Windows 7 Arrives: The Time Is Finally Ripe

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.

[ Editor's note: This article is a slightly updated version of "Windows 7 RTM: The revenge of Windows Vista." Benchmark results of the previous article were based on Windows 7 Build 7200. We have updated the article with the results for Build 7600. ]

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 aheadOne 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.

[ If you're unable to view the charts and tables in this article, please click here . ]

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.

But if this latest reshuffling represents two steps backward for the Vista UI, the new Taskbar is shaping up as one giant leap forward for Windows usability. Simply put, the version 7 Taskbar reinvents the Windows UI, with an embrace of the object-oriented ideas and concepts that inspired so many of today's modern graphical environments.

The ability to pin your entire workspace to the Taskbar -- including applications, documents, and utilities -- and interact with them in a consistent, predictable manner makes the Windows 7 UI a revelation for many users. Add to this the beefed-up saved-search mechanism (that is, the new Libraries folder) and the myriad Aero gestures (Aero Peek, Shake, Snap), and you have what is perhaps the most compelling OS upgrade incentive in recent memory.

Bottom line: The Windows 7 UI is light-years ahead of both Windows Vista and XP in terms of overall usability and general operator productivity. Many users will likely upgrade based solely on this feature -- it's that compelling.

Performance: Faster, but not by muchIf a confusing UI was the first blemish that users noticed with their new Vista companion, then sluggish performance was the simmering resentment that ultimately soured them on the whole relationship. Vista was slow, especially on low-end hardware. In fact, many systems that were advertised as being ready for Vista really weren't. They either had inadequate CPU bandwidth, underpowered video adapters, or -- worse still -- a combination of the two. These factors, coupled with the generally poor quality of early Vista drivers, effectively doomed the OS as an upgrade path. And while most Vista users inevitably got a copy through a new PC purchase, fully half of business users opted to downgrade to Windows XP when given the option. Vista's performance was that atrocious.

Of course, things did improve over time. Driver quality went up, while Vista's overall bloat level went down as a series of hotfixes and service packs attempted to address its most egregious shortcomings. Still, as we're learning with Windows 7, there really is no such thing as a free lunch. You can't pile on the DRM hooks and background services without incurring a performance penalty -- and in the case of the Windows Vista/Windows 7 kernel architecture, such bloat is typically felt acros the system.

That's why Microsoft made improving performance a top priority with Windows 7. Through a variety of tweaks and hacks, Microsoft has endeavored to lighten Windows 7's resource footprint by streamlining the Vista architecture on which it's based. Some of these changes, like adjusting the animation behavior and threading of the shell windows, are merely tricks to make the OS feel more responsive. Others, like altering how background processes are prioritized and how the kernel locks threads in a multiprocessing/multicore environment, are more tangible and deliver measurable gains in certain scenarios.

All of which begs the question: Is Windows 7 faster than Vista? The answer is yes, but not by much. In terms of linear application performance under Microsoft Office 2007, Windows 7 is roughly 4 percent faster than Vista with Service Pack 2, per extensive testing with the OfficeBench script from xpnet.com. However, this still places Windows 7 more than 15 percent behind Windows XP on identical hardware. And while our earlier multicore testing project showed superior scalability for Windows 7 versus both Vista and XP, it will still be years before such an advantage allows the new Windows to overcome XP's simpler, less encumbered code path.

Then there is the issue of resource consumption. Much has been made about Windows 7's supposedly lighter memory footprint. However, tests with OfficeBench and the DMS Clarity Tracker agent show that the new Windows is, at best, 8 percent slimmer (in RAM consumption) than Vista when running the identical workload. Windows 7 also spins 5 percent fewer execution threads than Vista during testing. However, these values still add up to a 175 percent increase in RAM use and an 85 percent increase in thread count versus the same workload running on Windows XP with SP 3.

