Windows 7: Everything You Need To Know

Microsoft has suffered a stream of bad press around Windows Vista since its release in late 2006. Users complained about Vista's new User Interface (UI), including the new Start Orb that "replaced" the Start button, the new search feature, the rearranged control panel icons, and the constant prompting for user permission to change system settings. We think some also mistook the dramatically new interface in Office 2007 as "the look of Vista" since new PCs typically came loaded with the new version of Office. Microsoft required hardware manufacturers use a completely new driver model for Vista, which resulted in few (or slow) drivers available at its release.

The final code for Windows 7 is now complete and will be available to consumers on October 22, with volume licensing customers able to get it as early as September 1. Feedback from testers has been very positive to date. So is Windows 7 better than sliced bread, or is it "Vista 1.1?"

What's New In Windows 7

User Interface

Microsoft tried to address many of the usability complaints with Windows 7. User Account Control (UAC, the now-infamous Vista feature that prompts users for permission to do things) is now more flexible, with options that include prompting the user always, only when programs try to make changes to the system (the default), and to only notify the user instead of prompting for permission. In Windows 7, users will be prompted less frequently to run system applications that were considered administrator-level under Vista.

The completely new Taskbar at the bottom of the screen is proving to be a very popular allows users to pin documents and programs. In essence, users no longer need to find a program in the Start menu if it is not running...the program's icon is always at the same place at the bottom of the screen. Taskbar icons can also be rearranged, even while programs are running. By right clicking a taskbar icon, users can view a "Jump List" of options such as recently viewed web pages for Internet Explorer, or recently played songs for Media Player. Jump List are customizable so users can pin any document to an application's Jump List.

Aero Peek allows users to hover over a program's icon to show a thumbnail image of all open documents for that program. Hovering over a thumbnail shows that window while turning other program windows transparent. Similarly, hovering over a program in the Start menu shows recently opened documents. With Aero Snap, dragging Windows to the side of the screen will automatically tile it to that half of the screen for easy side by side viewing, while dragging to the top of the screen will maximize that window. Aero Shake minimizes the active window when the user rapidly moves the mouse back and forth. Sidebar applets from Vista can now be positioned anywhere on the desktop.

The new Windows Touch feature may start to appear in laptops and other devices this fall, allowing user interaction via finger movements on touch-sensitive screens, much like an iPhone.


The new HomeGroup feature (the "home version" of a workgroup) simplifies sharing files and devices on a home network, with a series of checkboxes for what to share and how. Another feature allows any Windows 7 laptop to become a wireless access point for other devices, for example, allowing them to quickly share an Internet connection (even a cellular connection!) and access network resources.


The search functionality was again rewritten for Windows 7. Instead of a toolbar for building search queries, users can type in query parameters. However, it can also show results from external resources such as SharePoint and other web sites.

The Library feature provides a "folder" that will collate related documents into one view but include documents from multiple locations based on search criteria. For example, one might set up a "Current Projects" library to include all documents with the word "current" in the filename, so they will all appear in one location. Another library might include all music files on the system, regardless of location.

Hardware And Devices

Working with hardware and printers is completely new...all external devices are grouped together in a single window for easier management. Drivers are automatically downloaded if not found locally, to streamline device installation. Location-aware printing caters to laptop users by automatically selecting printers based upon the network to which the laptop is connected.

Media Player sports a "play to" feature that can send music, video, or photos to a compatible device, such as an XBox, with one click. It can also stream media over the web via Windows Live.

Microsoft's stated goal with Windows 7 is that every hardware driver and every program that works with Vista will work with Windows 7, a laudable achievement that will make it easy for users to upgrade, and easier for hardware manufacturers to support Windows 7.

Security And Internals

A new Action Center allows easy customization of security and backup settings, and system diagnostics. BitLocker, the disk encryption scheme in some versions of Vista, now supports a common encryption key for networks as well as removable media. AppLocker can be set to block certain programs from running on corporate PCs, depending on their location (a laptop, for example).

Windows 7 sports a new Image Backup feature which will allows users to restore their entire PC to a recent snapshot, in addition to keeping Vista's Previous Versions feature for restoring files. It will likely take a lot of disk space, but disk space is inexpensive, nowadays, and both external drives and network shares can be used as well.

In case of a serious issue, if Windows 7 cannot boot it will start in Startup Repair mode instead of requiring users to boot from the DVD. That mode will then try to repair the Windows installation automatically.


