Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit Review

I’ve been using the Windows 7 RC since early May, so after 4 months I thought it’d be a good time to review it before the official launch. TL;DR: Windows 7 is a highly polished, production-ready environment that will redeem the Windows product line.

Installer

Fast, intuitive installer and an actual bootloader (doesnt seem changed much from vista). I’m currently using Grub since it came with Ubuntu 9 and I installed that after win7. They play well together.

Interface, Taskbar, & Aero

It’s great. Start menu has been redone, and it’s very Vista-like, but the search functionality has grown on me. It’s also a lot more useful than when I tried Vista Ultimate, because it interprets your queries so well. Want to change you screen resolution? Start typing “resolution” and hit enter. Change desktop background? Start typing “background” and go. It gets better: typing “processor” brings up control panel options for viewing processor speed, opening up taskman to check running processes, etc.

You can finally drag and drop programs to move them around on the taskbar. It intelligently groups windows together. I want to note that I despised this feature in XP because it simply made it harder to get to and check the status of different windows if they were grouped. This problem is completely alleviated in 7 with the new Aero Peek preview, which shows a small rendering of the application when you hover over the taskbar button. It also previews all the grouped taskbar windows if you hover over the group, and you can close them by middle clicking. Very nice.

I didn’t like the “large icon only” style taskbar, which is very wannabe-OSX-dock. I like to be able to see the app title because it often conveys useful information, and I switched to small icons because they save space. “Pinning” things to the taskbar and the start menu are intuitive and easy (pinning to taskbar replaces quicklaunch toolbar). The icon becomes the taskbar button when you launch the app, saving you space. Very nice again.

“Show desktop” has been moved to the bottom right corner – a perfect location in user interface design theory, because the button has “infinite size” (with respect to mouse UI) because the mouse can’t be placed past the edge of the screen. I can often flick my mouse to the lower right hand corner and click without having to really stop and focus intently on switching to the desktop.

The new explorer is mostly improved, since the location bar now turns each folder in the path into a link to that folder. Clicking on the bar turns it into text like in previous versions of Windows. However, it took some time to learn how to drag-select files again, because of the new (but improved!) tweaks to drag-select, context-menus, and so on.

The search seems a little over-enthusiastic: when I type something in, it tends to search IN files when I only wanted filename matches, bringing back lots of unrelated results (and I couldn’t find a way to specify filenames only). I still haven’t figured out how to do an “advanced” search — the built in options are pretty pathetic. The filters are incredibly useless (why is “gigantic” defined as > 128MB? Really?).

3D Flip(Windows+Tab), on top of looking cool, is a great replacement for Alt+Tab, as it shows all of your open apps in a 3D layered view for scrolling through. This apparently requires DirectX8 and up, as it sadly didn’t work on an older machine with IGP (Update: a new driver came out and it works now!). WinSCP is bugged — it doesn’t show up in Flip 3D.

Windows Flip 3D in action.
Windows Flip 3D in action.

“Aero shake” is great, but it will take some time to remember to use it when I need it.

The new “Aero snap” – I have mixed feelings about. It’s definitely really nice, and I use it all the time, but I wish there was a hotkey to disable it (is there?) when doing certain window movements, because it’s easy to inadvertently trigger it.

Control panel and system dialogs are no longer an ugly gray, windows-98esque mess. They look mostly like web pages (and are probably created using a similar box-model layout), and its very clear what each page does. Some pages are really dumbed-down. For example, in setting up power options I have to repeatedly click “show advanced options” over and over again, and I’m always looking for well-hidden links to unlock power user features on every control panel page. Annoying, but it does remove a lot of the clutter for casual users.

Performance

Fantastic. Boot times are very reasonable, and it gets to desktop in about 45 seconds on a fresh install. Responsiveness is much, much better than vista and even better than XP because of a GDI concurrency fix. From the article, “The increased number of fine-grained locks adds a small overhead for scenarios where only a single application is rendering at a time.” A worthy sacrifice in today’s multi-application environments.

The desktop window manager has also halved its graphics memory usage compared to Vista in many cases, by not needing a copy of the graphics buffer in video memory as well as system memory, and by changing the memory complexity of WDDM 1.1.

 Desktop Window manager memory consumption comparison using WDDM 1.1 v. WDDM 1.0.
Desktop Window manager memory consumption comparison using WDDM 1.1 v. WDDM 1.0.