Bottom line: Windows 7 is slightly faster than Vista on identical hardware. It's also still significantly slower than Windows XP, while generating almost twice as many threads and consuming nearly three times as much RAM as XP to run the same application load. The numbers speak for themselves.

Memory footprint, thread count, and OfficeBench performance results for Windows XP SP3, Windows Vista SP2, and Windows 7 RTM (Build 7600)

Note: All tests were conducted using a Dell OptiPlex 745 desktop system with Core 2 Duo E6700 (2.66GHz) CPU, 2GB of RAM, 10K RPM SATA disk, and running the 32-bit version of each OS.

Security: A step backwardIn my previous article, I noted how Vista's security enhancements were mostly an amalgamation of fixes and work-arounds that had already been addressed by third parties. UAC was revealed to be nothing more than a standard user account with some built-in elevation utilities -- which many IT shops had already rolled for themselves on XP. And other technologies, like Internet Explorer Protected Mode, Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR), and the revamped firewall, have been proven to be either incomplete (there are known exploits that bypass both ASLR and IE's sandbox) or redundant.

Windows 7 actually makes the security situation worse since its default UAC implementation is less aggressive than Vista's. Many trusted Windows components get to bypass UAC thanks to the inclusion of an elevation white list for binaries that are authored and digitally signed by Microsoft. This, in turn, has opened up a whole new attack vector, as malicious code can use the auto-elevation mechanism as a backdoor for code injection attacks and other mischief.

Microsoft is aware of this deficiency and has responded by tightening the white list parameters and eliminating one of more glaring exploit loopholes: the ability to silently turn off UAC altogether. However, some loopholes remain, and Microsoft seems loath to address these scenarios for fear of backtracking on its promise to make UAC less cumbersome in Windows 7.

Bottom line: For IT shops to feel truly secure, they need to crank up UAC's aggressiveness, which essentially negates the usability gains achieved by implementing the auto-elevation mechanism in the first place. Basically, we're back to square one, with security under Windows 7 offering no real advantage over Windows Vista or even Windows XP with third-party enhancements.

Manageability: "Great with 2008"When I evaluated Vista's manageability enhancements, I noted how many of its advantages were tied to Active Directory Group Policies. Extensions to lock down block devices and to allow non-administrators to change the time zone and install printer drivers were welcome improvements, though I noted that many of these issues had been resolved long ago through custom utilities or third-party add-ons. In fact, outside of the new image-based installation model, there was little compelling about Vista from an IT manageability perspective.

Windows 7 carries forward this theme of providing only incremental improvements in overall desktop manageability. There are the new Direct Access and Branch Cache features, but they both require that you implement Windows Server 2008 R2 alongside Windows 7, which many IT shops will be reluctant to do. (Direct Access also requires IPv6 networking.) BitLocker has been improved with Windows 7 -- for example, it now supports removable devices -- but it's still only available to volume license customers or users of the Ultimate Edition SKU. (For more on the Windows 7-Windows Server 2008 R2 combo, see Network World's review, "Microsoft's two operating systems: A win-win.")

One area that did see a significant manageability improvement is Internet Explorer. Version 8 is now better integrated with AD Group Policy mechanisms, allowing you to tap into hundreds of new configuration parameters for enforcing browser security and behavior. But with IE steadily losing ground in the browser popularity contest, it remains to be seen how relevant these extensions really are over the long term.

Bottom line: Windows 7 adds little in the way of compelling new manageability features. The coolest technologies require that you also adopt Windows Server 2008 R2, and that's just not going to happen anytime soon.

Reliability: A little help from friendsIn my previous analysis, I noted how Vista's architectural changes were mostly functional: improved power management, new I/O priority levels, delayed loading of services. However, despite a prolonged beta cycle, Vista shipped with a reputation for instability and general quirkiness. Much of this had to do with the poor state of Vista-compatible display and audio drivers. The drawn-out beta process and subsequent mad dash to RTM caught many independent hardware vendors flat-footed, with the resulting scramble to support the finished OS only adding to the product's poor first impression.

