I am not the kind of guy who rushes off to try any beta product gets on his way. I don’t even like Microsoft’s products that much; I am a Linux guy more than I am a Windows guy. But, as soon as I found out there was a Windows 7 beta program open to all, I felt the urge to enroll.

There are a lot of questions to ask. Is all the talk about Windows 7 speed a myth or reality? Can they live up to the expectations of regular Windows XP user, or will they follow the unfortunate fate of Vista?

There are a lot of questions to ask. Is all the talk about Windows 7 speed a myth or reality? Can they live up to the expectations of regular Windows XP user, or will they follow the unfortunate fate of Vista?

Good stuff, right from the installation

Windows 7 shows its merits long before you get the chance to actually use it, right from the installation. The installer loads in a snap, even on my old Celeron D machine. Beyond the quick loading and fancy graphics, there’s essence in there, too.

The installation drive selection dialog makes it easier to setup your PC to multi-boot than its predecessors. The installer asks a few questions in the beginning and then it can run fully unattended. Your attention is required after it’s over. This is a huge improvement over the previous Windows versions the last ten years, where they would interrupt in the middle of the installation to ask you all sort of questions.

You are not required to type in your Product Number (the 16-character serial from the Windows sticker on your PC) during the installation. This means that you can install in a hurry and use your PC even if you don’t have the Product Number at hand. However, you do need it to perform the registration and activate Windows. You have three days to comply, which is plenty, actually.

A familiar interface… with a twist

At first glance, the user interface resembles that of Windows Vista. You’ve got the familiar Aero theme, the round Start button and stuff, but the similarities end here. The first thing you’ll notice is that the taskbar is a bit taller. The other thing which strikes you as odd is that the running and iconified application display as buttons without text! In fact, you won’t see the application’s title on the taskbar any more. There is no quick start bar either. You can drag shortcuts to your favorite applications right on the taskbar and when they’re running these icons will “glow”. Passing your mouse over these icons shows a preview of the application window or windows (if there are multiple windows available). Overall this conserves screen real estate and reduces taskbar clutter.

One nice kick is how the progress of long operations is displayed. When you try – for example – to copy a huge file with Windows Explorer, its taskbar icon doubles as a progress bar which slowly fills green as the process is completed. This is what I call an overview of system activity!

What’s more, the new display engine supports gestures. Grab a window and shake it vigorously left and right; all the other windows minimize! Grab a window and drag it to the top of the screen. A ghost-like window border appears, implying that it will be maximized. You’re right, if you stop dragging on the top of the screen the window is maximized! You’ve opened ten Internet Explorer windows. Rest your mouse over the IE icon, the thumbnails of the page appear. Rest your mouse over one of them and it will fade into view right where it would restore if you would click on the thumbnail. Nice! Of course, these gestures work in other applications as well.

Forget the nuisances

One of the greatest woes of Vista users is the venerable UAC popping up every single now and then. Screen going black, you have to click on OK all the time… This leads you to systematically ignore UAC warnings, which kind of defeats the purpose of it being present in the first place! Thankfully, Microsoft listened and found a solution.

In Windows 7 you don’t get UAC warnings for most administrative operations (such as changing the system time or a system setting). You only get the UAC screen upon installing software. Finally! This how it’s supposed to work! UAC is meant to protect me, the user, from accidentally allowing the installation of malware, not torture me for using my PC.

The speed daemon

You may have known some – or more – of that features before reading this post. What the articles and presentation videos fail to convey is the speed and responsiveness of the new Windows. It’s ultra fast and responsive, comparable – and sometimes even better – than Windows XP, even on very old hardware.

I, frankly, didn’t expect my old Celeron D 3.06GHz to fare well. I was wrong. Everything was reacting in a snap and applications didn’t struggle. Unlike Vista, Windows 7 doesn’t seem to torture the hard drive any more, which is good because it makes less noise, consumes less energy and saves my hard drive from becoming a piece of high-tech trash really soon.

Overall impression

Microsoft has done exceptional work with Windows 7. It convinced me to buy it whenever it’s ready (most probably Q1 2010). It almost convinced me to migrate back to Windows, especially due to the performance factor. Let me tell you, I have been using Linux for many years and it’s been my primary OS the last two years. But the latest edition of my favorite desktop environment, KDE 4, is so damn slow it can compete Vista on being unusable. With Windows 7 delivering more eye-candy, more user friendliness, more performance and more attention to details than KDE 4, I can’t think of any reason not to use Windows.

All and all, Windows 7 is how Windows Vista was supposed to be in the first place.

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