Windows 7 in-depth review and video: This time Microsoft gets it right

In his hands-on review of the Windows 7 pre-beta, Preston Gralla decides that Microsoft's upcoming OS shows great promise.

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Overall, Windows 7 is a lighter-weight operating system than Windows Vista, and it will be able to run on less powerful hardware. For example, at the recent Professional Developers Conference, where Windows 7 was unveiled, Windows and Windows Live Senior Vice President Steve Sinofsky said that Windows 7 used less than half of the 1 GB of RAM on his Lenovo S10 netbook.

In addition, Asus CEO Jerry Shen says he plans to release versions of the Eee PC powered by Windows 7 in mid-2009, including touch-screen models. Windows Vista is too processor- and RAM-intensive to run on netbooks, so expect to see Microsoft push Windows 7 heavily on netbooks.

Microsoft also claims that it's working to improve performance -- but then again, it always says that when it releases a new operating system. Still, I can say that Windows 7 was surprisingly zippy on my machine, even in its pre-beta version -- far faster than Vista was in beta testing, even in later betas. Microsoft claims that it's improving memory management and reducing power consumption on laptops. In addition, the company says it will protect the operating system from poorly written or problematic hardware drivers.

Improved multimedia

Multimedia support has also been improved in Windows 7. Those who listen to music or play videos on their PCs will be pleased to see that there is now a built-in way to do both without having to launch Windows Media Player, which tends to take up considerable RAM. Launch Windows Explorer and turn on the Preview pane, and a small media player appears in the pane. Click on the file you want to play, click the Play button, and the media plays in the media player in the pane. This is just a player, so for other capabilities, you'll have to go to the WMP. But for simple entertainment, it's a handy addition.

In addition, Windows Media Player now features a bare-bones, stripped-down view in a small window that's suitable for playing media but not for managing your library. So if all you want to do is play media, you can use it as a simple player. In addition, Windows Media Player can handle a wider variety of formats, including the high-definition DivX format, popular among video downloaders, as well as the AAC audio format used by Apple's iTunes.

Other notable changes

Windows 7 comes with some nice extras, including a simple sticky-notes applet that mimics the sticky notes you leave around your desk. There's certainly nothing groundbreaking about this little applet -- Macs have included a similar one for well over a decade. Still, it's a nice extra that you might use.

The Windows Backup program, which in Vista was essentially worthless, is finally useful. You can now customize your backups by choosing to include or exclude specific drives and folders. Particularly nice is that 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. Overall, you'll need fewer clicks to create a backup.

Network administrators will welcome another addition: the PowerShell scripting command line language that helps IT staff to perform system and network administration.

Also notable about Windows 7 is what's missing. Windows Mail, Windows Photo Gallery and Windows Movie Maker -- all solid applications -- are now gone. However, all of them will be available as free downloads from Windows Live.

Windows 7

You can listen to music without launching Windows Media Player.

Click to view larger image.

Also missing are applications that most of us never used and will not miss. Windows Meeting Space, for example, a fairly worthless application for setting up ad hoc networks, is gone, as is the related application People Near Me.

The bottom line

Windows 7 is in pre-beta, so there's no way to come to a definitive, bottom-line conclusion about the operating system. However, it's surprisingly stable, solid, well-done and speedy at this early stage in the development cycle. Some important features of it are still missing -- notably, the new Taskbar.

However, even at this early stage, it's clear that Windows 7 is a real improvement over Windows Vista. It cleans up some of Vista's rough edges, adds useful new capabilities and most likely won't have the same problems with hardware that Vista did. We'll have to wait for further betas to offer a more definitive conclusion.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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