynamic filtering and offers input recommendations for search terms.

Windows Touch (new)

Users can now leverage touch-screen technology to select icons and control applications, as with a mobile device. Windows Touch supports multitouch, allowing users to zoom in and out as well as perform other tasks by using multiple fingers.

Tablet PC support (enhanced)

Handwriting recognition has been improved, and users can now input mathematical formulas and have them recognized. Personalized dictionaries and improved training are also part of the Tablet PC enhancements.

Microsoft has also included several other small improvements in the interface and some of the included applications. For example, the calculator now features support for touch, has a new interface and handles date calculations. Ribbon support has been added to WordPad and Paint, giving those applications more of an Office 2007 look and feel. Sticky Notes are now resizable and support virtual ink, as well as cut and paste.

An improved magnifier -- offering higher levels of magnification, a clearer image of the displayed items (text and graphics) and easier navigation -- and better speech recognition are highlights of the changes to Windows accessibility. Finally, some small but useful changes have been incorporated into Windows Explorer. For example, navigating the hierarchy to a parent folder is simpler -- even if the navigation box is reduced in size due to lack of space, the parent folder always remains in view.

Performance and stability

One of the biggest gripes against Windows Vista was performance. The OS came across as bloated and slow, with users waiting and waiting for systems to boot up or shut down. The performance shortcomings of Vista extended to program launches, as well as the responsiveness (or lack thereof) of the Start menu.

Windows 7 RTM
Searching from both the Start menu and Windows Search has been improved.

With Windows 7, Microsoft aims to make performance issues a forgotten annoyance. Make no mistake -- Windows 7 is still a complex bit of code and no one should expect earth-shattering performance out of the product. However, the improvements are readily noticeable when compared to Windows Vista.

ReadyBoost (enhanced)

Microsoft's ReadyBoost technology was introduced with Windows Vista as a method to cache applications and data into fast RAM, instead of relying on slow hard drives. With Windows 7, ReadyBoost can be used with multiple memory devices concurrently. In other words, with Vista, ReadyBoost could only use a single USB key drive to cache with -- Windows 7 lifts that limit and allows users to plug in multiple key drives or other high-speed memory devices to crank up the boost.

Battery performance (improved)

To extend battery life on laptops, Windows 7 offers more intelligence than Vista when it comes to powering peripherals and running applications. Windows 7 shuts down more processes and suspends more applications when the system is idle; the OS also features adaptive display brightness, automatically dimming the screen during periods of inactivity.

Windows 7 also powers down network ports if no cables are plugged in. A more efficient video decoder reduces the processing power needed when playing DVDs, further stretching battery life. New, more informative battery controls and tools give users the ability to fine-tune performance for extended battery life.

Troubleshooting, support and device controls (enhanced)

Windows 7 features enhancements that should make troubleshooting and recovering from problems much easier than in earlier versions of the OS.

Startup Repair is now automatically installed, eliminating the need to boot from the installation DVD to repair a non-booting system, as was the case in Vista. After an unsuccessful boot, Windows 7 will load Startup Repair and try to automatically repair the installation.

End users can now document their experience with an application failure -- the Problem Steps recorder saves each step as a screenshot, along with accompanying logs and software configuration data. Windows 7 also includes a unified tracing tool, which collects network-related event logs and captures packets across all network layers to help network administrators solve problems.

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