Game performance is as good as, or better than Vista and XP. Memory requirements are much better than Vista because of this, and I have no problem saying 7 could fit on a netbook with 512mb of ram.

File copying (which was atrocious in Vista RTM, and still horrible after SP1) is now great. In Vista, copying two simultaneous files would bring the system to a standstill, and Vista would spend a day copying the files in parallel when it could do them in a few minutes each. I’m using the exact same hard drive I used when I tried vista Ultimate x64, so the results should be comparable (for the record, my drive does not support NCQ).

Compatibility

Like vista, 7 comes with a whole DVD full of drivers, and it generally detects and installs the correct software for just about anything I plug in, automatically and without fuss. An exception was an old USB wireless adapter, but it turned out to be Linksys’s fault for abandoning support for the device and not issuing any x64 drivers for that chip.

Virtual XP Mode is handy, and runs at a plodding pace, but it gets the job done. I used it for a packet monitoring program that refused to install under Windows 7, and it went without a hitch.

There was an incompatibility with Daemon Tools for the first month or so that I used the RC, but I simply ignored it and the later versions have been updated to work fine.

When an application crashes, the error reporting service gathers what data it can and whisks it off to Microsoft for investigating.

There are a lot of times when I’ll run an old application or installer, and then get an annoying prompt immediately after asking me if it installed correctly. Well, I don’t know! Its making me doubt myself. In all seriousness, these badly designed and mostly obsolete apps are in a small minority, and mostly comprise self-encapsulated .exes that assume you have admin privileges. It’s still annoying though. (Update: been months since I’ve seen one of these, doesn’t seem to be an issue in the RTM version).

There were occasions, especially early on in the beta and RC phase, when running particular installers would show an error indicating that the application was NOT compatible with Windows. It seems that Microsoft is working with vendors individually to maximize compatibility, a monumental task. It was also one that they did well, as I can’t think of any software I routinely use that doesn’t work in 7. There are also a lot of apps that were made obsolete by bundled programs, the GUI enabled partition manager being one of them (which was actually introduced in Vista I think).

Security

Windows 7’s security is of course, refined from Vista. Gone are the annoying UAC prompts for the most menial and harmless of tasks. It no longer prompts you 3-4 times if you really want to move a file (seriously, Vista?).

Windows Firewall and BitDefender (renamed Windows Defender) seem to do their jobs. Microsoft apparently tried to appease Symantec et al by including a warning that the user should install antivirus on top of Defender. The updates roll in several times a week, and Defender’s auto-scanning of downloads and running processes should hopefully keep most users from joining the hordes of XP machines on botnets.

I have them disabled on my machine because they noticeably slow down a lot of file operations.

Multimedia

Windows Media Player is still pretty meh. They literally went through and gutted it of anything that wasn’t the play or pause button. It’s difficult to find the options, and when you open them up, it turns out you can only tweak things nobody cares about (like whether it should download album covers for songs…no). I want to choose my renderer, buffering, and filters, damnit! I’ll stick with Media Player Classic and Winamp, thanks.

Graphics driver support, as previously mentioned, is excellent. My HD4890 works great with 1080p video, and my cpu sits idle at about 5% while the movie plays (awesome!).

The photo viewer now shows a low resolution thumbnail while it renders the full size photo. And it allows multiple instances to be open. Good touches.

Gripes

Windows burning software is still broken. It just flat out doesn’t work most of the time. I think this was introduced in XP, and the program simply burns some crap onto your CD or DVD, and half the time you simply can’t read it again. Related: Windows has added ISO support to the operating system at least, but I am not sure how well it works as I have not tested it much (Nero, minus the bloat, is still a quality piece of burning software at its core).

Windows really needs a package manager like Ubuntu’s Synaptic. They could probably just branch it off Microsoft Update. The ability to click a button and update all of your installed software at once is not only convenient; it’s a massive security improvement. How these repositories would be managed is still an open ended question; presumably there’d be a sort of “marketplace” where users can buy software as well.

Conclusion

There is no longer any doubt that Redmond can create great software – I’m happy to report that they got Windows 7 right after that Vista debacle. Don’t fall for the uninformed “it’s just Vista with some tweaks” line. Well, it sort of is — if you ignore all the interface, usability, compatibility, feature, security, and performance breakthroughs.

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