On October 22 Microsoft will launch it’s next version of Windows, Windows 7
(Originally posted at my previous blog address on 07 September 2009)
I have been running the RC (Release Candidate) version on my laptop since the day it was released and I’m delighted with it’s performance. If I had to give an opinion it will be – Windows 7 is Windows Vista 2.0
The obvious comparison with vista is because of several reasons. First, Windows users had by now got into a habit of expecting an entirely new and better user interface with each new release of Windows since Windows XP offered a hugely improved GUI than Windows 2000 Professional or Windows 98 and Windows Vista took it to the next level. But with Windows 7 you don’t get that, in fact, one can’t even differentiate between Windows 7 and Windows Vista by just looking at the GUI the way you could in case of XP or Vista from their previous versions. Secondly, Windows 7 doesn’t have any significant feature improvements when compared to Vista. In fact, it is clearly visible that Microsoft has not developed a new operating system but has rather tried to take out all the negatives of vista and make it much more useful.
You may be thinking that I’m making self contradictory statements, first I said that I’m happy with Windows 7 and then I’m telling you that it isn’t too different from Vista, which was not liked by a lot of people. Well, I would again like to say that Windows 7 is fantastic but it does not have the novelty factor that was there with XP and Vista. When I first used Windows XP, it felt like the 21st century had finally arrived. Windows Vista made me feel like I have time travelled and i’m using a computer in the 22nd century. But, Windows 7 didn’t take me to the 23rd century. So, people expecting a hugely differently GUI and many new exciting features may get disappointed by Windows 7, that’s why I told you in the very beginning that it’s not too different from vista. Actually, Windows 7 is vista done right.
Now, let’s dive into the new features that Windows 7 offers, I have been stressing on GUI changes till now although many people believe that GUI changes are nothing better than eye candy but in my opinion the GUI of an client operating system is as important as the features it offers. Too many changes in the GUI can cause a steep learning curve and too little don’t make it all that different from the previous version. Windows XP UI enhancements was one of the key reasons for it’s widespread adoption. Windows 7 also has it’s share of UI enhancements, the new taskbar features enlarged icons with no text on a translucent surface. One can say that the quick launch bar has been merged with task bar as it includes both running as well as non running applications. You can pin an item to the taskbar to make it easily accessible. When an application is running, the icon gets a subtle border. When you hover the mouse over a running application’s icon, a group of thumbnail images representing each open instance of that application appears, If you then move the mouse over one of those thumbnail images, that instance of the application is displayed on the desktop, even if it’s minimized. Another new feature in the taskbar is Jump Lists. Right-clicking a taskbar icon displays a list of the recently used documents.
AeroSnap is also a cool desktop feature. When you drag a window to the left edge of your display and another window to the right edge, AeroSnap automatically aligns and resizes the Windows so that they each fill half the screen. This feature is handy for comparing documents and directories. AeroShake is another cool feature, when you move a non maximized window left-right in a shaking manner all the other open Windows on the desktop get minimized. Inspite of being too similar to vista, Windows 7 is Microsoft’s best UI to date.
Windows 7 has a lot additional enhancements beyond the new UI improvements. For better manageability, Windows 7 includes the new PowerShell 2.0 release. Windows 7 ships with about 20 troubleshooting packs which are essentially powershell scripts that identify and resolve problems. You can access and run the troubleshooting packs through the troubleshooting applet in the Windows 7 control panel. Windows 7 has a number of new enterprise-oriented network enhancements. Two of the new features, BranchCache and DirectAccess, work in conjunction with Windows Server 2008 R2. When BranchCache is enabled, remote users’ requests for files stored on a Server 2008 R2 machine are routed to locally cached copies of the files. This local caching can significantly improve file-access performance. Server 2008 R2 tracks file changes and makes sure that all clients access the most current files. BranchCache supports Server Message Block (SMB), HTTP, and HTTP Secure (HTTPS) file access. Remote users don’t need to be on the same subnet. DirectAccess provides an alternative to VPNs for remote access. DirectAccess enables organizations to provide secure remote connectivity for mobile workers without the use of key fobs or SecurID tokens. To use this feature, you need a DirectAccess server running Server 2008 R2. The server must have two network cards—one for Internet traffic and one for internal connectivity. In addition, DirectAccess requires IPsec and IPv6. DirectAccess can work together with Server 2008 Network Access Protection (NAP) to ensure that only secured clients with the required patching levels and malware protection are allowed to access network resources.