Two years later, the landscape looks quite different. The hardware community has fully caught up with Vista, and customers can now embrace the OS with confidence that it is generally as stable as Windows XP in most respects. Windows 7 benefits from this maturity by inheriting the Vista architecture almost unmodified -- the few tangible changes to the kernel mostly revolve around increasing multicore scalability and improving background service behavior. In this case, minimal change is a good thing.

So where does this leave Windows 7 in comparison to XP? Certainly in better shape than Vista was when it shipped. The Windows 7 pre-release code has been nothing if not stable, with many tech-savvy users now running it as their primary OS. That said, the new OS will still need to be thoroughly vetted before IT shops fully embrace it, and the old rule of thumb, "Wait for the first service pack," still applies.

Bottom line: Windows 7 benefits from the maturing of the Vista-era Windows ecosystem. As such, it fares better than its predecessor in terms of initial reliability and should quickly approach Windows XP levels of stability with the first 12 to 18 months of general availability.

Hardware compatibility: Time healsAs I noted under Reliability above, a lack of proper device driver support was the Achilles' heel that doomed Vista to early failure. Audio and video drivers, in particular, were a real nightmare under Vista, with the majority of Blue Screen of Death-type errors traceable directly to shoddy kernel mode coding by market leaders Nvidia and ATI (now AMD). And while these catastrophic system crashes weren't the only stability issues to impact pre-Service Pack Vista -- I personally suffered through more than my share of Registry corruption issues and showstopper plug-and-play bugs -- they served to reinforce the public's perception of Vista as an unreliable OS.

Things change. In the case of Vista, the hardware ecosystem eventually caught up with the OS. Most new PCs and devices provide excellent Vista support, with mature drivers that are stable and relatively full-featured. Likewise, the OS itself has stabilized, thanks to the release of two important service packs and a host of smaller hotfixes. And legendary culprit Nvidia seems to have learned its lesson from the Vista debacle. Nvidia has been actively engaged in the Windows 7 beta program, publishing a number of pre-release test drivers and generally following a very aggressive QA cycle.

The net result is that Windows 7 inherits a much more complete ecosystem, a clear advantage of preserving -- as opposed to replacing -- the Vista kernel architecture. As with Vista, many Windows XP drivers still work unmodified under Windows 7. And for those that do not, there is more than likely a corresponding Vista-specific version available that should work seamlessly under the newer Windows.

Microsoft is also making better use of its Windows Update site with Windows 7. In fact, the new Windows ships with a much smaller library of device drivers on disk, relying instead on Windows Update to provide the primary conduit for obtaining nongeneric drivers from third parties (Nvidia and Intel area already making good use of this mechanism). And while there will no doubt be exceptions, they'll likely be isolated to legacy devices for which the original vendor is unwilling or unable to provide a Windows Vista/Windows 7-compatible driver.

Bottom line: The days of uneven hardware support under Vista are over. Windows 7 inherits a well-rounded ecosystem of mature drivers that should enable it to achieve Windows XP (current generation) levels of initial customer satisfaction.

Microsoft software compatibility: Sweet possibilitiesWhen I originally examined the issue of Microsoft software compatibility under Vista, I found no compelling advantage to running the nascent OS. Microsoft's Office team, perhaps sensing trouble on the horizon, wisely chose to fully implement Office System 2007 under both Windows XP and Vista. So when Vista ultimately stumbled out of the gate, the Office folks were able to insulate themselves from the fallout and turn the 2007 variant into yet another in a long line of successful releases.

In hindsight, would tighter Office 2007 integration with Windows Vista have helped the troubled OS? Perhaps. But the lack of significant new usability conventions in Vista would have limited the scope and depth of such integration. Simply put, there wasn't enough meat on the Vista bone to make it worth investing in the kind of exclusive tie-in features that might have helped drive customer adoption of Vista.

