Windows 7 review: 'New' OS is just Vista with small changes

Microsoft's Windows 7 has been touted as a new, better-running operating system. But despite the addition of a few handy features, the GCN Lab finds that it looks just like the Vista OS, has a lot of the same annoying quirks as Vista and delivers no difference in performance from Vista.

Pros: Quick boot-ups, fast activation of USB devices, good user interface tools.
Cons: No system performance upgrade compared with Vista, still has annoying Vista pop-ups, expensive for somewhat minor enhancements.
Performance: B
Ease of Use: A
Features: A-
Value: C
Price: $319 (for full Ultimate Edition)

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Windows 7 news page

A new Microsoft Windows operating system is always big news, especially for the federal government, which overwhelmingly relies on Windows of one stripe or another to run just about everything. The last really stable operating system to find widespread acceptance was Windows XP. Vista added a lot of user-friendly options but was more or less branded as a consumer product that is not really suitable for business.

And now we have Windows 7, which is attempting to keep most of the niceties of Vista while maintaining the businesslike status that XP enjoyed.

ALL TOO FAMILIAR: The Windows 7 desktop looks suspiciously like Vista, but there are a few new things running behind the scenes. 

We loaded the install DVD for W7 and were surprised that it could run from the drive like a normal program and not need to be booted. Once it scanned our test computer, it asked if we wanted to upgrade our existing operating system or install a clean version of W7. Because we were upgrading from Vista, we chose the upgrade option, which did keep all of our existing programs in place. A lot has been written about how XP users are out of luck in terms of keeping their old programs. If you are moving to W7 from XP, you must choose a clean install. We did both but started with the Vista upgrade for this test.

At this point, the program warned us that the install could take hours and that our system would reboot several times. On these points, it was correct. The time from when we clicked OK to the time W7 was ready to go was 1 hour, 40 minutes on our test system, which had a 1.6 GHz dual-core processor. We didn’t notice a reboot until the end of the install. There is a nice progress bar at the bottom of the install screen that shows how far along you are. It’s a guess at best given that the actual status percentages for each component seem to rush ahead and then stop for half an hour at an odd spot, such as 72 percent. But at least it gives some indication as to what’s going on.

After Windows 7 booted up, we gazed at the new desktop and saw — Windows Vista. What? Here’s the dirty little secret that Microsoft is definitely not telling anyone. If you hated Vista because of the interface, then you are going to hate Windows 7, too. Vista totally changed the look and feel of Windows from XP, but W7 only marginally changes the look and feel from Vista. In fact, 90 percent or more of the interface is exactly the same — as in, identical. Going on just the look and general behavior, W7 is little more than what Microsoft could have delivered in a free service pack to the Vista operating system.

On the bad side, most of Vista’s annoyances have remained intact. You are still bombarded with constant “Are you sure you want this program to run?” questions, even if W7 is running an internal process. We had hoped that Microsoft would figure out a way to make this process automatic and intuitive instead of giving pop-up warnings about a Windows update file that is trying to access the Internet or a program that you just told to run actually attempting to do what you asked. Luckily, you can go into the control panel and turn those notices off.

Performance is also unchanged overall on a system running Vista compared with W7. We benchmarked several systems running Vista and then benchmarked them again once they converted to W7. They were unchanged. Going from XP to W7 resulted in a slight performance decrease, much like when going from XP to Vista. When we tested a beta version of Windows 7 early this year, we found its performance to be faster than Vista’s. But with all the special functions added to the final release, there is no difference, at least with the Ultimate edition we tested.

So, all the ills of the world are not fixed with W7, despite an intense PR campaign that would suggest otherwise.

Of course, not everything is the same. Several of the improvements are quite good. For one, users don’t get fooled when trying to shut down the PC. Under Vista, clicking the button with the international symbol for power throws it into hibernate mode. In W7, the power button actually says Shut Down and turns the system off.

