Early Reactions to Windows 7

Editor’s Note: This story was written in November about the early version of Windows 7 that Microsoft calls the “pre-beta.” I term it a late alpha. Either way, it’s not the Beta 1 version that was publicly distributed in January.

I was on vacation last week and finally got a chance to install Microsoft’s Windows 7 alpha code and play with it a bit. My first reactions were positive.

Installation went without a hitch. I cloned the drive of a Dell Core Duo notebook circa 2006 and then allowed the Windows installation process to do a clean install on the drive. The installation process was very fast — much faster than Windows Vista. It also did its job with a minimum of fuss and questions. On first start, Windows 7 did an online update and installed multiple items. The screen resolution, which wasn’t correct on initial start, righted itself to the LCD’s wide-aspect-ratio native resolution when I rebooted.

The first thing I noticed about Windows 7 is that it’s fast. I would caution that I had the same reaction to some of the earlier beta versions of Vista. Vista definitely slowed down at the end of its development cycle. The same thing could happen to Windows 7. But there’s an effortlessness about the Windows 7 UI performance that is pleasant and very welcome.

There’s not a lot new in this build of Windows 7. It’s not feature complete. But I love the new smarter window-sizing features. Pushing windows around and dragging their edges is one of the most tiresome aspects of working on a computer. Microsoft’s smart idea works this way: If your browser, for example, isn’t maximized, you can drag the top edge of the program window to the top edge of the screen. Then Windows 7 automatically pops the bottom of the browser to the bottom edge of the screen too. Think of it as maximized vertically; the sides of the window will be wherever they were when you started. Windows 7 shows you it’s going to adjust the window size in advance. The indicator is a tinted overlay area that shows what the new window size will be. When you release the mouse button (after moving the top edge of the window to the top of the screen), the tinted area goes away and the window resizes.

Even more useful for the way I tend to work, is a variation of the feature that works on either side of the screen. I frequently set up two applications side by side on higher-resolution monitors, a tedious process. Windows 7 makes the chore a snap. Drag any window by its title bar off the screen to one side or another (you have to drag it until the mouse pointer itself is to the edge of the screen). Windows 7 will then open the program window so that it takes up exactly half of the available screen to the side you dragged it to (think of it as maximized on three sides). Open another program window and do the same thing on the other side, and the result is two programs opened side by side, perfectly positioned in only a few seconds. It’s a very useful, even ingenious feature that power users are sure to love.

My reaction to the changes in the networking area — a weak point of Vista — is much less positive. I’m still frustrated by Microsoft’s attempt to wizardize everything. They’ve dumbed things down so far that I ran into three networking problems in 15 minutes. The first was that my Windows 7 machine somehow got the IP address of another device. This happens a lot with Windows machines on simple networks. I don’t know why that’s the case. In this instance, the IP address the Win 7 machine glommed onto is a permanently assigned address for a printer on my network. Windows 7’s network UI doesn’t offer a way to release and renew the IP address. While, yes, I can do that from the command line — the UI should offer this feature, as it did in Windows XP. What are they thinking?

While I was looking for a way to release and renew the IP, I realized that the Network and Sharing Center was showing that I wasn’t connected to the Internet — even though I was having no problems getting out to the Internet. After about an hour of operation and a couple of restarts, Windows 7 eventually realized that it was connected to the Internet and righted itself. But what’s up with that?

Finally, Windows 7 introduces the new “homegroup” feature, which is supposed to simplify the process of setting up file sharing and device sharing in home environments. But this is really nothing more than yet another wizard that wants to assign its own passwords (you can’t change them!) and take over for you. And there’s no transparency about what it’s doing. But the colossally arrogant aspect of this tool is that it appears to be only designed to work with other Windows machines. It’s not even clear from the UI that it works with non-Windows 7 machines, although I’m sure you can make it work with them.

I’ve saved the best of my reactions for last. One of my top three criticisms of Windows Vista was that UAC (User Account Control) was way too overzealous. To the point, I felt, that it effectively disabled its security by literally numbing the user to its warnings. Even worse, as far as I was concerned, was that UAC was annoying as hell. It made Vista very hard to warm up to.