Fast-forward a couple of years and you're looking at a very different horizon. With Windows 7, Microsoft is providing a number of compelling new UI paradigms, including a revamped Taskbar with some truly must-have features, like Jump Lists and Aero Peek. And based on my analysis of an early preview version of Office 2010, the application side of the Microsoft house seems to make good use of these new conventions to deliver unique value for customers who adopt the company's new OS along with its new productivity suite.

Of course, Office 2010 will still run on Windows XP and Windows Vista. The Office team would never be foolish enough to tie itself exclusively to any unproven version of Windows. It's just that, for the first time since the debut of Windows 95, Microsoft finally has a "works better together" message it can actually sell to the masses. While these additional integration features might not be enough to convince you, the fact that they exist certainly serves as an incentive.

Bottom line: Windows 7's new UI paradigm provides a number of unique capabilities that Microsoft's application folks can tap into to make their products more compelling. As such, it offers a significant integration advantage versus Windows XP and even Vista.

Third-party application compatibility: Operation virtualization The final pillar of Vista rejection has always been its spotty support for third-party applications. The combination of UAC and a newer, more complex kernel meant that many legacy applications broke under Vista. And while the blame for at least some of these failures could be laid at the feet of the ISVs -- for assuming their products would always run in an Administrator-level security context -- the fact that they broke under Vista, yet worked just fine under Windows XP, ensured that the black stain of incompatibility was Microsoft's to bear alone.

With Windows 7, Microsoft's third-party application support has improved significantly. Not only has Microsoft benefited from vendors updating their software to work with Vista's new security model, they've also had the opportunity to better diagnose where legacy Windows XP applications failed and to write new compatibility shims for the more troublesome characters. And for the truly problematic programs, Microsoft has an ace in the hole: Virtual Windows XP Mode (VXP), which provides a fully virtualized Windows XP image for running these applications in their native environment.

I've written at length about my misgivings toward VXP. For starters, I would have preferred a solution based on Microsoft's App-V application virtualization platform, if for no other reason than it would have allowed legacy applications to run with full fidelity, as opposed to screen scraped from a Remote Desktop Protocol session (the core of the VXP integration model). Still, VXP is compelling in that it provides a fully licensed copy of Windows XP that you can run alongside your Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, or Ultimate license. And it's free.

Bottom line: Windows XP remains the Gold Standard for application compatibility, a fact Microsoft has fully embraced with Windows 7. Customers can expect a better compatibility experience with the new Windows, and when they do encounter an application that refuses to behave under the native runtime, they can always fall back to Virtual Windows XP Mode.

Developer tools support: The pause that refreshesWhen Windows Vista shipped, Microsoft hoped it would usher in a new era of managed code, and the company updated its developer tools accordingly. For example, it shipped Visual Studio 2008 with a host of tools and templates for enabling cross-OS development of .Net applications, secure in the belief that the client landscape would soon be populated by managed-code capable systems running the .Net Framework.

Of course, things didn't work out quite the way Microsoft planned. And while the company's developer tools remain as popular as ever, most professionals are using them to write ASP.Net applications or legacy code in the aging Visual C++ language. After all, who wants to maintain a Windows Presentation Foundation application that requires the deployment of 250MB of supporting framework code before it can draw its first window? Just ask the Paint.Net folks -- it's not a pretty picture.

So Microsoft's utopian dream of moving away from the Win32 API once and for all died with Vista. But of course .Net remains very much the ultimate goal. Like Vista before it, Windows 7 ships with the latest incarnation of the Framework -- specifically, Version 3.5 with Service Pack 1 (Vista shipped with Version 3.0). However, unlike with Vista, Microsoft is actively downplaying the whole "next generation" storyline in favor of emphasizing Windows 7's improved legacy compatibility. Given Vista's woes, you can't really blame Redmond for trying to shore up the base.

