Windows 7: A Common Man’s Perspective
The launch of Windows 7 is currently the hottest Tech News. Forums are filled with people asking for first hand feedback. Warez sites are filled with download links to Beta & Pirated Release-to-manufacture (RTM) versions of the OS.
Since I provide I.T. Support to Small & Medium Businesses (SMB) and sooner or later, they are bound to end up with computers which came with Windows 7 pre-installed, I decided to take the OS for a spin.
Though internally, Windows 7 is only a minor version upgrade to Windows Vista (Windows 7 version number is 6.1), it improves on Windows Vista substantially in every department.
- GUI: New GUI tweaks give this OS a look and feel that are unique to the industry. For ex:
- The task-bar shows click-able icons for active programs instead of unwieldy gray buttons.
- Moving the mouse over the icon, displays thumbnail previews of various Windows that have been opened by the app. In case of Internet Explorer 8 (IE), even though I opened multiple sites as tabs in the same window, they showed up individually. The thumbnail previews only work in Aero interface. In Basic interface, a simple list is displayed.
- Right clicking on the icon displays the various tasks that you can perform with the program, including links to recently opened documents.
- The tasks change depending on the program. In case of IE, the list included frequently visited sites & New Tab option. In case of Windows Media Player (WMP), the list included recently played media and play/skip buttons.
- Programs can be pinned/unpinned to the task-bar. This is analogous to the Quick Launch bar of earlier versions. Clicking on the icon to launch the program, makes the icon shimmer. The effect is very similar to pressing on an LCD screen. Moving the mouse over un-launched programs highlights the program with a small white glow below the icon, while moving the mouse over active programs fills the entire button with the majority color of the icon and displays an exaggerated glow.
- Dragging a program window to the Left / Right edge of the screen re-sizes it to fill exactly half of the screen and snaps it to the left/right edge of the screen. Dragging a program to the top of the screen maximizes the window. Drag the window away from the screen edge to restore it to it’s previous size.
- While the Aero interface has not changed visibly, it definitely performs faster.
- The desktop wallpapers option has changed radically. You can either choose a wallpaper pack (downloadable from the Internet) or select a set of images on your hard disk as the wallpaper. You can quickly set the wallpaper change delay (10 seconds to 1 day) and marvel at yet another 3rd party functionality that has been integrated into Windows.
- The Windows logo (replaced with an Orb in Vista) has more polished look and glows visibly upon mouse over.
- Default VGA driver supports monitor maximum screen resolutions. My ViewSonic 17″ is capable of 1280×1024 and though initially, the screen resolution was set-to 1024×768, I could easily change it to 1280×1024. Most notably, the Window drawing performance even with default vga driver was quite good. So good in fact that I could enable Clear-Type and watch movies in windowed & full-screen modes! DirectX features are disabled in Default VGA drivers.
- On my computer, all on-board & PCI cards were detected automatically and drivers installed for them. The exception was ATI Radeon Xpress 200 VGA. Since ATI has stopped development for this chip-set (last known driver was for Windows Vista), the drivers for the display were not installed automatically and Default VGA was used. I could easily download the drivers from ATI’s website and install them in Windows 7 without any problems. After installation, DirectX features were enabled and video playback seemed slightly smoother.
- The included Windows Media Player has matured into a very capable media player. It played Divx videos out of the box (without requiring codec installation). As expected, MKV & 3GP format files are not supported. Stopping the playback provides options such as Play Again, Go-to Library etc. in an interface that looks like Windows Media Centre.
- The OS installs very quickly. Though not as quickly as Mac OS X, but a Win 7 OS install from a aged 16x DVD-ROM drive onto a 160 GB PATA HDD took a few minutes over 30. Previous versions of Windows have allowed you to install drivers for additional storage devices (like SCSI drives) by loading drivers from floppy drives. Windows 7 allows drivers to be loaded from USB drives too.
- Thanks to a major drive towards saving electrical power worldwide, users are now encouraged to turn off their computers when they leave their desks for extended durations. Windows 7 makes this easy. For starters, the Shutdown button no longer puts the computer into sleep, but acutally turns it off. This behaviour can be changed to Sleep, Hibernate etc. The Sleep mode function has improved dramatically. The new Sleep mode uses ‘Hybrid Sleep’ method which results in Hibernate like power-down of computer, yet supports quick restart like Suspend-To-RAM. On my computer, clicking Sleep turns off the computer in 12 seconds and resumes functioning (by pressing power switch) in about 5 seconds. A note of caution here: This mode actually causes a longer boot-time (2 minutes+) if you were to turn off mains power. For best results, keep the computer connected to mains power; it will only draw trickle juice.