User Account Control has changed in Windows 7. For one thing, it has four behavior settings which range from Windows Vista drive-you-crazy mode down to “never notify.” And the default setting is “Only notify me when programs try to makes changes to my computer.” During the first hour of use I opened almost every Control Panel item and was never confronted with a UAC prompt. At some point, I’m going to make a concerted effort to see a UAC prompt with the default setting, but I can call this now: Microsoft has solved my problem with UAC. This may not offer supreme protection in theory, but I believe that the balance of notifying about truly dangerous activities as opposed to everything under the Sun will offer better overall security. Why? Because if you see a UAC prompt in Windows 7, you’re far more likely to take it seriously. It won’t be just another in a blizzard of repetitive prompts.

It’s great to see the Windows Sidebar gone and the ability to place Gadgets (Windows’ widgets) directly on the desktop. This is the way it should work. Apple: Take notice.

All in all, the Windows 7 pre-beta is a surprisingly good start to the next version of Windows. I will continue to work with this build and report anything of note I come across. I look forward to testing the later pre-releases of Windows 7 too.

17 Responses to “Early Reactions to Windows 7”

  1. rickogorman Says:

    Now Scot, do those of us who switched away from the dark side have to fear your loss to it again? Seriously, this sounds like a minor incremental change to Windows, albeit needed improvements. Are there any features that will make people want to upgrade (aside from microsoft giving them no choice b/c Vista isn’t up to scratch)? Anything that would scare Apple?

  2. Scot Says:

    Hey, Rick. I will very likely have both Windows and Macs in my life from here on out. But I make no promises about which operating system will be the one I use most often. May the best one win. 😉

    I don’t think there’s anything that will scare Apple. Apple is sort of beyond that anyway. But I definitely think both Windows XP and Vista users will be interested in the possibility of upgrading to Windows 7. If Microsoft holds to the course it has set with Windows 7 (it did not with Vista), my guess is that I will be upgrading my Windows systems to Windows 7 (or buying new equipment). It’s too early to make that call now. But from what information is available right now, Windows 7 is promising.

    It’s not about features, by the way. it’s about performance, start and shutdown times, reliability, compatibility, system overhead, and usability. Those are the main measures that matter.

    — Scot

  3. rickogorman Says:

    Same as Apple with their Snow Leopard iteration, which (as you know, I’m sure), is also about performance. Though Apple are also looking to make the OS X scalable for regarding CPU cores. I would assume Microsoft have an eye on the same issue there also?

  4. sandwich Says:

    There’s a free utility called GridMove that essentially has the same window management features (and a lot more) that you described Windows 7 as having. It’s truly an indispensable tool for those people with larger screens.

    http://www.donationcoders.com/jgpaiva/gridmove.html

  5. 1BadBoy Says:

    Maybe I missed it, but has Windows really gotten good support for multiple cores? From what I can recall, Windows desktop (not server) didn’t have good multi-threading – either in WinXP or Win Vista. But from what I have heard so far about Win7 – no one has talked about it. Without good multi-core support, what good is it? You can’t really get single core cpus these days and now we are at 4-cores, soon to be 6+.

    Do you know about this issue and what are your thoughts?

  6. macsband Says:

    Hi Scot,

    “It’s not about features, by the way. it’s about performance, start and shutdown times, reliability, compatibility, system overhead, and usability. Those are the main measures that matter.”

    Your quote captures what matters to me. WinXP Pro SP3 is OK for me because it is fairly stable and mostly usable. But “fairly” and “mostly” are not the hallmarks of what I’m looking for in an OS. Linux doesn’t have the compatibility and usability I need; Mac OS X looks promising.

    I’d like to hear your views on the expense issue of switching to Mac from Windows. When I look at notebooks, a MacBook Pro with a 17 inch screen is $1,000 more expensive than a comparable Vista machine. I’m having trouble justifying that big of a premium. I’d be interested on how you look at the issue: is Mac OS X so compelling that it’s worth $1,000 more? If so, what are some of the supporting arguments?

    Mac

  7. Scot Says:

    Mac:

    Some people are born Mac users. Me, I could go either way. But you: You’re a Mac user. You just don’t know it yet. I’m not being patronizing. I’m being honest. The sensibility you revealed in your post is telling to me.