If there's a silver lining to all of this, it may be lurking inside two of Windows 7's accessories. The Paint and WordPad programs both sport Microsoft's Ribbon UI, which is now accessible to developers as a component they can reuse in their own applications. Thus, depending on how successful Windows 7 is in displacing XP, you may see a surge in .Net development activity as ISVs scramble to remake their products with the new Windows look and feel.

Bottom line: Windows 7 is no better and no worse than Vista in terms of developer tools support. However, given the popularity of the beta version, Windows 7's ultimate success in driving the post-XP migration may allow it to achieve what Vista couldn't: making .Net the new development standard for Windows applications.

Future proofing: Tuned for multicoreWhen I last looked at the issue of future proofing, I came down in favor of Windows XP for several reasons. First, there was the tepid response to Vista. Hardware and software vendors would never abandon XP until a clear majority of systems had moved off of the OS. Then there was the fact that Microsoft was (wisely) porting much of its new .Net framework technologies back to the older Windows, essentially negating any real advantage of deploying Vista for .Net development. Finally, I pointed to the coming release of Windows 7 and how customers could safely skip Vista and wait until Microsoft delivered something better.

Two years later, and I'm typing this on a netbook running one of the RTM escrow builds of Windows 7. I certainly could have installed Windows XP on this machine instead of its newer sibling. However, the hassle of patching, tuning, and hunting down drivers just to get XP to boot on this newfangled hardware would have made the effort difficult to justify. By contrast, Windows 7 simply worked from the get-go. With few exceptions, its default configuration was entirely functional.

I have a feeling this same scene is playing out across the IT landscape. Shops weary of patching and tweaking XP to get it working reliably on modern hardware are looking at Windows 7 and thinking it might just be the version that finally lures them away from their legacy environment. After all, there's something to be said for convenience. And when it comes to seamlessly embracing new hardware technologies, Windows 7 is far better positioned than creaky old XP.

This latter point is perhaps best observed in how Windows 7 handles multicore systems. Our testing shows that the revamped Windows 7 kernel scales better across multiple CPUs than XP, thanks in large part to the extra tuning Microsoft did to improve thread-locking performance in multi-CPU environments. It's a tangible advantage, one that will become more relevant as CPU core counts continue to rise over the coming 24 to 36 months. If you're on the fence about Windows 7, consider the future proofing argument. It may be the push you need to help you finally kick the XP habit.

Bottom line: Windows XP was born into a world of single-CPU systems with memory capacities measured in the megabytes. Windows 7 arrives at a time when dual and even quad-core systems are the norm, and 2GB to 3GB of RAM is considered a good starting point. Simply put, Windows 7 is better positioned to leverage new hardware technologies and to support future application and workload growth over the long haul.

There's no going backWindows 7 is faster than Windows Vista, but not by much -- and it's still slower than XP. It's less secure than Vista in its default configuration, but it's also light-years ahead of both of its older siblings when it comes to usability. Reliability is up, as is compatibility, but these trends have more to do with an industry that is finally catching up with the Vista security and driver models than with any new Windows 7 capability in particular.

In fact, outside of the reworked Taskbar (which is a killer feature), there's very little truly new about Windows 7. Rather, it's the culmination of an all-out, no-holds-barred, failure-is-not-an-option attempt by Microsoft to salvage the nearly five years it invested in designing and implementing the Windows Vista architecture. In this regard, Windows 7 is really more like Vista R2 -- Microsoft's attempt to take a second pass at the product and finally get it right.

If I were to score this comparison like a boxing match, I'd have to call it a draw, with the final nod going to Windows 7 if for no other reason than it drives the existing technology base forward, while opening the platform to new and more powerful hardware. IT shops that choose to adopt Windows 7 will likely not be disappointed. It's a solid-all-around product that matches up well with today's PC landscape. Windows 7 is still very much Vista at its core, and no amount of tweaking or UI paint will change that fact. But Microsoft finally did get it right.

Hats off to Windows XP -- it had a great run. But change is in the air, and it smells like Windows 7.

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