When I began writing this review two and a half months ago, I knew that I was in it for the long haul. My most obvious goal was to complete the review in time for the Windows 7 launch, which I've done, but I also had a secondary, perhaps more important motive in mind: I was hoping to rediscover something that had become very familiar by stepping through it again bit-by-bit so I could determine where this release fared in the scheme of both previous Windows releases and the competition.
Put simply, Windows 7 is greater than the sum of its parts. And while no software is perfect, Windows 7 is the right product at the right time. It is an astonishing accomplishment, even more so when you compare it to its direct predecessor, Windows Vista, which was (and still is) a fine product, sure. But Vista was also the wrong product at the wrong time, a victim both of Microsoft's mistakes and a lack of acceptance in the marketplace.
When it became clear that Vista's temporary issues--driver and software incompatibilities--and more long-lasting perception problems were going to render that release a dud, I sensed problems ahead for the Windows roadmap. Microsoft really took a big risk with Windows Vista, shooting for the moon as they did, and the result--delayed and changed time and again--was disastrous. Given how badly it had failed, I felt that Microsoft would move tentatively in the future and never take bold risks again.
And looked at in a certain light, that's exactly what happened: Windows 7 is very much the anti-Vista. It was developed with clear goals and a simple plan from day one. It was designed to come together in a very short period of time. And, in a curiously Apple-like move, Microsoft didn't reveal any of its plans for Windows 7 until, get this, they were pretty much cast in stone. Sure, the software giant talked up the feedback loop, but Windows 7 was really about fixing what was wrong and making everything--almost literally everything--in Windows Vista better. The feedback they responded to came well after the design was done.
But the result is not the tentative, uninteresting Windows release I feared. Instead, Windows 7 is smaller, faster, simpler, and more focused than Windows Vista. And the thought that Microsoft may now rattle off a few more such releases over the next several years is actually quite exciting. Suddenly, with a clear vision and a steady hand, Windows is back on track. My premonitory skills remain, as ever, worthless.
There have been discussions about whether Windows 7 is a major or minor release, including some here on this site a while back. I can now state, emphatically, that it is both. To users, Windows 7 is a major upgrade, with huge and pervasive usability enhancements that will spawn smiles and delight. But to the administrators and IT pros who need to deploy and support this release, Windows 7 is mostly a minor R2-style update that works just like its predecessor, so if you know how to deploy and support Vista already, you're all set. Again, it's the right product for the right time, regardless of how you approach it.
Windows 7 is so good, in fact, that users are clamoring for it. Individuals want it at home, and they are asking for it at work. And after a half decade of putting the brakes on OS upgrades, businesses seem to be rallying around Windows 7 as well. Time will tell how popular Windows 7 really is, but I expect the following (with an obvious caveat around my predictive capabilities): Consumer demand will push PC sales unexpectedly high in the coming quarter, and businesses will finally begin rolling out a new Microsoft OS instead of sticking with the 8-year-old XP. Times they are a changin'.
I've seen some silliness online about how the release of a new version of Windows almost always results in a boost in Mac sales too. Pay no attention to that little bit of rationalization, which is really just a very reality-challenged segment of the market attempting to make lemonade from lemons. Whatever helps you sleep at night.
Here's what's really happening. Mac sales will do whatever they are going to do (about 8 percent of the market in the US, much less elsewhere.) But Microsoft has an OS in Windows 7 that is simply better than anything Apple offers. And a more relevant (and true) correlation between the Mac and Windows worlds is that the vast majority of Mac users also run Windows, either in dual boot or virtualized. And the percentage of Mac users who do run Windows--already north of 80 percent--will only increase with Windows 7.
So if you were hoping for a Mac boost for some reason, here's your wake-up call: Windows 7 will make you want to forget whatever Leopard you're currently running. And if you are a Windows user--you know, like most people--the good stuff in Windows 7 and the problems of Snow Leopard combine to make the Mac a heck of a lot less interesting than it already was. So, please, feel free to use the very real cost disadvantage of Mac hardware as an excuse if you want. But Windows 7 is now the best reason to stick with the PC.
Rating a winner
Over the course of this review, I've tried to highlight the various issues that I feel are most important to Windows users. But the question remains: How does one "rate" such a product? Sure, Windows 7 is the best version of Windows yet produced, but that's been true of every single version of Windows ever released, when you think about it. (And yes, that includes Windows Me. Get over it.) How well does Windows 7 meet the needs of today's users?
