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Windows 7 Review

What a difference a few years makes. When Windows Vista debuted in late 2006, I was full of questions: Windows Vista was a big, messy Windows release, delayed time and again, and suffering from too many features and too little cohesiveness. This time around, things are clearer. Windows 7 is less ambitious than its predecessor, but also a better product. It suffers from none of the aimless feature bloat that plagued Vista upon its release, and none of the aimless uncertainty that followed Vista's five-plus years of development. That the public reaction to Windows 7 has also been universally positive--another sharp contrast with Vista--is also gratifying. Windows 7 deserves the accolades, and it's one of the strongest entries in the Windows family of products ever.

And that makes reviewing Windows 7 difficult. This is a near perfect software release, that rarest of upgrades that improves on virtually everything about its predecessor while losing nothing of serious importance. Yes, there are nits. Sure, I'd have liked to have seen a few components of the OS turn out a bit differently. No software is truly perfect. But you don't have to qualify the successes of Windows 7 as you did with Windows Vista. Windows 7 is just excellent, with no caveats attached. And Windows 7 isn't excellent within the context of its reduced development cycle and the resultant reduced expectations. It's just excellent, plain and simple. No ifs, ands, or buts.

So now that I've completely blown the premise of this review, which will be published over the time leading up to Windows 7's general availability in October, let me at least frame the conversation that will conclude, inevitably, with discussions of unparalleled greatness. Because even though I may have just provided you with a peek at the end of this epic review, there's still a lot to discover.

Here, in Part 1, I'd like to put Windows 7 in perspective. How has the world changed since XP first appeared eight long years ago? Windows 7 is being born into a sharply different environment than its most popular predecessor. But the parallels between XP and Windows 7 are many.

In Part 2, I will examine the all-important task of picking the proper Windows 7 product edition. This is again an issue because Microsoft has saddled its users with too many choices, though there are certainly fewer valid possibilities than before. I've already provided the most thorough and comprehensive Windows 7 product edition comparison available anywhere, but in this review I'll make the decision process simpler than ever, especially for those who don't want to wade through giant charts.

In Part 3, I will explain the various ways in which you can acquire and, if need be, install Windows 7. This includes PC bundles, retail copies, and Windows Anytime Upgrade, but it also includes various installation, upgrading, and migration tasks. I will take the mystery out of moving from your current version of Windows to Windows 7.

Over the next several parts of this review, I will divide up all of the new features in Windows 7 in digestible chunks so you can quickly hop around and find exactly what you need. I've divided up the feature list similarly to how I did so for my Windows Vista review, with subjects like user interface, security, performance, Internet, digital media, and many others.

In the penultimate part of this review, I will examine compatibility--both hardware and software--and explore how Windows 7 sets the stage for a coming generation of Windows products that breaks, finally, with the technological deadwood of the past in ways that are both elegant and seamless.

And then I will attempt to bring it all together with some sort of sweeping conclusion that, again, I assume I'm telegraphing pretty obviously already. As you'll see over the course of this review, there are plenty of small things to complain about. But the big picture with Windows 7 is universally positive. You'd have to be completely clueless--or a deluded Mac fanatic--to think otherwise.

8 years later...

If you're looking for an obvious spiritual predecessor to Windows 7, look no further than Windows XP. That release was basically a more compelling version of its own predecessor, Windows 2000, and featured a new UI, much better compatibility with devices and software, Windows XP also marked the death of the old-fashioned, DOS-based Windows products that had previously dominated the consumer landscape and offered up a number of end-to-end experiences that significantly simplified how users completed certain multi-step tasks (like acquiring digital photos) that we now take for granted. It arrived at the dawn of a new era of wireless home networking.

By comparison, Windows 7 is also a more compelling version of its predecessor, Windows Vista, offering enhanced usability, dramatically better performance, and new seamless compatibility options that were unavailable just a few short years ago. Windows 7 will also mark the death of an increasingly obsolete predecessor, in this case Windows XP, which has been granted an unusually long life cycle because of customer indifference to Vista. It will also usher in an era of pervasive 64-bit computing in a way that was only hinted at with Windows Vista. And like XP, Windows 7 expands on the themes of simplification and experiences, providing users with a finely-tuned UI that simplifies common activities. Windows 7, too, arrives at the dawn of an era of pervasive, anywhere/anytime wireless Internet access via 3G and Wi-Fi networks.