    Here’s my advice for you. Buy whatever Mac you can afford. The MacBook Pro is quite expensive. The 17″ machine (I have two of them) is also heavy and clunky. But if you need that screen real estate on your lap, or have a reason why your notebook can’t use an external monitor, then I would suggest you pony up the cash. My guess is that after the typical 4-6 week adjustment period, you will never look back.

    If money is a strong issue, consider a lesser Mac notebook. The new MacBook has a 13″ screen but the 1200 x 800 resolution makes the 13″ display a very reasonable screen size. And it’s more than $1,000 less than the MBP 17. You can also get a MacBook Pro 15 for a few hundred less. The new MacBook Pro 15 design offers a gorgeous screen.

    I have written pretty extensively (in Computerworld and in older posts of this blog about the differences in cost between Mac and PC. My belief is that they’re much closer in the mid-range than most people give the Mac credit for. That’s especially the case when you factor in resale value, total cost of ownership, Apple’s stellar service, and average lifespan (much longer than Windows PCs, IMO). But the initial purchase price of the MacBook Pro models is steep. There’s no doubt about that. All I can say is that there are many clear benefits to the Mac and its OS.

    Despite my own advice in one part of this message, to think about buying a less expensive Mac, I’ve seen a lot of people (myself included) who bought something lesser than they were going to be truly happy with because it was an experiment. Six months or a year later they wind up buying another Mac — the one they really wanted. It’s human nature, but in the end it can cost you a lot more than to just embrace it and get what you need.

    Another approach might be to bide your time, learn more about Macs and Mac software (what do you need to make your conversion?), and wait for Windows 7 to jell. It’s too early to tell about Windows 7 yet, but I like the direction that Microsoft is heading in. So long as they don’t botch it up at the end the way they did with Vista, Windows 7 could well be a worthy upgrade from Windows XP that Vista should have been.

    — Scot

  8. macsband Says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Scot! I especially appreciate your ability to enable the reader to see the big picture, and your caution about scrimping now and paying for it later.

    At retail sellers it’s possible to buy two versions of the 17″ MacBook Pro: one comes 2GB RAM and the other with 4GB RAM. If one considers other differences between the two models inconsequential (e.g., 250GB hard drive versus 320GB), then a person could save about $500 by purchasing the model that comes with 2GB RAM and replacing the 2x1GB SO-DIMMs with 2x2GB.

    Mac

  9. Scot Says:

    If those other things are inconsequential to you, then I think you’re making a smart move. One thing to note about the MacBook Pro 17: The 15″ version was recently upgraded while the 17 was not. It’s not clear whether Apple intends to upgrade the 17″ version, but if it does so, that might come in January. Apple’s typical pattern is not to raise price on upgraded models. So it might behoove you to wait.

    Three links that might help you. The first two are aftermarket memory suppliers that I’ve used personally and that I trust. The last one is a site that tracks Mac prices among online retailers to help you get the best deal.

    OtherWorldComputing.com MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo Ram Upgrades

    Data Memory Systems MacBook Pro 17″ 2.5GHz Core 2 Duo RAM Upgrades

    MacPrices: MacBook Pro 17″ Models

    — Scot

  10. jb510 Says:

    As someone often looking ahead to make decisions now… have you looked at Snow Leopard beta? Based on your W7 experience how would you rate it next to Snow Leopard?

    Having primarily used an Apple from 1980-1993, a PC from 1993-2007, and a mac from 2007-present… it would take something magical for me to go back to PC.

  11. Fred Says:

    Scott,

    Is there any binary compatibility between XP-based applications and Windows 7? The largest computing investment for a serious user is software. I am considering switching to MAC if I will have to replace all of my software (>$10K) if I upgrade from XP.

  12. luciano991 Says:

    Scot,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments on Windows 7. I’ve downloaded the beta and I’m looking for free weekend to try it out.

    I wondered about your comment that it was not feature complete. I had heard that no feature of Windows 7 will be installed until it’s completely ready for prime time. I hope this is true, because it will signal a completely different approach to the development cycle for Microsoft which is good for them and good for us.

