Windows 7 in review: The revenge of Windows Vista

Windows Vista lacked the right stuff to unseat Windows XP. Does Windows 7 really have what it takes?

Few periods in Microsoft's existence have been as bruising as the past two-and-a-half years. Ever since the company shipped Windows Vista, it's been one public relations catastrophe after another. First, there were the instabilities -- wave after wave of bad press about buggy drivers and spotty backward compatibility. Then came the revolt, with users demanding that Microsoft extend the life of Windows XP indefinitely in a tacit rejection of the company's Vista road map.

It looked like the end was nigh for Microsoft's desktop hegemony. Vista would be the albatross that finally brought the company down, ushering in a new era of platform-independent applications running on Linux or Mac OS X. Apple, in particular, made hay with Vista's troubles, lampooning the unpopular OS in a series of well-crafted TV spots. These truly were heady times for those banking on Microsoft's demise.

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Of course, the Redmond giant had other plans. As Vista was floundering in the marketplace, the Windows development team, under new leader Steven Sinofsky, was feverishly at work on Vista's successor. And true to his pragmatist reputation, Sinofsky focused the team on fixing Vista's ills -- as opposed to adding lots of new features -- and delivering a successor that would eliminate the usability quirks and the code bloat that had given Vista such a bad reputation.

Did Microsoft succeed? Feedback from users who have tried the new OS have been uniformly positive, with most testers reporting a better overall computing experience than with Vista. Windows 7 has already become an overnight hit, with each new review of a leaked pre-release build adding to a growing sense of anticipation for the product's impending Release to Manufacturing (RTM). And now that the product has finally left beta -- Microsoft is signing off on the final RTM bits as I write this -- it's time to take stock of this new, improved iteration of the much-maligned Vista architecture.

Does Windows 7 really right the wrongs committed against the IT community by Windows Vista? And more to the point, is the product's combination of new features and long-overdue fixes enough to sway IT shops to finally abandon Windows XP? In this article, I take a look at Windows 7 from several angles, including critical issues like security, reliability, and performance. Along the way, I compare Windows 7's functionality to its immediate predecessor, Windows Vista, as well as to the real target of Microsoft's newest OS: the venerable Windows XP, the most successful OS in history.

Usability: Light-years ahead

One area that generated a great deal of controversy with Windows Vista was its revamped user interface. From the integrated search functions to the reconfigured dialog boxes to the glowing Start Orb, users decried how alien the Vista UI felt compared to tried-and-true Windows XP. Worse still, there was no easy way to revert to the old interface. Yes, you could enable a "classic" Start Menu. However, the rest of the UI -- including the rearranged Control Panel -- was here to stay.

Of course, some of Vista's UI changes were eventually seen as advancements. The integrated search field in each Explorer window proved to be a real boon for finding files and settings within the OS. The modular "breadcrumbs" feature of the Explorer path field likewise proved superior to the archaic "up folder" button, the loss of which so many protested. And over time, the convenience of those early Aero "glass" elements, including the live thumbnail previews, eventually grew on people.

Still, Microsoft took the early criticisms of Vista's UI to heart and endeavored to address these faults with Windows 7, with mixed results. In terms of the complaints about rearranging components, Windows 7 actually does its own share of reshuffling, with some Control Panel items regrouped and others combined or eliminated altogether. Working with hardware devices and printers is now a completely new process, while the search function has traded the clunky "build a query" toolbar with a sophisticated keyword syntax that is more powerful but also takes some getting used to.

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