Taken as a slice in time, the October 2001 release of Windows XP was a watershed event. But it didn't take long for hackers to uncover an endemic security hole in the product, and Microsoft spent 2002 and 2003 retrenching and then, finally, halting Windows development so that it could rearchitect both the software and its development process to account for the highly-connected, potentially dangerous world in which XP was really being used. The result of this effort, called Trustworthy Computing, has had enormously positive ramifications across subsequent Windows versions and other Microsoft products. (Including Windows 7.)

[ Read my original review of Windows XP for some historical perspective. ]

On a more positive note, Microsoft used the time between XP and Vista to ship a bewildering number of platform improvements to Windows, most notably through several versions of Windows XP Media Center Edition--which added home theatre capabilities--and Windows XP Tablet PC Edition--which provided pervasive handwriting recognition and pen computing capabilities. Microsoft also innovated with touch computing during this time and with software for so-called ultra-mobile computers, small PCs that pre-dated the current netbook craze by some years. Not all of these efforts were necessarily successful from a commercial standpoint, but each left an indelible mark on the underlying platform.

By the time Vista finally arrived, Windows had undergone seismic changes. Vista brought with it a number of next-generation technologies that, sadly, remain little used today, though they do at least form the basis for further improvements in Windows 7. And many of the original "Longhorn" technologies that were designed to make Windows Vista such a stunning upgrade were dropped or changed over time, or back-ported to Windows XP.

The changes Microsoft made to Windows Vista meant that Windows, again, was ahead of the hardware curve. The system wouldn't run well on many existing PCs of the day, and its vaunted Aero UI required a class of graphics accelerator that some users--especially those with low-end laptops--simply didn't have. Worse, early compatibility issues, though solved within a year, continued to adversely affect public opinion of the product. Many people who had never even used the product assumed it was a dog thanks to clueless pundits and reviewers who had never bothered to correct their wrong-headed early impressions.

That Microsoft built Windows 7 on top of Windows Vista is a tribute to Vista's true worth, because the underpinnings are solid. It's funny to me that those who damned Vista over the past two years are now praising the very similar Windows 7. Yes, Windows 7 has a tweaked UI. And yes, Windows 7 does offer better performance than its predecessor. But in reality, there's not much of a fundamental difference between the two. Windows Vista and 7 share the same hardware requirements, for example, which I believe to be telling. And Windows Vista and 7 share identical hardware and software compatibility models, though Windows 7 does improve on Vista with an interesting virtualization feature that we'll discuss later in the review.

So is Windows 7 just Vista with a bit of eye candy added and some performance tweaks? The cynical might believe so, but let's not get silly. Windows 7 is the sum of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tiny tweaks, none of which would be particularly interesting in isolation. But taken as a whole, the result is astonishing. Where Vista felt incomplete and scattered, Windows 7 seems polished. Like an Apple product, it appears to be the result of a singular vision, though I'd be surprised if that were really the case.

This kind of refinement is hard to point to in any general way because it's all over the place. Every nook and cranny in Windows 7 has been given the once-over, and where changes needed to be made, they were made. There are big changes, like the new taskbar and the yet-another-version-of-Windows Explorer. But there are also many, many tiny changes. Nothing was overlooked. Nothing major. And nothing minor.

Asking customers to pay for something that is essentially a Windows Vista mulligan sounds ridiculous on the surface. But time and again, people who see and use Windows 7 are enchanted, and for good reason. Windows 7 is special, and that fact is obvious to anyone who comes in contact with it. In fact, Windows 7 has been so good for so much of its relatively short development cycle that it's become somewhat boring from my perspective as a reviewer. That should be taken as a good sign, however. It means that Microsoft has exorcised the excesses of the past. It is delivering on its promises.

Put simply, yeah, you want Windows 7. The question then, becomes which Windows 7? Which product edition should you pick? I'll help you figure it out in Part 2 of this review.

Continue to Part 2: Picking a Product Edition...

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