Windows 7 Review

Windows 7 Review

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Input: Reach Out and Touch Windows 7

Microsoft’s Collage tool shows off the power of touch-based input to good effect.
The biggest user interface trend since Windows Vista shipped in January 2007 is touchscreen input; Windows 7 is the first version of the OS to offer built-in multitouch support (see "Windows 7 Hardware: Touch Finally Arrives").

Windows 7's new touch features are subtle on a touch-capable PC and invisible otherwise. Swipe your finger up or down to scroll through document files and Web pages; sweep two fingers back and forth to zoom in and out. Dragging up on icons in the Taskbar reveals Win 7's new Jump Lists. The Taskbar button that reveals the Windows desktop is a bit bigger on touch PCs for easier use.

I installed the final version of Windows 7 and beta touchscreen drivers on an HP TouchSmart all-in-one PC. The touch features worked as advertised. But applications written with touch as the primary interface will determine whether touch becomes useful and ubiquitous. Until they arrive, Windows will continue to feel like an OS built chiefly for use with a keyboard and mouse--which it is.

You might have expected Microsoft to reinvent familiar tools such as Paint and Media Player for touch input. But the closest it comes to that is with the Windows 7 Touch Pack, a set of six touch-based programs, including a version of Virtual Earth that you can explore with your finger, and an app that lets you assemble photo collages. The Touch Pack isn't part of Windows 7, but it will ship with some Win 7 PCs, and it's a blast to play with.

Still, ultimately, the Pack is just a sexy demo of the interface's potential, not an argument for buying a touch computer today. Third-party software developers won't start writing touch-centric apps in force until a critical mass of PCs can run them. That should happen in the months following Windows 7's release, as finger-ready machines from Asus, Lenovo, Sony, and other manufacturers join those from HP and Dell. And even then, touch input may not become commonplace on Windows 7 PCs. But if a killer touch app is out there waiting to be written, we may know soon enough.

Bottom Line: Is Windows 7 Worth It?

Reading about a new operating system can tell you only so much about it: After all, Windows Vista had far more features than XP, yet fell far short of it in the eyes of many users. To judge an OS accurately, you have to live with it.

Over the past ten months, I've spent a substantial percentage of my computing life in Windows 7, starting with a preliminary version and culminating in recent weeks with the final Release to Manufacturing edition. I've run it on systems ranging from an underpowered Asus EeePC 1000HE netbook to a po­­tent HP TouchSmart all-in-one. And I've used it to do real work, not lab routines.

Usually, I've run the OS in multiboot configurations with Windows Vista and/or XP, so I've had a choice each time I turned the computer on: Should I opt for Windows 7 or an older version of the OS? The call has been easy to make, because Win 7 is so pleasant to use.

So why wouldn't you want to run this operating system? Concern over its performance is one logical reason, especially since early versions of Windows Vista managed to turn PCs that ran XP with ease into lethargic underperformers. The PC World Test Center's speed benchmarks on five test PCs showed Windows 7 to be faster than Vista, but only by a little; I've found it to be reasonably quick on every computer I've used it on--even the Asus netbook, once I upgraded it to 2GB of RAM. (Our lab tried Win 7 on a Lenovo S10 netbook with 1GB of RAM and found it to be a shade slower than XP; for details see "Windows 7 Performance Tests.")

Here's a rule of thumb that errs on the side of caution: If your PC's specs qualify it to run Vista, get Windows 7; if they aren't, avoid it. Microsoft's official hardware configuration requirements for Windows 7 are nearly identical to those it recommends for Windows Vista: a 1-GHz CPU, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of free disk space, and a DirectX 9-compatible graphics device with a WDDM 1.0 or higher driver. That's for the 32-bit version of Windows 7; the 64-bit version of the OS requires a 64-bit CPU, 2GB of RAM, and 20GB of disk space.

Fear of incompatible hardware and software is another understandable reason to be wary of Windows 7. One un­­fortunate law of operating-system upgrades--which applies equally to Macs and to Windows PCs--is that they will break some systems and applications, especially at first.

Under the hood, Windows 7 isn't radically different from Vista. That's a plus, since it should greatly reduce the volume of difficulties relating to drivers and apps compared to Vista's bumpy rollout. I have performed a half-dozen Windows 7 upgrades, and most of them went off without a hitch. The gnarliest problem arose when I had to track down a graphics driver for Dell's XPS M1330 laptop on my own--Windows 7 installed a generic VGA driver that couldn't run the Aero user interface, and as a result failed to support new Windows 7 features such as thumbnail views in the Taskbar.

The best way to reduce your odds of running into a showstopping problem with Windows 7 is to bide your time. When the new operating system arrives on October 22, sit back and let the earliest adopters discover the worst snafus. Within a few weeks, Microsoft and other software and hardware companies will have fixed most of them, and your chances of a happy migration to Win 7 will be much higher. If you want to be really conservative, hold off on moving to Win 7 until you're ready to buy a PC that's designed to run it well.

Waiting a bit before making the leap makes sense; waiting forever does not. Microsoft took far too long to come up with a satisfactory replacement for Windows XP. But whether you choose to install Windows 7 on your current systems or get it on the next new PC you buy, you'll find that it's the unassuming, thoroughly practical upgrade you've been waiting for--flaws and all.

Former PC World editor-in-chief Harry McCracken now blogs at his own site, Technologizer.

For more information about Windows 7, sign up for PC World's Windows News and Tips newsletter. And for comprehensive, straightforward advice and tips that can help you get the most out of the new operating system, order PC World's Windows 7 Superguide, on CD-ROM or in a convenient, downloadable PDF file.

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