- Improved firewall allows you to block not only inbound connections, but also outbound connections. The configuration of the firewall remains in the domain of the semi-expert.
Windows 7 is not without it’s share of drawbacks. Highlighted below are a few glaring ones. Depending on your perspective, available computer, some of these are not drawbacks that you will notice.
- Windows 7 is a RAM & Disk space hog. After installation, it occupied a whopping 11 GB disk space on my computer. For this kind of space requirement, Linux also throws in Productivity Suites & Software Development tools. Upon OS start, it occupied 1.1 GB RAM and quickly ended up occupying 1.7 GB RAM when a couple of default Windows apps were started.
- The installation process is still marred by the nuisance of entering product key. Entry of the product key & activation of Windows are elements that Microsoft could have requested well-after the product was up & running. This would have resulted in very few user clicks and almost un-attended installation even for home users.
- User Account Control (UAC) has improved dramatically and asks very few questions. For me though, it’s presence is still questionable.
- Microsoft Networking has become even more complicated in Windows 7. While Vista introduced the concept of Home/Office/Public networking places (where Home & Office were pretty much the same), Win 7 introduces yet another concept: Home-group. Allow me to revert when I understand more of why it is there.
- Microsoft’s Internet presence is on a downturn. IE 8 is a markedly better browser than it’s predecessors, but it is still haunted by issues with malware ActiveX controls, complicated Configuration Options and lack of basic tools such as Download Manager with resume support. In fact the download window still calculates speeds incorrectly by calculating the average speed from the start of download rather than the last x seconds. For ex: we are downloading a 1 MB file. The download starts at 10 KB/sec which results in estimated download time of 100 seconds (about 2 minutes). After downloading 500 KB (50 seconds have elapsed), if the download speed jumps to 50 KB/sec and we download for another 5 seconds (750 KB has been downloaded, 55 seconds have passed, 250 KB remains to be downloaded), IE 8 reports the current download speed incorrectly as 13.63 KB/sec & time remaining as 18 seconds. A calculation based on last 5 seconds of throughput would have correctly reported the current download speed at 50 KB/sec and 5 second as estimated remaining time. In fact, download managers such as FlashGet use last 10 seconds of throughput to report the download speed.
- Though not a part of Windows 7, Microsoft Bing is the default in search engines and it is only 1 step better than the absolutely useless Cuil. Try searching for ‘insert anchor’ in Google/Ask/Yahoo/Bing/Cuil and you will find that search engines in the order I mentioned return results from useful to useless.
- As if a standard Non-Disclaimer about the OS’s vulnerability towards viruses, the OS does not come with an anti-virus and the Security Center starts prompting users to install an anti-virus almost immediately after first start. I recommend that users download and install any one/two of the following freeware anti-virus software on their computer.
As an IT Support Consultant for SMB’s, the most common question I am likely to face w.r.t. Windows 7 are:
- How well Windows 7 will work on legacy computers? You will be surprised to see that in India businesses still use computers which have been long relegated as part of history at Smithsonian or used as land-fill.
- How well will existing applications work in Windows 7? Many Indian businesses use software developed in India for their computing needs and most of them are coded so badly, that I earn my bread by just making them work. Case in point: Genius Tax Calculation software by SAG Infotech. While it’s users find it useful, as IT Manager, it’s a nightmare for me. The interface looks like it was designed by a child and the software only works on Windows XP SP2 and below! Even configuring the properties of the app to run-as-if under Windows 2000 does not help. Same with Tally. While many businesses still use Tally 7.2 & have their old accounts in it, Tally 7.2 refuses to work in Vista under any circumstances. For a Chartered Accountant friend who has Vista (Home Basic, OEM) on his laptop, I ended up installing Windows XP inside Microsoft Virtual PC just so that he could access his legacy data and save the company from being sued by Income Tax Department for millions.
In the coming few weeks, I will be installing and testing this OS at a few client offices and will present an article on Old Application Compatibility.
It is a relatively rare product from Microsoft’s stables that is awaited eagerly by the general public. Years of counter-intuitive products, exorbitant pricing and general image of a company that is one step behind Apple, are a few of the many reasons.
After the debacle of Windows Vista, users had adopted an attitude of indifference towards Microsoft products and the successor of Windows Vista was viewed with the same well-earned suspicion.
However as I found and early user reports indicate, Windows 7 is possibly headed to become the predominant operating system in the years to come; clearly re-establishing the Wintel platform as the platform of choice for businesses & individuals.
Big oops for Linux aficionados.