Windows 7 RC1 Review: A Real-World Analysis

I’ve been working with the Windows 7 RC1 (release candidate 1) for about a week and a half now. Barring unforeseen bugs, I doubt at this point that Microsoft is more than four months away from the release of Windows 7.

Not based on any information from the software giant, my bet is that Microsoft will release to manufacturing (RTM) some time in August. Microsoft is going to want to prime the pumps as early as possible for the holiday season this year. The earlier it ships, the more time it gives OEM PC makers to put together an array of Windows 7 models that are well designed for the new operating system.

In fact, RC1 is so put together that a late July release is not totally outside of the realm of possibility. If the economy begins to pick up even a little this summer — as some economists predict — PC makers may see some pent-up demand for new computers begin to reveal itself. Microsoft has a much better chance to compete against Windows XP and Macs from the lower end of the model lines with Windows 7 than with Windows Vista. So if the economy shows any real signs of improving, expect Windows 7 to get hustled out the door. But I hope Redmond sticks to its guns and gets Windows 7 as right as possible. Even an early September RTM is not the end of the world, but I doubt it will go that late.

I have so far installed Win7 RC1 on only Vista-class hardware, but I will soon be installing it on older hardware to make the XP comparison. In case you missed my earlier assessment, Windows 7 is hands-down better than Vista. But what if you want to clean install a much newer version of Windows on fairly powerful XP-era hardware? I think that’s something more people may be considering than was typical in the past. So I’m going to assess that (as I have done with earlier releases of Win7). But that will have to wait for a later post. I’m working on it.

Zoom in on RC1

Usually when we get to the second major release of a new version of Windows, most of what I’d be writing about is features, features, features. But Windows 7 isn’t really about features. It’s about fixing what’s wrong with Vista and a general refinement of the operating system that appears to be XP-like in its attention to detail. Please be clear, Win7 isn’t really much like XP. That’s not what I’m saying. But Microsoft spent a lot of time getting XP right, and rather than adding lots of features, Microsoft has been focusing on getting Win7 right. This is what reviewers mean when they say that Windows 7 is what Windows Vista should have been.

For those of you who want to know in some detail what’s new in Windows 7 RC1, you’re in good hands with my friend and colleague Preston Gralla, who was among the first to release an indepth review of Win7 RC1. As you’ll see when you read that story, the what’s-new quotient is not that impressive — in my book, that’s not only okay but preferable. The last thing needed is any more bloatware. What Vista needs most is to go on a diet and follow a workout regimen aimed at getting smaller, lighter, faster. Windows 7 doesn’t go as far down that path as I’d prefer, but it’s very clearly a large step in the right direction.

There is one surprising new feature recently announced for Windows 7, the Windows XP Mode add-on that will be offered in the more expensive business- and geek-oriented versions of Windows 7: Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise. This feature is a version of Virtual PC that comes with Windows XP that will be specially crafted to work as invisibly as possible in Windows 7. Its purpose is to allow business users to install apps that might not be compatible with Windows 7 in an XP virtual machine that appears to be running in Windows 7. Although it has not been released yet and is not part of Win7 RC1, Microsoft has created some web pages that give you a visual sense of Windows XP Mode.

I doubt that Windows XP Mode will be installed by default. It’s being developed, in part, by a different team at Microsoft and a version of it will probably be an optional add-on that might not even be part of the Win7 installation process. Of course, OEM PC makers might choose to pre-install it. But by developing it that way, Microsoft will not slow down the release of Windows 7. Microsoft will need some way to update it, as a result, and update it selectively based on version of the OS you purchased. Perhaps that method is Windows Update, and if so, I could be wrong about it not being an installation option. The key point: As a fairly late add-on to an otherwise minimalist version of Windows from a new-features perspective, Microsoft will likely not have lots of test data on this feature by launch date. So expect early updates.

The addition of XP Mode is a smart move, even so. It gives Microsoft a ready answer to the software compatibility issues that Vista faced. I’d like to see the same type of creativity applied to hardware support.

Hands-on RC1

The Win7 RC1 experience has been, well, uneventful for me. I clean installed the product on my 64-bit Sony Vaio notebook, and there’s really very little to note. With one exception, everything I’ve tried — including networking — is working at least a little bit better than Beta 1 did. The installation process is still the best one Microsoft has ever devised. It’s not really fast, IMO, but it has been designed to minimize user input and run automatically all the way through once that input has been entered. I’d have to rank the Windows 7 installation process as easier and better than that of Apple’s OS X 10.5 operating system, which requires far too much user input.

The one sticking point I’ve had is with the hardware pack. For whatever reason, Windows 7 doesn’t properly recognize and install drivers that support power management functions specific to my Sony Vaio’s chipset. The computer runs fine without this driver. And in Beta 1, I was eventually able to get Windows 7 to find and install the right driver from Windows Update (though this took several days). After more than a week, Windows 7’s Troubleshoot control panel was finally able to detect the problem and identify the name of the Sony support driver that I needed to download and install. Unfortunately, Sony’s support drivers block installation on anything but the OS they were originally designed to work with — in this case, 64-bit Windows Vista Home Premium. I tried using Windows 7’s OS-version spoofing tools (right-click the file to be run or installed and choose Troubleshoot Compatibility) but Sony’s installer wasn’t fooled. In fact, the entire proprietary system hardware pack that Sony offers with this Vista-based Vaio will not install under Windows 7. I was willing to risk a toasted Windows 7 installation. Sony was not willing to let me. This isn’t Microsoft’s fault. But why doesn’t the driver pack have this basic stuff in it? Sony is a top-tier PC maker.

