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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Device management (improved)

Windows 7 groups all external devices together under a single device state window, which makes it much easier for the user to work with and manage external devices. Device drivers are now automatically downloaded when not found locally, which eliminates the need for user intervention when installing a new device.

Mobile users will appreciate the new location-aware printing feature, which automatically determines which printers are available based upon which network a user is connected to.

Enhanced external display support makes it easier for users to switch between internal and external monitors on notebook systems, or to work with projectors or second displays. Other enhancements include the ability to group common tasks together for external devices, such as music synchronization for media players or contacts/calendar synchronization for smartphones or PDAs.

Of course, there is a lot more to the performance and stability story. System administrators will find a slew of features aimed directly at their needs, such as the ability to remotely access trouble logs and memory dumps, as well as improved remote-control abilities.

Microsoft has also put a lot of effort into speeding up boots and shutdowns by improving the core code of the operating system. Other speed enhancements come from faster application launches, along with a taskbar and Start menu that respond more quickly. Alone, each of the improvements has a small impact on the user experience, but when viewed together, Windows 7 takes on the appearance of a faster, more stable OS than Vista ever hoped to be.

Windows 7 also sports improved backup and restore capabilities that should remove some of the excuses for not backing up systems. System restore points are now included in backups, making it much easier to return a system to an earlier state when all else fails. Users can back up Windows 7 PCs to network shares, eliminating the need for local external drives or expensive backup hardware.

Other features worth mentioning include a new fault-tolerant heap, which is supposed to reduce the number of crashes significantly, and the new Process Reflection, which clones crashed processes to memory, where Windows 7 will try to recover each cloned process and diagnose why the original process failed.

Multimedia

Windows Vista's media capabilities did not succeed in overpowering third-party applications, which are still available to users who prefer them over Windows Media Player or Microsoft's Media Center. Microsoft has clearly put a great deal of effort into Windows 7's multimedia capabilities, hoping to make Windows 7 the centerpiece of a modern entertainment center.

Microsoft Windows 7 RC1
Windows Media Player's mini music player.

Windows Media Player 12 (enhanced)

Media Player supports more media formats than ever before, including AAC audio and H.264, DivX and Xvid video, with no third-party downloads required. The application now supports streaming of media to remote PCs or devices, allowing a Windows 7 system to function as a media server. Those using Windows Live services can also stream media to remote systems over the Web.

Media Player's interface has been redesigned and now offers a nifty pop-up mini music player that is less intrusive than its predecessor. Users will find it easier to do common tasks such as play, burn and sync, thanks to a new set of tabs on the right side of the player's screen.

One of the most interesting additions is the new "play-to" feature, which has the ability to send music, video and photos to any compatible device on the network. That can be done without running any proprietary software and without any additional setup. In other words, sending a song, video or photo to an Xbox or other compatible device just takes a mouse click and nothing more.

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