Windows 7: Four reasons to upgrade, four reasons to stay away

Opinion: Microsoft's new OS offers the best of upgrading, the worst of upgrading

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It's not as prissy as Vista...

Just try to run any installation software, browser add-on, or off-the-beaten-track program in Vista: The screen fades out for a second, then fades back in with an "ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO DO THIS?" warning.

Yes, it's the the notorious User Account Control (UAC) dialog box. This behavior is downright annoying -- all those prompts led to what's known as "," and many Vista users chose to disable UAC altogether, defeating the purpose of the security feature.

Fortunately, Windows 7 is a lot less invasive with its security warnings by default, and you can turn off notifications you don't like without losing all protection against system threats.

...but XP buffs still have to relearn everything

For XP users, Windows 7 is a radical interface departure. Like Vista, it tries to be more Mac-like. The much-vaunted Device Stage, for instance, takes things like cameras and scanners out of My Computer (now just called Computer) and puts them into a folder named Devices and Printers.

That's not a major relearn, but the scanner interface is. XP's basic but familiar Scanner and Camera Wizard is gone. While the old XP Wizard let you give your series of scanned pages a name you recognized -- such as TPS-Report (1).jpg, TPS-Report (2).jpg, and so on -- the Windows 7 scanning tool drops files into a folder named after the date, with an optional tag (e.g., TPS-Reports 2009-07-30), and names them Image.jpg, Image (2).jpg, and so on. And you have to relaunch the Windows 7 scanner for each new page -- no Wizard-style Back button here.

Changes like these throughout the OS may mean that Windows 7 is too different to make a transition easy for people who are comfortable with XP. For Vista folks, though, it looks the same but acts better -- so it's a natural upgrade for them.

Windows 7 networks like a Hollywood pro...

For a guy who helps maintain an Exchange-based network at the office, my home network is a disgrace. But Windows 7's HomeGroup could change all that. This Control Panel creates a workgroup with shared files and hardware much more quickly than any Microsoft operating system I've ever worked with.

But -- and this is a big but -- HomeGroups are homogenous collectives. Only Windows 7 machines need apply for membership. So if HomeGroup is the killer application for your Windows 7 upgrade, you gotta get more than one copy to make it work.

HomeGroup makes it remarkably easy to set up a home network of Windows 7 machines
HomeGroup makes it remarkably easy to set up a home network.

That said, Windows 7 is still easier and more efficient at networking in general -- from handling multiple Wi-Fi hotspots to setting up on my domain-based Exchange network -- than XP was and a worthy successor to Vista. In short, Windows 7 is one slick glad-hander of a networking animal.

...but Microsoft is keeping XP as a stand-in

Even though Microsoft officially cut off XP more than a year ago, saying it could no longer be sold preinstalled on new computers, the company has issued a series of reprieves for sales of the aging OS. Dell and other computer makers have also taken advantage of a loophole that allowed Vista Business and Ultimate versions to be downgraded to XP Professional, an option that has proven very popular with new PC buyers.

With Windows 7 close to shipping, Microsoft is still hedging its bets a little. Microsoft's enterprise licensing will allow businesses that buy PCs through early 2011 to downgrade Windows 7 (which will come preinstalled) to Windows XP. When enterprises have figured out how to migrate to Windows 7, they can catch up later.

For people who can't get an enterprise license, Microsoft will also provide XP Mode -- a full updated version of Windows XP Service Pack 3 that runs in a virtual machine in Windows 7 -- which is available as a separate download to Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate users.

All of which makes me wonder, "If Microsoft isn't letting go of XP, why should I?"

Bottom line

Even after extensive testing of the various pre-release versions of Windows 7, I still don't know whether its virtues outweigh its pain points overall. For Vista users, upgrading to Windows 7 is a no-brainer; the new OS handily fixes the worst of Vista's mistakes. My advice to them: upgrade early and often.

For XP users, however, it's not so clear. You'll be getting some nifty and useful new features, but you'll also be giving up the way you've been used to working for the past several years.

Windows 7 may be a far, far better upgrade than Vista ever was before, but in the end, you have to answer this honestly: Is this the best of times or the worst of times to take on an unfamiliar interface? Only you can answer that question.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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