One of the best improvements to Windows 7 is UAC. Widely reviled in Vista, UAC was a great example of a good idea gone wrong. UAC’s overly enthusiastic prompting caused many users (myself included) to disable UAC entirely. However, disabling UAC also removes the protection it affords. When UAC is disabled, Protected Mode IE is disabled because UAC is the protection for the Win32 directory as well as file and registry virtualization. UAC in Windows 7 is a much more livable experience. Prompting is much less frequent and the level of prompting is configurable. UAC is one tool you can use to secure a desktop but it’s not the only one. AppLocker lets you create policies that explicitly control the applications and executables (e.g., .exe files, scripts, DLLs) that can be installed or run on a desktop. Its allow rules limit the execution of applications to whitelisted applications, blocking all others. Its deny rules permit the execution of all applications, except those that are blacklisted. AppLocker lets you create allow or deny exceptions for specific applications. It uses digital signatures to identify applications and executables, which gives you granular control down to the version level. For instance, you can set up AppLocker to allow only Adobe Reader 10.0 or later to be executed. AppLocker rules can be applied to specific users or groups in an organization. AppLocker, which only comes with Windows 7 Enterprise Edition, can be managed across the enterprise with Group Policy.
Introduced with Vista, BitLocker is a great security technology for laptops and other unsecured physical systems. It lets you encrypt your hard drives, thereby securing your data in case your laptop is stolen or lost. Using BitLocker is easier in Windows 7. You no longer have to perform the manual drive partitioning that Vista requires. Windows 7 BitLocker automatically creates and hides a 200MB partition on your boot drive. You can enable BitLocker by simply right-clicking your drive in Computer and selecting Turn on BitLocker from the context menu. Windows 7 extends BitLocker’s drive encryption capability to USB flash drives using a new feature called BitLocker ToGo. To access the contents of USB drives encrypted with BitLocker ToGo, you need to supply a password or pin. Just think about how many of these USB drives you have (and how many you’ve lost) and you’ll know what an important technology this is.
Feature-wise Windows 7 is a major release, and there are more features than I can cover here. Some of the other important features in Windows 7 include:
- Action Center. The new Action Center provides a central place to view and respond to system alerts.
- Problem Step Recorder. This feature lets end users record a series of screen shots to document a problem.
- Windows Recovery Environment. Windows RE, which is installed by default, is used to recover from system failures.
- Boot from VHD. In Windows 7, you can mount a Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) just like a drive and can even boot from it. Each VHD is like a hard drive with a primary partition. Boot from VHD is useful for setting up multi-boot environments.
- Mobile Broadband. Windows 7 includes enhanced Mobile Broadband support. It now supports plug and play (PnP) for 3G cards and third-party connection managers.
- Location-aware printing. Location-aware printing enables laptops to select the best configured printer based on the system’s location.
Now, let’s talk about performance. As I said earlier, I’m delighted with Windows 7’s performance. My laptop has just got 1 GB of RAM and runs on a 1.86 GHz CPU, I used to run Vista earlier and was not particularly happy with it’s performance but Windows 7 has been performing very well, in fact I may not go back to vista now even after the RC version expires next year. One can see significant differences in the time taken to boot up & shut down. The performance enhancements can be best seen while the system is waking up from sleep mode, it’s a snap, the fastest I have seen for any version of Windows. The applications also run faster than Vista and if one app crashes, it doesn’t bring the entire system down. System errors are handled gracefully and I’m yet to see the blue screen of death with Windows 7.
Windows 7 delivers an excellent desktop experience. Its UI is much richer than XP’s UI. The usability and performance is much better in Windows 7 than in Vista. For enterprise customers, features such as BitLocker, BitLocker ToGo, PowerShell 2.0, Troubleshooting Packs, Problem Step Recorder and Windows RE make Windows 7 Microsoft’s best desktop OS to date.