Vista received well-deserved criticism for bringing few noteworthy new features in its train when it arrived to take over from Windows XP. In contrast, Windows 7 offers plenty of new stuff to like. Fortunately, you can add many of these features to your Vista or XP machine by using downloads and Web services.
What it is: Windows Vista can already stream music, videos, and other content between networked PCs in your house, but Windows 7 goes a step farther: It makes your media available over the Internet. By taking advantage of that option, you can watch a recorded TV show at a friend’s house, say, or stream your mammoth music library to your storage-strapped netbook.
How to get it: The new OS’s media-sharing system has at least one major drawback: It requires Windows 7 to be running at both ends. Third-party alternatives, on the other hand, usually have no problem with different versions of Windows–or even with different platforms (Mac and Linux). Simplify Media, for example, can stream music files saved in various formats from your desktop music library (or from any friends whom you care to invite) to any other PC. An associated iPhone app (Simplify Music 2.0) handles streaming on the run. Both the software and the service are free.
Another possibility is Orb, which streams music, videos, photos, and–if your PC has a TV tuner–live or recorded TV shows. Using Orb can even help you share documents.
What it is: An ISO image is a single file that contains the archived contents of a CD or DVD. Windows 7 enables you to burn ISO images to optical media, so you can crank out your own bootable discs. (Microsoft distributed the Windows 7 Release Candidate as an ISO file, which users had to burn to a DVD for installation on their PCs. Ironically, anyone working on a Windows XP or Vista system needed to use third-party software to handle the job.)
How to get it: Several free utilities can burn ISO images from Windows XP or Vista PCs (and with more options than you’ll get in Windows 7). I’m partial to ISO Recorder, but you may also want to try Active ISO Burner or IsoBuster.
Improved Windows Paint
What it is: Windows’ ancient, bare-bones graphics program, Paint, finally gets a thorough remodeling in Windows 7, complete with a jazzy new Ribbon interface (very similar to the one that people either love or hate in Office 2007), additional brush and shape choices, and various small but meaningful tweaks.
How to get it: Though you can’t obtain Windows 7 Paint in Vista or XP, several similar Vista- and XP-compatible programs are even better. Regular PC World readers have seen us talk frequently of the open-source GIMP and the freeware Paint.Net, two Photoshop-caliber image editors. Either of these apps can run circles around Win 7’s Paint, and neither will cost you a dime.
Too fancy for you? Try a Web-based paint program. Two good free options are Pixlr and Sumo Paint.
What it is: Though Paint underwent an extreme makeover in Windows 7, the operating system’s new Calculator was built from the ground up. This spiffy new number-cruncher includes Programmer, Statistic, and Scientific modes, and comes with handy templates for figuring stuff like mortgage payments and gasoline mileage.
How to get it: Some time ago, interested parties extracted the actual Windows 7 Calculator code from an early build of the operating system, and that code has been making the tech-blog rounds ever since. It runs just fine in XP and Vista. If you’re averse to bootlegs, you can get most of the number-wrangling you need, free of charge, from eCalc.
What it is: Vista owners already enjoy the benefits of Windows’ integrated search capabilities, which help users easily find specific apps, documents, e-mail messages, and the like. Windows 7 promises to make search results more coherent and to integrate them with Libraries for better organization.
How to get it: Windows Search is one of the main reasons I don’t miss Windows XP–it’s that good. How can an XP user take a similar step up? Simple: Install Copernic Desktop Search, which indexes all of the e-mail, documents, and media on your hard drive to permit lightning-fast searches. In fact, even Vista and Win 7 users should check it out, since it supports many more file types (the total exceeds 150) than Windows Search.
Windows XP Mode
What it is: When Vista debuted in 2007, a lengthy procession of unanticipated software incompatibilities drove users crazy. To help assuage fears about Windows 7’s dexterity with older applications at its launch, Microsoft recently announced Windows XP Mode–an add-on that runs veteran programs in a “virtual” XP environment, thereby guaranteeing operational compatibility.
How to get it: You probably don’t need it. XP Mode was created with business users in mind, since incompatible applications can be an extremely serious problem for them. As a result, it’s available only for Windows 7 Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise. That said, if you use Vista and you’re still struggling with software compatibility issues, try Microsoft’s Windows Virtual PC. This free download offers more or less the same capabilities as Windows XP Mode (which is essentially a specialized version of Virtual PC). Warning: Microsoft admits that this program may not work when loaded on netbooks or on other recent PCs.
Internet Explorer 8
What it is: Scoff away, Firefox snobs, but Internet Explorer 8 is a browser to be reckoned with. It’s faster and more secure than previous versions of IE, and it offers unique features such as Web Slices (reminiscent of RSS feeds, and designed to help you keep tabs on changes at regularly updated sites) and InPrivate Browsing (which leaves no trace of your surfing activities).
How to get it: Internet Explorer 8’s amped-up antimalware and antiphishing features make it well worth using. The browser runs just fine in Vista and XP, and it is available for download for either OS. Some Vista users will receive it automatically through Windows Update.