This is the kind of stuff that Microsoft needs to get right in Windows 7. Beta 1 was able to solve the same problem without my having to download anything from Sony; RC1 was not. Preston Gralla experienced a similar backslip of hardware support on a video driver. On the flip side, Windows 7 is pre-release software, so I can’t be too hard on Microsoft for a relatively minor hiccup. The reason I’m making a point of it is that the theme of hardware becoming less well supported in the late phases of the development cycles has occurred in every version of Windows since Windows 98 Second Edition. Hardware support gets worse, not better. That was certainly true of Windows Vista.

But with that, you have my sole criticism of Windows 7 RC1. And I suspect that Sony will eventually resolve the issue in my case by releasing Windows 7 versions of its drivers and software utilities.

My assessment of Windows 7’s ability to get Microsoft back in the game remains the same as it was when I assessed Beta 1: On 64-bit Vista hardware with 3GB or 4GB of RAM, thumbs up! When I compare XP on fast XP hardware and Windows 7 on 64-bit Vista hardware with more than 2GB of RAM, I would take Windows 7 over XP. What remains to be seen is whether I would buy a copy of Windows 7 for decently equipped XP hardware. I made the decision to skip Vista as a general upgrade to all systems on that hardware. I was not in favor of Windows 7 Beta 1 on my circa-2006 Dell Inspiron with an Intel Core Duo processor, 2GB of RAM, and a video subsystem that has no problem displaying Aero. Beta 1 did not seem noticeably faster than Vista to me, and XP is the clearly the better option. But will RC1 change that outcome?

More on that to come when I’ve had a chance to do the requisite research.

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5 Responses to “Windows 7 RC1 Review: A Real-World Analysis”

  1. rickogorman Says:

    Scot, What do you think Microsoft will do about supporting XP regarding XP Mode? I suppose they will continue to provide security patches for a while yet, which is the main thing, but of course you are still using an outdated and unsupported OS. After all, companies or individuals could always have acquired VirtualPC anyway for free I believe and as long as they have a valid XP licence, could create their own VM. MS is saving them a bit of work here, but on the other hand, companies could create a preferred disk image to install on VMs that was set up as they like. Maybe this is a trivial issue with XP mode?

  2. Scot Says:

    Hi, Rick. First of all, I recommend VMware on Windows. Not a big fan of VirtualPC. But it is the XP license that’s the big advantage to XP Mode — at least, for consumers. Some enterprises may have plenty of XP licenses left, at least for a while.

    You’re raising a valid point, but I think Microsoft will have to support XP for a while yet to come with security patches at least. Vista’s lack of success sort of forces that issue. To me, though, XP mode isn’t a long-term solution, and for many people — it’s not much of a solution at all. I welcome the idea, and it’s a good move on Microsoft’s part, but I’m not 100% sold on virtualization for SW compat. I’ve had XP on all my Macs that way for three years, and it’s just not an ideal way to work. It’s a stopgap while app providers and IT shops rectify XP-specific app incompat issues. It’s a one-year thing max., in my book.

  3. rickogorman Says:

    I agree about using VMs for SW compat. I also run a VM setup (Virtualbox) to have XP on my Mac. It works really well within XP, but if I don’t have it running, and want to quickly access a file for which the app exists on my XP VM but not on my Mac, then it’s a pain. Still, it has really allowed me to move to a Mac. I couldn’t have otherwise, I think. I’m moving soon to a new institution (I’m an academic) where they have a licence for SPSS (stats app) for the Mac version, and that’ll bring me down to only needing XP for one app.

    That said, having been working with Office 2008 for a year, I am sorely tempted to switch to XP to access Word 2003 (or 2007), but I use Office stuff so heavily that that would mean spending way too much time on XP and would ruin my having a Mac! I wonder whether 2008 is purposely inferior to 2007/2003? I wish Apple would grab Openoffice and make it what it could be–Pages is no Word killer! I have tried both Oo and Neooffice and neither are as slick or powerful as MS Office in the ways I need. 🙁

  4. rickogorman Says:

    One other thing on the whole XP Mode option–will you also need to run AV software in the XP Mode? Firewall? That’s how I run XP on my Mac, and I accept it because I am running two very different OSes and went into the deal knowing that. I know the price of using Windows in addition to my main OS. But if I had Win7 I’d be cheesed off if I had to maintain security setups on both Win7 and XP Mode.

  5. Scot Says:

    I agree about Office 2008. I use Office 2004 for the Mac, and like it better. Office 2008 has some issues. But I’m about to be forced to switch to it at work because we’re switching from Lotus Notes to Exchange/Outlook, and that requires me to use Entourage 2008. Mac email solutions aren’t great. That’s still my biggest problem with the Mac. Apple think’s its is so great, but it’s really not that swift — especially for enterprise users.

    Of course you will need security apps for XP in a VM! Yes, this is one of many reasons why. I don’t always agree with Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, but he gave XP Mode an F, and I think he was right on the mark.

    — Scot

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