Windows Vista was a disaster from the word start. Anybody who has used Microsoft’s generally maligned operating system, which debuted in 2007, knows the headaches involved with convincing it perform even the most basic tasks. Diehard PCers fear no more: last Thursday, Microsoft released Windows 7, a brand new OS designed primarily to exorcise the demons of the Vista nightmare.
Vista’s greatest flaw, at least in my experience, is the draconian security scheme that Microsoft developed to seal holes in its creaky, yet dominant Windows XP. (As of August 2009, XP, which is almost ten years old, was installed on 69 percent of the world’s personal computers.) With Vista, any attempt to access the internet generates a warning that interrupts all system activities, and must be dismissed before the user can continue. Windows 7 resolves that nuisance by sending warnings and authentication requests to the newly created Action Center, where they can be ignored or acted upon at the user’s discretion.
The other major problem that plagues Vista is its sloth-like speed. Last year, when Popular Mechanics conducted a head-to-head comparison of various PCs running Vista against various Macs running OS X Leopard, Vista lost in almost every category. Microsoft has been playing catch-up ever since, and now promises that Windows 7 will offer “faster, more responsive performance.” Given that doing anything in Vista is like watching paint dry or grass grow, improvement should be relatively easy to accomplish. Of course to get this faster performance your computer will have to meet (and most likely exceed) the minimum system requirements. Windows 7 demands at least one gigabyte of RAM and a one-gigahertz processor. That’s nothing outlandish by today’s standards, but if your PC is more than a couple of years old, you’ll likely need to upgrade to take full advantage of Windows 7’s capabilities.
Microsoft wouldn’t be Microsoft, though, without at least one Byzantine decision. Like Vista, Windows 7 is available in a multitude of versions. There are six different editions of the new operating system — all with different features and price points — although only Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate are widely available at retail. (The Starter edition does not support 64–bit processor architecture, the standard for new PCs; it won’t even let you change your desktop wallpaper.) Absolutely the strangest thing about the newest Windows, however, is that it comes without many of the standard programs that you expect to find when spending several hundred dollars on an operating system (the Ultimate edition costs $349.95). Windows 7 lacks pre-installed programs for even the most basic tasks, like writing email, chatting online, or managing photos, calendars, and contacts. Instead users are asked to download these programs for free from a Microsoft website. That seems like a poor use of time and bandwidth — or, to put it more politely, a pain in the ass — especially considering that competing systems like Apple’s OS X 10.6, aka Snow Leopard, come preloaded with an array of superbly designed and easy-to-use programs.
But how much does that really matter? Apple has been steadily gaining market share since the initial release of OS X in 2002, and Snow Leopard is sleeker and more reliable than anything Microsoft has produced in years. (It hardly needs mentioning that Apple makes better commercials than Microsoft too.) Mac OSs, though, only recently surpassed 5 percent of global usage — whereas Windows, in one form or another, is currently hovering near 93 percent. So what if Vista was a step in the wrong direction? With that kind of lead, Microsoft could walk in circles and not lose for years to come. With Windows 7, however, Goliath is back on the forward march.