Microsoft really tried to improve performance in Windows 7. Recent testing reveals Windows 7 performs about 5% faster than Windows Vista on common "office" benchmark tests, however both are about 10-20% slower than Windows XP on identical hardware. The reason is likely the greatly increased internal security in Vista and 7, while users with XP are more likely to get infected by malware, pests, or viruses. Of course, Windows XP was slower than Windows 98, and so every generation the newer operating system and has more capabilities and features. Also user perception is a factor: PCs from 2007 are significantly faster than PCs from 2001, when XP was released. Microsoft has also optimized Windows 7 to work better with newer PCs that provide multiple CPU "cores" so running multiple programs at once should be faster and smoother. In addition, booting up and shutting down is faster in Windows 7.

Windows 7 comes in a 64-bit version, much like Vista, and the coming release of Office 2010 will be the first major program to fully support a 64-bit environment. While 64-bit software often uses more memory and disk space, it generally provides a speed boost by pushing around data and code twice as fast. However any 64-bit operating system like Windows Vista or 7 has a tendency to be slightly slower for 32-bit software, which has discouraged use somewhat.

Despite using about 10% less RAM than Vista, Windows 7 does still like a lot of RAM. With RAM relatively inexpensive nowadays, ITS advises clients to get at least 2 GB or more of RAM (4 GB for the 64-bit version of Windows 7). RAM is still an inexpensive way to speed up Windows.

Battery life for laptops should be improved from Windows Vista to 7, which more aggressively powers down peripherals such as network ports (if no cable is plugged in) and stops unused background processes. It also automatically dims the screen during periods of inactivity.

Virtual Windows XP Mode

To quash compatibility concerns, Microsoft is including Virtual Windows XP Mode (VXP) with Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate, as a downloadable feature. Home Basic will not have this feature. VXP runs a separate copy of Windows XP, allowing older, incompatible programs to run on the desktop. Users see their programs running alongside Windows 7-compatible programs. Since it actually runs a full copy of Windows XP, VXP will use a big chunk of RAM while running. Our feeling is this feature is not going to be needed or used by most users, but might be useful for a few companies running old versions of software.

Upgrade Your Old PC, Or Buy New?

Somewhat surprisingly, Microsoft does not support a direct upgrade over Windows XP without reinstalling all programs, e-mail, and documents. Since Windows 7 can use drivers written for Vista, this is an easy way to ensure a seamless upgrade path for Vista customers. Therefore, ITS recommends that PCs running Windows XP be replaced. Typically those PCs are older and slower anyway, and users are better off putting money towards new hardware than upgrading an old PC. Not only are new PCs faster, quieter, and likely use less power, Windows 7 will also handle multi-core CPUs better which promises smoother multitasking and faster performance overall compared to prior versions.

Users purchasing new PCs should strongly consider the 64-bit version of Windows 7. So far Microsoft does not support upgrading from any 32-bit version of Windows to a 64-bit version, so going to 64-bit will retain maximum compatibility with future versions of Windows, while fully utilizing current hardware. The only catch is that 64-bit versions of Windows do not support older programs written for DOS or Windows 3.1.

One wrinkle is that Microsoft plans to offer a Family Pack allowing Windows Home Premium to be installed on up to three PCs. That might be a good reason for home users with multiple PCs to upgrade from Windows Vista to 7.

Users looking for a new PC before October 22 should select one that includes an upgrade coupon that will allow a free or low-cost upgrade from Windows Vista.

Bottom Line

Despite all the negative Apple ads and magazine reviews, ITS staffers have been using Windows Vista on a daily basis for up to a year and a half, and have had few problems with it. Aside from the wildly popular Taskbar feature and other enhancements, Windows 7 internally is mostly a tuned-up version of Windows Vista, which we feel safe in recommending to our clients. ITS does generally recommend upgrading only from Windows Vista...due to the manual upgrade process involved, one may as well migrate to a new PC rather than reconstructing the older data under Windows 7 and running it on an older PC.

Windows 7 will be available primarily in three editions: Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate. Like Vista, Windows 7 Professional adds business features such as Remote Desktop (host) capability, location aware printing, and the ability to join a Windows Server domain. And like Vista, Windows 7 Ultimate includes features from Home Premium and Professional, while adding BitLocker, AppLocker, and other advanced features.

July 2009

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