Windows 7 arrives: The time is finally ripe

Few periods in Microsoft's existence have been as bruising as the past two-and-a-half years. Ever since the company shipped Windows Vista, it's been one public relations catastrophe after another. First, there were the instabilities -- wave after wave of bad press about buggy drivers and spotty backward compatibility. Then came the revolt, with users demanding that Microsoft extend the life of Windows XP indefinitely in a tacit rejection of the company's Vista road map.

It looked like the end was nigh for Microsoft's desktop hegemony. Vista would be the albatross that finally brought the company down, ushering in a new era of platform-independent applications running on Linux or Mac OS X. Apple, in particular, made hay with Vista's troubles, lampooning the unpopular OS in a series of well-crafted TV spots. These truly were heady times for those banking on Microsoft's demise.

[ Editor's note: This article is a slightly updated version of "Windows 7 RTM: The revenge of Windows Vista." Benchmark results of the previous article were based on Windows 7 Build 7200. We have updated the article with the results for Build 7600. ]

Of course, the Redmond giant had other plans. As Vista was floundering in the marketplace, the Windows development team, under new leader Steven Sinofsky, was feverishly at work on Vista's successor. And true to his pragmatist reputation, Sinofsky focused the team on fixing Vista's ills -- as opposed to adding lots of new features -- and delivering a successor that would eliminate the usability quirks and the code bloat that had given Vista such a bad reputation.

Did Microsoft succeed? Feedback from users who have tried the new OS have been uniformly positive, with most testers reporting a better overall computing experience than with Vista. Windows 7 has already become an overnight hit, with each new review of a leaked pre-release build adding to a growing sense of anticipation for the product's impending Release to Manufacturing (RTM). And now that the product has finally left beta -- Microsoft is signing off on the final RTM bits as I write this -- it's time to take stock of this new, improved iteration of the much-maligned Vista architecture.

Does Windows 7 really right the wrongs committed against the IT community by Windows Vista? And more to the point, is the product's combination of new features and long-overdue fixes enough to sway IT shops to finally abandon Windows XP? In this article, I take a look at Windows 7 from several angles, including critical issues like security, reliability, and performance. Along the way, I compare Windows 7's functionality to its immediate predecessor, Windows Vista, as well as to the real target of Microsoft's newest OS: the venerable Windows XP, the most successful OS in history.

Usability: Light-years aheadOne area that generated a great deal of controversy with Windows Vista was its revamped user interface. From the integrated search functions to the reconfigured dialog boxes to the glowing Start Orb, users decried how alien the Vista UI felt compared to tried-and-true Windows XP. Worse still, there was no easy way to revert to the old interface. Yes, you could enable a "classic" Start Menu. However, the rest of the UI -- including the rearranged Control Panel -- was here to stay.

[ If you're unable to view the charts and tables in this article, please click here. ]

Of course, some of Vista's UI changes were eventually seen as advancements. The integrated search field in each Explorer window proved to be a real boon for finding files and settings within the OS. The modular "breadcrumbs" feature of the Explorer path field likewise proved superior to the archaic "up folder" button, the loss of which so many protested. And over time, the convenience of those early Aero "glass" elements, including the live thumbnail previews, eventually grew on people.

Still, Microsoft took the early criticisms of Vista's UI to heart and endeavored to address these faults with Windows 7, with mixed results. In terms of the complaints about rearranging components, Windows 7 actually does its own share of reshuffling, with some Control Panel items regrouped and others combined or eliminated altogether. Working with hardware devices and printers is now a completely new process, while the search function has traded the clunky "build a query" toolbar with a sophisticated keyword syntax that is more powerful but also takes some getting used to.

But if this latest reshuffling represents two steps backward for the Vista UI, the new Taskbar is shaping up as one giant leap forward for Windows usability. Simply put, the version 7 Taskbar reinvents the Windows UI, with an embrace of the object-oriented ideas and concepts that inspired so many of today's modern graphical environments.

The ability to pin your entire workspace to the Taskbar -- including applications, documents, and utilities -- and interact with them in a consistent, predictable manner makes the Windows 7 UI a revelation for many users. Add to this the beefed-up saved-search mechanism (that is, the new Libraries folder) and the myriad Aero gestures (Aero Peek, Shake, Snap), and you have what is perhaps the most compelling OS upgrade incentive in recent memory.

Bottom line: The Windows 7 UI is light-years ahead of both Windows Vista and XP in terms of overall usability and general operator productivity. Many users will likely upgrade based solely on this feature -- it's that compelling.

Performance: Faster, but not by muchIf a confusing UI was the first blemish that users noticed with their new Vista companion, then sluggish performance was the simmering resentment that ultimately soured them on the whole relationship. Vista was slow, especially on low-end hardware. In fact, many systems that were advertised as being ready for Vista really weren't. They either had inadequate CPU bandwidth, underpowered video adapters, or -- worse still -- a combination of the two. These factors, coupled with the generally poor quality of early Vista drivers, effectively doomed the OS as an upgrade path. And while most Vista users inevitably got a copy through a new PC purchase, fully half of business users opted to downgrade to Windows XP when given the option. Vista's performance was that atrocious.