    I have also struggled with all versions of Windows when it comes to networking. Interestingly enough I have found in XP that sometimes the wizard is the only thing that works. But I understand your point. It’s like how every router now comes with orange tape over the ports and a dire warning to use the CD first. I also pretty much gave up on Vista file and printer sharing in virtual machines until the latest version of Fusion came on the scene and corrected a lot of the problems.

    I think Microsoft has a winner this time around.

    All the best,

    Luciano

  13. Scot Says:

    Luciano, look at the date of this post. This story was posted concerning the alpha version of Windows 7, released quite a while ago. I’m looking at Beta 1 right now but have not posted about it yet.

    But … I would also say that with nearly 20 years of beta testing Windows, Beta 1 is *never* feature complete. Even this one, which is clearly on the fast track and basically a mild makeover of Vista, will not be immune to at least minor features being added post-Beta 1.

    They even did it in Windows XP Service Pack 2. It’s one of the reasons, I believe, that Microsoft sometimes has trouble with software quality. The company is not very disciplined about development processes.

    — Scot

  14. Scot Says:

    Fred,

    Yes, many Windows XP apps run on Windows 7. There was a bigger break between Vista/Windows 7 and XP than between XP and Win 2000, though. There are some software compat issues. Vista versions of your software are preferred. In my experience, this is a bigger problem with enterprise apps than non-utility consumer apps. And, also, that hardware compat is the bigger issue.

    Windows 7 and Vista should be almost identical in terms of compat. But there is a hidden hardware gotcha. Every new version of Windows contains a driver pack. And every new version of Windows drops older hardware drivers out of the pack to make room for drivers from newer peripheral models. So if you squeaked by with hardware support for an older device in Vista, your hardware may be out of luck in Windows 7.

    On the other hand, your hardware company may already have a Vista driver for your older device that will work just fine under Windows 7. All in all, hardware compat should be less of a “you can’t get there from here” problem under Windows 7 just because it extends the Vista driver model basically unchanged.

  15. Scot Says:

    Luciano991, it is possible that at this point Windows 7 is feature complete. Given that they’ve confirmed that they’re moving right to what they hope will be a single release candidate, that seems more likely to me. Still, I find it hard to believe that some stuff won’t slip in or that some features might not be reworked heavily because of feedback they’re getting. But you’re right to raise this point. I could well be wrong.

    But, please note, you are commenting on my article about what Microsoft calls the “pre-beta”, which released in early November of last year.

    As far as no feature being installed before it’s ready for prime time, this is a Steven Sinofsky tenet. If Windows 7 Network and Sharing Center and HomeGroup is working exactly as it should right now — then I’m going to wind up saying I prefer Vista to Windows 7. I also think that the current UAC brouhaha gives me pause. I think that changing the UAC levels *should* throw off a UAC prompt. I also think that accessing the HomeGroup password or changing it should also throw off a UAC prompt.

    Rigid adherence to no Windows settings/configs with the default level is ludicrous, in my opinion. It’s that consistency…hobgoblin thing. I miss Jim Allchin.

    — Scot

  16. rickk1 Says:

    I’m using Windows7 beta too and am not impressed. W7 still takes forever to install updates. It shows them being configured 3 times…one time as it installs then another time as it shuts down then another time as it reboots. W7 is Vista all over again. Another complaint is W7’s control panel. I’m seriously lost. I can’t find anything. What used to be something in XP is now changed to some other name. In xp, if I wanted to change my display, I could find several tabs within the display window that allowed me to make the necessary changes such as fonts, icons, backgrounds, etc. But not so in W7. Where are all the settings and why change them? And I thought I read someplace that Microsoft would make all windows products user-friendly. Hmm…I did read that back in the day of Windows 3.1. What happened?

  17. Scot Says:

    I’ve noticed the updates thing too. This is a beta OS, though.

    I agree about the C.P. too. They changed Printers to “Devices and Printers.” Took me forever to find it. Then I noticed it’s also mounted separately on the Start Menu. All these arbitrary name changes. It’s great that they have a facility for configuring Devices, but why not just have Printers and a separate Devices? Why mess with something that’s been there forever?

    Microsoft used to be good at UI. That hasn’t been true for a while now. Beginning with IE7, Office 2007, and Vista, I think they’ve lost it.

    — Scot

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