Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Windows 7 RC1: One Month (ish) in.

Back at the beginning of May, I wrote about my first 24 hours with Windows 7 Release Candidate 1 as my main operating system. At the time, I figured I'd just give it a whirl, buy new hard drives, then go back to business as usual with Windows Vista.

I wound up using Windows 7 for so long because it took a little longer than I'd thought for the right combination of funds and specials at Newegg. I did get new hard drives, though. I replaced my Western Digital 80GB SATA I hard drive with a WD 640GB Caviar Blue SATA II hard drive, and I replaced my WD 320GB IDE drive with a Hitatchi Desk Star 1TB (that's 1000GB for my less technically inclined readers) SATA II. I got a slight speed upgrade, and more than triple the ammount of storage I had before. And when the time came to install Windows, I went right for...

...Windows 7 RC1.

It's hard for me to really express why, but Windows 7 really is the best Windows yet. I know that Windows Vista put off a lot of people with demanding (at the time... let's be honest, who doesn't have at least a gig of RAM in their main computer these days?) system requirements and compatibility problems on both the hardware and software ends. On the other hand, XP looks as ancient as it is, and is lacking some of features I liked in Vista.

Windows 7 seems to be out to please both fans of XP and fans of Vista. In some ways, Windows 7 is still Vista. It's got Vista's underpinings. It's got the Vista Game Explorer. It's got User Account Controls. It's got Vista's Start Menu (with a few tweaks), Vista's sounds, Vista's cursors, and Vista's icons. It's got the Aero Glass effects and Flip 3D. The thing is, all of this stuff works as well or better than Vista. There are more UAC levels than just on or off. The button in the Start Menu shuts off the computer by default now. And the kernel has be streamlined so that, even with Aero turned on, Windows 7 runs as fast (or some people have claimed even faster) than Windows XP on the same hardware.

Windows 7 isn't just a faster Vista, though. Windows 7 brings some slick new features and upgrades with it. Here's just a few that I've enjoyed.

DirectX 11: Okay, since I don't have any games that use it, or a graphics card that officially supports it, I can't claim to have really enjoyed it yet. But I'm confident I will... on some of the games that used it, DirectX 10 did make a difference, and from what I've read DirectX 11 will make more of a difference from 10 than 10 did from 9. In the meantime, every other game I've tried (except one), from games as old as Neverwinter Nights to games as new as Terminator Salvation, from games as simple as Luxor to games as graphically demanding as Call of Duty: World at War has run just fine. And for the record, the game that didn't run (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II) seems to have issues in Vista as well.

XP Mode: I personally haven't found much use for it myself, since everything has worked fine in Windows 7 (and trying to install KOTOR II in XP mode failed). But this does seem like a way to help win over the XP hold outs. XP mode is actually a pre-set up Windows XP virtual machine for Windows Virtual PC. You run XP in the virtual machine, but the idea is that once a program is installed in the virtual machine, it can be run from Windows 7.

The new taskbar. I know some people don't care for it, and I'm pretty sure if you change the settings you can make it more like Vista's, but I love it. Intead of pinning a few programs to a tiny quick launch area, pinned programs icons are big. And open program windows sit with their icon. The whole thing is sort of like a cross between the old task bar and Mac OS X's Dock. Hovering the mouse over a program icon will give you previews of all the open windows for that program. Windows 7 also neatly organizes all the programs that install stuff on the system tray in a neat little box that helps reduce clutter by only showing you icons for the ones that you allow, and even then mostly only when they need attention.

Windows Update. Yeah, I know that Windows XP and Windows Vista has them too. But this really comes down to hardware compatibility. You see, since using Windows 7, I haven't had to manually install a single driver. Windows recognized most of my hardware from the initial installation, including my monitor. Windows Update was also quick to offer me udpated drivers for my graphics card. What impressed me the most, though, were the two devices that it didn't have drivers for: my printer, and my Omnia smartphone. In both of those cases, though, Windows asked if it could check Windows Update, then promptly found and installed the apropriate drivers. That especially impressed me, as I had a hard time getting my old Axim to sync with Vista back when Vista was a release candidate.

Libraries. This was something that took a little getting used to, but now that I'm used to it, I can't believe it hasn't been done sooner. Basically, instead of having a shortcut to your "My Music" folder on the side of a Windows Explorer window, there's a library named "Music" (not to be confused with your iTunes music library). By default, the Music library will display the contents of "My Music" as well as "Public Music." But let's say you use your "My Music" folder as a place for your iTunes library, but you have another folder of unsorted music that you don't want to include in iTunes. You can still set up that other folder to show up in the Music library, and you can use Windows Media Player or VLC to play them.

There are other features I'm sure I haven't mentioned, but that's the stuff that really stands out for me. As long as Microsoft doesn't screw anything up between now and October 22nd when Windows 7 officially launches, I definitely plan to upgrade and use Windows 7 as my main operating system for a long time to come.

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