Microsoft

Windows 7 report card: The hits and misses

Windows 7 officially launches on October 22, so it's time for TechRepublic's review of what Windows 7 does well and where it still misses the mark.

Windows 7 officially launches on October 22, so it's time for TechRepublic's review of what Windows 7 does well and where it still misses the mark.

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To say there's a lot riding on Windows 7 would be the understatement of 2009. The PC industry is counting on Windows 7 to unleash pent-up demand for new computers - among both consumers and businesses. Microsoft needs Windows 7 to restore the tarnished image of its OS after the Windows Vista debacle. And, IT departments need Windows 7 to be faster, more compatible with the latest hardware and software, and more manageable.

So does Windows 7 deliver? That's a question that we'll be talking about a lot over the next year, and external factors will influence the ultimate outcome, including economic trends, corporate budgets, and the ever-evolving needs of users.

But, focusing on the software itself, it's time to make a few judgment calls about Windows 7. Let's look at where it hits the mark, and where it misses.

Hits

  • A slimmer OS The best part of Windows 7 is addition by subtraction. In other words, it's not the stuff that Microsoft put into the new OS, it's the stuff they took out. Microsoft developers clearly spent a lot of their energy streamlining the underlying code in Windows 7, because compared to Windows Vista, Windows 7 installs much faster and has a smaller footprint. That's why Windows 7 can be installed on minimal hardware such as netbooks and nettops, something not possible with Vista. Microsoft has also taken out software such as Windows Mail and Windows Movie Maker in favor of making them free downloads. That's a very good trend.
  • Power sipping I've reports from the field of IT pros who have installed Windows 7 on laptops and tablets that were previously running Windows XP and they quickly noticed up to 30% better battery life. That was even before Microsoft's Rob Bernard started publicly talking about the power savings built into Windows 7. This has the potential to be a killer feature for business adoption, because it can save companies a lot of money in aggregate and the battery issue can boost the productivity of road warriors.
  • Less UAC pain One of the worst features in Windows Vista was User Account Control (UAC). UAC was designed with good intentions as a security enhancement, but in practice it was far too noisy and resulted in users simply clicking it blindly to make it go away. UAC is not nearly as noisy in Windows 7, thankfully.
  • More tools for IT Windows 7 includes some new tools and enhancements that will be warmly welcomed by IT professionals, including Problem Steps Recorder, enhanced projector compatibility, Biometric device integration, and PowerShell v2. For more, see 10 cool tools in Windows 7 and Five features that will make you love Windows 7.

Misses

  • Taskbar changes The default installation of Windows 7 includes a drastic change to the behavior of the Windows Taskbar and it's not a change for the better. While there are ways to tweak the Taskbar's behavior to make it pretty useful, most users will never change the defaults and they'll be stuck having to make more clicks and spend more time scanning to find things that were fast and simple in Windows XP. For example, I often have multiple message windows open in Microsoft Outlook, and in XP I could quickly get to the one I needed with a single click because they were all shown on the taskbar. In Windows 7, I have to click the Outlook icon and then make a second click on the item - if I can identify it among the group of useless thumbnails of all the Outlook items I have open. Ultimately, the new default Taskbar feels like a poor knock-off of the Dock in Mac OS X and it feels like it's skewing the Windows design toward light users who only use a handful of apps, at the expense of heavy users who typically have lots of apps and windows open.
  • OS and data still on same partition One of the worst things that the default installation of Windows does is to load system files and user data on the same partition. This has always been the case and Windows 7 has perpetuated the problem. I've publicly petitioned both Microsoft and Apple to change this with their respective operating systems. At the very least, the default installation of the OS should create two partitions, one for the system files and one for user data. That way if there's ever a system failure, you can blow away the OS and reinstall it and when you boot back up all of the user files and data will still be there on the data partition.
  • Needs more imaging tools One of the IT tricks that became very popular during the Windows XP era was system imaging, where IT departments configure one machine, build a software "image" off that configuration, and then use that image to replicate the company's standard configuration across all of the computers that use similar hardware. While Microsoft still pushes methods like unattended installs, system imaging has largely become the standard method of doing mass installations. Microsoft has done a few things to make imaging easier in Windows 7, but the company could have gone a lot further. The software giant could have built functionality into Windows 7, Windows Server, and System Center that allowed IT pros to create system images in a much more granular and flexible manner in order to better adapt to hardware changes and company policy changes.
  • Missing cloud integration For all of Microsoft's ambitious talk about Azure and "Software+Services," there's almost no online services integration in Windows 7. This is a huge missed opportunity. Microsoft could have done simple things like providing a Windows Live service for backups to automatically backup a person's My Documents folder. This would have given Windows 7 a reputation for being well-connected and ahead of the curve. It's possible that anti-trust concerns may have tempered any of these types of efforts, but whatever the case may be, it's an opportunity that was squandered.

For the latest on Windows 7 and other tech topics, follow my Twitter stream: @jasonhiner

Final verdict

The best thing I can say about Windows 7 is that it does a better job of simply getting itself out of the way, which is critical in an era where the OS is becoming less important. The fact that the Windows 7 code is leaner and that the new OS can make PCs more power-efficient are factors that will play well with IT departments.

Of course, Windows 7 isn't all good. Microsoft still hasn't fixed the problem of system files and data on the same default partition. The new Taskbar changes will confuse a lot of users. And, Microsoft has missed a big opportunity by not showing off the potential of "Software+Services" in Windows 7.

Ultimately, because Windows 7 is more efficient, because so many consumers and businesses have delayed PC purchases, and because Windows 7 takes advantage of the latest hardware (such as the speedy Intel Core i7), over the next 24 months I expect it to methodically displace Windows XP as the world's most widely-used OS.

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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