Overall, Windows 7 performs admirably. It's the first version of Windows to actually run better on the same hardware than its predecessor and to have lower real-world hardware requirements and recommendations. (With Windows Vista, I recommended starting with 2 GB and loading up your PC with as much RAM as you could. Windows 7 runs fine in just 1 GB of RAM, even on a netbook, and 2 GB should meet the needs of all mainstream users.) That alone makes Windows 7 an impressive release.
The new user experiences in Windows 7 are amazing and should prove hugely popular with users, both for their elegance and their efficiency. The new taskbar with its Jump Lists, interactive taskbar thumbnails, and other capabilities is the most obvious addition, but there's much more than that. New window management methods like Aero Snaps, Aero Peek, and Aero Shake will make users more efficient. The new Libraries--really stored searches under the covers, but never mind that--make organizing and finding files easier and more attractive than ever before. And the overall simplification work--where almost every single feature of the UI was poked, prodded, improved, and made consistent--gives the entire system a feel of refinement that Windows has always lacked. The whole thing just comes together.
I'd also point out Windows Touch, that most wonderful and yet curiously misunderstood Windows 7 feature. In Windows 7, Microsoft has made desktop-based multi-touch capabilities a pervasive and first class user experience for the first time ever. And it just works. There's no need for special applications that need to be manually crafted to work with multi-touch: All Windows applications just work. Using a machine with multi-touch is transcendent, and it puts a whole new spin on the notion of personal computing. There is nothing like it in previous Windows versions or in any other competing OS. Once you've experienced multi-touch on the PC desktop, you'll never want to go back.
There are issues in Windows 7, of course. Some of the new user experience features--like the ability to pin items to the taskbar--are not fully conceived. And then there is the broader confusion around some applications--like those that handle email, calendaring, contacts, video editing, and so on--that were previously bundled with Windows but now, in Windows 7, are not. Yes, you can download new versions of these solutions via the Windows Live Essentials suite. But many people won't understand that. Surely, there is a better way to advertise that these solutions exist and to make them available as part of Windows 7.
And I'd point out that Microsoft's decision to not bundle an anti-virus solution in Windows is a mistake. Windows 7 has a firewall, anti-malware functionality, various browser and memory protections, and improved User Account Control (UAC) functionality, but no AV? That doesn't make sense. That a solution, Microsoft Security Essentials, is available for free is excellent. But as with Windows Live Essentials, it's unclear how typical users would even find out about this thing.
Finally, because of the many Windows XP, Vista and 7 product editions, the product upgrade mix can be confusing. XP upgrades aren't allowed at all, which is perhaps Microsoft's one truly boneheaded mistake with Windows 7. It's strange to me that the company would require its single largest group of customers to either buy a new PC (which, frankly, most will do anyway) or perform a tedious migration process.
Most of these issues are minor. Indeed, compared to the problems Apple users are now facing with the latest OS X "Snow Leopard" release--which is incompatible with an astonishing array of software and hardware and is, get this, deleting user data for some reason--Windows 7 is on a different plane of existence all together. After three long years of incessant ribbing from Apple, Microsoft finally has an emphatic answer to the complaints. And with Snow Leopard, Apple has its own Vista. I have to think Microsoft is pretty happy about that. I also have to think Microsoft won't pull an Apple and launch a series of snarky ads ridiculing Apple's products. They just think different, I guess.
And the next time some Apple bigot brings up the lack of an XP-to-7 in-place upgrade, consider this: Apple doesn't support in-place upgrades from its 2001 release of OS X either. Obviously.
So, weighing the pros and cons of Windows 7, it's impossible to come away with anything other than a perfect score. I know Windows 7 is wonderful because I miss it when I have to sit in front of a PC running another Windows version. Indeed, you almost have to compare Windows versions side by side to appreciate how subtle some of the improvements are. Start Menu Search? It's not in XP, and I'm unclear how people using that system ever find anything. Window management with Aero Snaps. Button ordering on the taskbar. Custom Jump Lists. Library organization. Windows Touch. It goes on and on and on.
At a higher level, Windows 7 has me excited about technology again, and I appreciate products like this because there are dead times, lulls between important product releases during which I question the technological treadmill that is my day job. But Windows 7 is exciting, interesting, and fun, and I enjoy using it, discussing it, and showing it to others. It reminds me of Windows 95 in this way, because I recall being on that beta and wanting the whole world to use that system. I feel the same way now about Windows 7. And as was the case with Windows 95, I think I may just get my wish. Windows 7 is on track to be the most successful OS release in a decade and a half. It deserves this success.
Wrapping up, it looks to me like the future just got a whole lot brighter. Rejoice, PC users. Windows 7 is here.