Windows 7: Shaping up quite nicely

As its release nears, most of the pieces are coming together well, closing the ugly Vista era

It's official: Windows 7 is practically done. The code paths are being frozen as we speak, and the final bits should be arriving on Oct. 22, just in time for the holiday shopping season. Of course, savvy users will have Windows 7 well before that date (think mid-July). The myriad torrent sites will see to it that anyone who wants to will be able to run the RTM (release to manufacturing) bits this summer; whether or not they'll be able to activate them in the absence of an RTM product key is another matter.

In almost every sense, Windows 7 is finished. Whatever happens between now and the RTM a few short weeks from now will be entirely cosmetic -- some tweaked branding here, a bug fix or compatibilty shim there. So, given my extensive history with the product, starting with the much-maligned PDC build and running through the latest leaked builds, I thought it time to revisit the OS in light of my nearly seven months of continuous use.

[ See how Windows 7 performs in InfoWorld's benchmarks. | Take a video tour of Window 7. | Download InfoWorld's Windows 7 Quick Guide PDF. ]

Here, in a nutshell, is what I think of Windows 7:

Usability: Much has changed since build 6801. Back at PDC, Microsoft had still not enabled the the full range of Windows 7 UI revisions. For example, the new Task Bar was MIA, as were many of the Windows 7-specific Aero goodies. And although some clever users were able to work around these limitations -- by hacking the build to allow these still unfinished features to be accessed -- the net result was uneven at best.

Fast-forward to today and the new Task Bar now feels like an old friend. Most of the more glaring kinks have been worked out, and -- as of build 7137, anyway -- it is as reliable and predictable as the old Task Bar. Likewise, the myriad Aero features. In fact, when using these latter builds taken from the Windows 7 RTM branch, it's very easy to forget you're running a pre-release OS. Add to this the fact that the new UI represents a leap forward in usability (even the Mac fanatics are giving it some begrudging respect), and it's hard to imagine anyone sticking with Vista once Windows 7 ships.

Compatibility: After some well-documented stumbles with the early pre-beta builds, Microsoft has done a good job of cleaning up Windows 7's compatibility story. Nearly all of my critical tools run reliably on build 7137, and the popularity of the public beta release has prompted many developers to rush any required fixes to market. The result is an end-user landscape that looks a lot more hospitable than the one that Windows Vista walked into nearly three years ago.

Then there is the matter of Virtual Windows XP Mode. I made my opinion clear a few weeks back when I declared it to be a kludge solution. And recent experience has shown just how confusing and frustrating this feature can be. This past weekend I picked up a new PC at Costco with plans to use it as a temporary development system while in the United States (I work overseas normally). The HP system has a quad-core CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 640GB hard disk. Yet it cannot run Virtual XP Mode due to the software's requirement that the CPU support Intel's VT extensions (which this chip inexplicably does not).

Place the blame where you like -- with Intel for creating too many SKUs with brain-dead feature sets, or with Microsoft for tying its solution to a technology that is far from ubiquitous -- but the fact remains that this otherwise uber-powerful system can't run a simple Virtual PC session. Go figure.

Performance: Windows 7 is faster than Windows Vista ... but not by much. My own testing shows that these latter builds are, at best, 3 to 5 percent faster than Vista SP2 on linear tasks, like the OfficeBench test script. And Windows 7 is still a good 20 to 15 percent slower than Windows XP, although multicore systems help to mitigate this advantage somewhat.

However, Windows 7 defintely feels more responsive than Windows Vista, especially on low-end hardware. I've been running Build 7137 for weeks now on a lowly HP Mini 2140 netbook, and I can say with confidence that it works well. I rarely find myself complaining about the performance of the OS -- this, thanks to improvements in background service behavior and a more intelligent kernel scheduler.

Overall, Windows 7 is shaping up quite nicely. Will it succeed in wooing the masses away from Windows XP? Probably ... eventually. But in the meantime, it allows Microsoft to close the door on the ugly, half-baked Vista era. And as a long-suffering Vista user, I say it can't happen soon enough.

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