Review: Windows 7 -- a closer look

Now that Windows is in the can, what is the final verdict? Is it worth upgrading?

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Extras -- and missing features

You'll find plenty of nifty extras sprinkled throughout Windows 7, many so small that it may take weeks or months before you find them. For example, when you right-click a computer on your network, a new item appears on the menu -- the ability to make a remote desktop connection to that network, so that you can take it over via remote control. Anyone who has had to struggle with the difficulties of finding another computer via a remote desktop connection will welcome this change.

More important, Windows finally has a usable backup program. Windows Vista's backup was one of the worst applets ever built into an operating system, but the one in Windows 7 has enough features that you might actually use it. You can now customize your backups by choosing to include or exclude specific drives and folders. You can also easily make entire system images. And when you plug in a device that can be used for backup, such as a USB hard drive, a wizard can be launched that walks you through creating a backup -- just choose the "Use this drive for backup" option that appears when you plug in the device.

Windows 7 now has a series of built-in troubleshooters that can diagnose and solve common Windows problems. I can vouch that at least one of them works, because that's how I managed to turn on Aero -- the troubleshooter found and resolved the problem.

Not all of the new extras, though, are nifty. There's a new Sticky Note applet, for example, which at first sounds nice to have. But it is so lacking in even the most basic features, such as the ability to search through your notes, that it's unlikely you'll ever use it. Don't be surprised if this one gets dropped from Windows 8, or at least beefed up.

Also notable is what's missing. Microsoft has removed a number of applets and features from Windows 7, which is both good news and bad. On the good-news side is that a number of features, such People Near Me, have thankfully been taken out and shot. On the bad-news side is that some very nice applications have been removed as well, such as Windows Mail and Windows Movie Maker. They can be downloaded for free, though.

For the enterprise

Windows 7 includes a variety of features designed for enterprises and for small to midsize businesses as well.

AppLocker lets IT staff control what is run on individual users' PCs, banning or allowing specific applications.

The BitLocker encryption tool has been improved and now includes BitLocker to Go, which can encrypt data on USB drives.

Windows 7 also includes "federated search," which Microsoft says will allow people to use the Windows 7 search capabilities to search through remote document repositories set up by IT.

When Windows 7 is used in concert with Windows Server 2008 R2, Microsoft says, enterprises can take advantage of what it calls DirectAccess, which allows remote workers to securely access a corporate network without having to use a VPN. DirectAccess is also designed to make it easier for IT to manage remote machines.

BranchCache is aimed at branch offices -- when used with Windows Server 2008 R2, it speeds up the responsiveness of network applications, Microsoft says.

Finally, the new Windows XP Mode allows businesses to run Windows XP applications inside Windows 7 so that they look as if they are running on Windows 7 natively although they in fact are running in a virtual XP window. (Consumers can run this as well, but because of hardware limitations and a less-than-simple setup, it is better for businesses.)

The bottom line

It's become the received wisdom to say that Windows 7 is what Windows Vista should have been, implying that Windows 7 is essentially a supercharged Vista service pack. In fact, even though Windows 7 looks much like Vista on the surface, it's actually a substantial rework. It sports improved speed, far better task switching and task launching, and productivity improvements. And it's just plain more fun than Vista or XP -- you'll most likely enjoy your life at the keyboard more.

That being said, there's plenty to work on. Networking, long Microsoft's bugaboo, still needs to be improved, notably by figuring out a way to extend HomeGroup to previous versions of Windows and other operating systems as well. In addition, Windows 7 is still far behind the curve when it comes to watching TV over the Internet.

Still, if you're a Vista user, you'll do well to upgrade to Windows 7; it's a superior operating system. What if you use XP? First, check if your hardware can handle it. If it can, and if you're not wedded to XP for the remainder of your time on Earth, it's finally time to upgrade.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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