Of course, things did improve over time. Driver quality went up, while Vista's overall bloat level went down as a series of hotfixes and service packs attempted to address its most egregious shortcomings. Still, as we're learning with Windows 7, there really is no such thing as a free lunch. You can't pile on the DRM hooks and background services without incurring a performance penalty -- and in the case of the Windows Vista/Windows 7 kernel architecture, such bloat is typically felt acros the system.

That's why Microsoft made improving performance a top priority with Windows 7. Through a variety of tweaks and hacks, Microsoft has endeavored to lighten Windows 7's resource footprint by streamlining the Vista architecture on which it's based. Some of these changes, like adjusting the animation behavior and threading of the shell windows, are merely tricks to make the OS feel more responsive. Others, like altering how background processes are prioritized and how the kernel locks threads in a multiprocessing/multicore environment, are more tangible and deliver measurable gains in certain scenarios.

All of which begs the question: Is Windows 7 faster than Vista? The answer is yes, but not by much. In terms of linear application performance under Microsoft Office 2007, Windows 7 is roughly 4 percent faster than Vista with Service Pack 2, per extensive testing with the OfficeBench script from xpnet.com. However, this still places Windows 7 more than 15 percent behind Windows XP on identical hardware. And while our earlier multicore testing project showed superior scalability for Windows 7 versus both Vista and XP, it will still be years before such an advantage allows the new Windows to overcome XP's simpler, less encumbered code path.

Then there is the issue of resource consumption. Much has been made about Windows 7's supposedly lighter memory footprint. However, tests with OfficeBench and the DMS Clarity Tracker agent show that the new Windows is, at best, 8 percent slimmer (in RAM consumption) than Vista when running the identical workload. Windows 7 also spins 5 percent fewer execution threads than Vista during testing. However, these values still add up to a 175 percent increase in RAM use and an 85 percent increase in thread count versus the same workload running on Windows XP with SP 3.

Bottom line: Windows 7 is slightly faster than Vista on identical hardware. It's also still significantly slower than Windows XP, while generating almost twice as many threads and consuming nearly three times as much RAM as XP to run the same application load. The numbers speak for themselves.

Memory footprint, thread count, and OfficeBench performance results for Windows XP SP3, Windows Vista SP2, and Windows 7 RTM (Build 7600)

Note: All tests were conducted using a Dell OptiPlex 745 desktop system with Core 2 Duo E6700 (2.66GHz) CPU, 2GB of RAM, 10K RPM SATA disk, and running the 32-bit version of each OS.

Security: A step backwardIn my previous article, I noted how Vista's security enhancements were mostly an amalgamation of fixes and work-arounds that had already been addressed by third parties. UAC was revealed to be nothing more than a standard user account with some built-in elevation utilities -- which many IT shops had already rolled for themselves on XP. And other technologies, like Internet Explorer Protected Mode, Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR), and the revamped firewall, have been proven to be either incomplete (there are known exploits that bypass both ASLR and IE's sandbox) or redundant.

Windows 7 actually makes the security situation worse since its default UAC implementation is less aggressive than Vista's. Many trusted Windows components get to bypass UAC thanks to the inclusion of an elevation white list for binaries that are authored and digitally signed by Microsoft. This, in turn, has opened up a whole new attack vector, as malicious code can use the auto-elevation mechanism as a backdoor for code injection attacks and other mischief.

Microsoft is aware of this deficiency and has responded by tightening the white list parameters and eliminating one of more glaring exploit loopholes: the ability to silently turn off UAC altogether. However, some loopholes remain, and Microsoft seems loath to address these scenarios for fear of backtracking on its promise to make UAC less cumbersome in Windows 7.

Bottom line: For IT shops to feel truly secure, they need to crank up UAC's aggressiveness, which essentially negates the usability gains achieved by implementing the auto-elevation mechanism in the first place. Basically, we're back to square one, with security under Windows 7 offering no real advantage over Windows Vista or even Windows XP with third-party enhancements.

Manageability: "Great with 2008"When I evaluated Vista's manageability enhancements, I noted how many of its advantages were tied to Active Directory Group Policies. Extensions to lock down block devices and to allow non-administrators to change the time zone and install printer drivers were welcome improvements, though I noted that many of these issues had been resolved long ago through custom utilities or third-party add-ons. In fact, outside of the new image-based installation model, there was little compelling about Vista from an IT manageability perspective.

Windows 7 carries forward this theme of providing only incremental improvements in overall desktop manageability. There are the new Direct Access and Branch Cache features, but they both require that you implement Windows Server 2008 R2 alongside Windows 7, which many IT shops will be reluctant to do. (Direct Access also requires IPv6 networking.) BitLocker has been improved with Windows 7 -- for example, it now supports removable devices -- but it's still only available to volume license customers or users of the Ultimate Edition SKU. (For more on the Windows 7-Windows Server 2008 R2 combo, see Network World's review, "Microsoft's two operating systems: A win-win.")

One area that did see a significant manageability improvement is Internet Explorer. Version 8 is now better integrated with AD Group Policy mechanisms, allowing you to tap into hundreds of new configuration parameters for enforcing browser security and behavior. But with IE steadily losing ground in the browser popularity contest, it remains to be seen how relevant these extensions really are over the long term.

Bottom line: Windows 7 adds little in the way of compelling new manageability features. The coolest technologies require that you also adopt Windows Server 2008 R2, and that's just not going to happen anytime soon.

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