Other improvements can be lumped into one of two categories. The first is visual appeal, or window dressing, if you will. These things are nice but not essential. The second covers performance improvements. Although W7 won’t make your computer run faster, the features should help you more quickly complete specific tasks.

Window dressing

The jump lists feature spans the area between visual appeal and performance improvement. Each program that runs on W7 will spawn a jump list. The list contains frequently used documents and features of that program, and it will change to match a user’s patterns. Users can add features to a jump list or even pin a favorite feature or document to the task bar. So if you have a spreadsheet you work on every day, you can jump right to it without any intermittent steps.

QUANTUM JUMP: Each program running under Windows 7 will have a jump list so that you can jump to important documents or features. Users can add their own items into the default jump list, or even pin frequently used features into the main taskbar for quick access.

Snap is another interesting feature that could improve productivity. Basically it has preconfigured setups for screen windows that most users need. The most popular is putting two windows side by side, such as when you are comparing prices on various Web sites. All you need to do is drag a window into the area, and it will snap into place. You can also place important documents into the task bar if you like. If you don’t enjoy those features, you can always disable them, though we think they make the interface better.

A fun but less useful feature is Shake. Grab any window with your mouse, and give it a little shake. Like magic, all the other windows disappear. It’s perfect for users who are easily distracted. Oh, and a second shake brings it all back.

Aero Peek is similar to Shake, but it lets you make any window disappear by hovering your mouse over a little square in the lower right side of the W7 task bar. Moving away restores the desktop. Clicking on that square keeps hidden windows away until you click again.

The Search function of W7 is vastly improved over Vista and XP. When you begin typing in the search window, the computer is already looking for matches. You will likely have what you are looking for in the time it takes you to type your query. If you think you have found the file you need, you can preview it by clicking in the search results window without opening it. Of course, that works only with files such as Word documents or photos, where there is something to see. But those are the types of files most people are looking for, so it helps.

Performance enhancements

We have already determined that W7 won’t make your computer run any faster. And if you are upgrading from XP, it might run slightly slower, just as with Vista. But there are several things W7 does better than any other Microsoft operating system, and they do increase performance.

Computers that go to sleep now do so extremely quickly. Even our most modest test systems were able to snooze in seconds. More impressively, they came back out of sleep mode in just a few seconds too, even going so far as to automatically reconnect with our wireless network.

USB devices have become extensions of PCs these days, be it in the form of portable hard drives, USB mice, digital cameras or even music players. With W7, these devices are almost instantly ready to use. The first time you plug in a portable hard drive to a system running W7, it will be ready to go in just a few seconds. And any other time, there is almost no delay at all.

Final analysis

Windows 7 is a good operating system with a lot going for it. And it’s stable.

But it’s not really anything new. We hate to be the reviewers who say that the emperor has no clothes, but there’s so much hype surrounding W7 that most people are probably expecting an entirely new operating system. What they will find is an improved version of Vista, with the same warts and flaws and a few improvements. That’s really it.

It’s hard to justify paying $319 for the Ultimate edition — or any price really — to get snap windows, the ability to shake your mouse and slightly improved performance with USB drives. Most government agencies will likely purchase Windows 7 Enterprise Edition, which, with typical government discounts, will sell for much less.

If Microsoft had come out with a free service pack to Vista and called it “Windows 7” it would be one thing. But we just don’t see enough of a change to warrant the purchase of an entirely new operating system. Windows XP Service Pack 2 changed that operating system a lot more than moving from Vista to W7 will.

So if your computers are running XP and everything works fine, there is no need to jump to W7 right away. And if you’ve already moved to Vista, you pretty much have W7 already, albeit without a couple nice additional features.

There is nothing wrong with Windows 7 — and we’ve always thought Vista was a better operating system than its reputation suggested — so if a new system happens to come with it, then you’ll get a fine operating system. But it’s completely overhyped for the minor changes it offers from Vista, making it not worth paying for the upgrade.