Windows 7 Arrives: The Time Is Finally Ripe

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.

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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.

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