Should IT Pros Install the Windows 7 Beta?

The official beta of Microsoft's new desktop OS is available now on TechNet and tomorrow for everyone. There are lots of reasons to install it, but also lots of reasons to wait.

Microsoft's Steve Ballmer announced last night that the Windows 7 beta is available. Windows fans have been able to check out the beta for weeks thanks to pirated copies, but now that it's officially available even fans of Macs and Linux desktops might want to take a look.

The reasons to try the beta, or not, in some ways resemble the arguments for and against adopting Windows Vista, as explored in "10 Reasons to Deploy Windows Vista" and "10 Reasons Not to Deploy Windows Vista." So here are three reasons for IT pros to install the beta, and three reasons not to.

Reasons to try:
  1. It's free and fast. It's a lot harder to argue against trying a product when you aren't paying for it. And Windows 7 boasts fast installations: According to Paul Thurrott's review of the beta, on reasonable hardware you can have the new OS going in about 20 minutes once you've got it downloaded and burned to disc.
  2. You can test compatibility. Microsoft has extended Windows XP's life several times, but some day you're going to have to move to a new OS. While consensus among early beta users is that Windows 7 is mostly compatible (or not) with the same hardware and software as Vista, if you've skipped Vista this is your chance to see what's going to need replacing when you finally move away from XP.
  3. The early bird gets the worm. The sooner you start learning the ins and outs of the new OS, the more you'll be prepared to make decisions about it. Microsoft officials have stated that the beta is "essentially feature complete," so the odds are good that anything you learn now will still be applicable when Windows 7 is released.
Reasons not to try:
  1. It could eat your MP3s. Or your other files. Windows 7 has a known bug where it will delete the first few seconds of MP3 files played with the included version of Windows Media Player. A patch for the bug has already been issued, but the moral is that betas have bugs, sometimes serious ones. It can be tempting to upgrade an existing workstation, especially since the beta does support upgrades from Vista SP1, but betas belong on nonessential equipment. Also remember to back up any data the beta could come into contact with.
  2. The beta is time bombed. If you get hooked and want to stick with Windows 7 long term, your beta installs are useless. The beta expires in August, and Microsoft generally doesn't allow betas to be upgraded to full versions of their products without a full reinstall, as was the case with SQL Server 2008.
  3. Limited improvements over Vista. If you're only installing the beta on an unused machine, virtual machine, or secondary partition, this probably isn't a concern for you. But if you're thinking about taking the leap and making the beta the OS for a computer you use regularly, consider what you're giving up and what you're getting. If you move to Windows 7 from Vista you could see better performance on a machine that couldn't quite handle Vista and a new (but not necessarily preferable) taskbar. In return you have to give up the stability of your existing OS.
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