First impressions of Windows 7

By Dave Bailey
19 Aug 2009 View Comments
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Windows 7 screenshot
Libraries provide a single access point for files

Microsoft sent the final version of Windows 7 to manufacturing last month, and has now made the operating system (OS) available for download by its MSDN developer network and Technet users. The formal release of the software is scheduled for 22 October.

Computing downloaded the 2.4GB x86 Ultimate .iso image from our Technet account, and at the time Microsoft’s site was taking a pounding from the high number of people doing likewise. Where usually we could achieve 14Mbit/s download speeds, on the night it became available we were lucky to see 120Kbit/s, and sometimes speeds dropped as low as 25Kbit/s.

Using a test notebook, we performed a fresh install over Windows 7 Ultimate release candidate OS. The first, and somewhat amusing, thing to note is that when you enter a password to log in, a new sound greets your entry to Windows 7. Although the traditional two-note entry sound is there, it has been transformed into a fairly triumphalist digital trumpet sound – perhaps an ironic acknowledgement of its predecessor Vista’s anything-but-triumphant reception by consumers and businesses.

All seemed well at first, but a quick performance check on the system using the Windows Experience Index (WEI) showed that the graphics card driver was missing – WEI was only 1.0 for graphics performance.

The card was an nVidia GeForce 8600M GS model, and for experienced users this scenario will necessitate a trip online to find the right driver. For inexperienced users who have not bought a system with Windows 7 pre-installed, a support call could be required. Businesses that decide to roll out Windows 7 should be sure to have all the necessary drivers and applications ready to create an image of their systems.

Normally, organisations would wait until the first service pack before deploying a new Windows operating system. However, since Windows 7 and Vista share a common code base – a fact that has led some to describe Windows 7 as simply Vista plus an enormous service pack – there is a case for making the move sooner rather than later.

Another way of installing Windows 7 is to upgrade straight from Vista. After we did this, we had no driver problems and all our applications successfully made the transition.

A quick WEI check gave a score of 4.6, pretty similar to the 4.7 score we received for Vista Ultimate. However, even with the Windows 7 beta and release candidate, the number of processes and services that tied up memory and processor on Vista was significantly reduced, so apparent performance as experienced by the user is much better. Boot-up and shutdown times are also much improved.

Microsoft has taken notice of user complaints regarding Vista’s habit of continually hassling the user with pop-ups, and Windows 7 keeps these to a minimum, even though its original assertion that this would reduce security is a valid point.

One potential problem for businesses, and one on which Microsoft has been working hard, is application compatibility – something that proved a particular headache for early adopters of Vista. We only had one issue that appeared in the Windows Compatibility Report generated by the upgrade from Vista to Windows 7, with Adobe Encore being flagged as a potential problem.

Enhanced mobile security

When BitLocker drive encryption made its appearance on Vista in 2006, data protection horror stories were less common – this was before the 2007 HM Revenue & Customs data loss of 25 million unencrypted child benefit records. Today, data protection, especially for portable data devices, is a major issue for IT managers.

BitLocker previously allowed onboard disks to be encrypted, but not portable devices. Windows 7 now allows USB devices to be encrypted and protected by passwords, and also optionally with any onboard SmartCard readers.

We found it easy to set up and encrypt drives, but businesses will possibly be more interested by the ability to manage Windows 7 systems’ ability to write to portable drives. Using group policy through Active Directory, system administrators rolling out Windows Server 2008 R2 can enforce encryption on users’ portable devices and can also back up recovery keys.

For IT managers, Windows 7 has lots of new features, but the majority will need the organisation to move to Windows Server 2008 – requiring 64-bit computing in back-office servers.

Using Windows Server 2008 R2, system administrators can also enforce which applications run on users’ systems, using AppLocker. Again, this uses Active Directory’s group policy feature.

In fact, a lot of Windows 7 functionality is tied into Windows Server 2008 R2. The DirectAccess feature, which gives mobile users access to back-office corporate networks and data, is another. Microsoft may even be helping global adoption of IPv6 with DirectAccess, since it uses IPv6-over-IPsec to encrypt communications. Moving to IPv6 should be on network administrators’ minds, given that some estimates for the exhaustion of IPv4 addresses are anywhere between 2010 and 2012.

Yet another Windows 7 feature enabled by Windows Server 2008 R2 is BranchCache, which caches headquarters’ content at branch offices to reduce network bandwidth requirements.

Teleworkers might find the Homegroup feature useful in setting up networked systems at home, and it was easy to do this. Setting up the new Libraries feature was also simple and allows users to group related content.

There are four default libraries: Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos, but users can create new ones. Unlike earlier versions when grouping content involved separate folders and sub-folders, users can now set up libraries regardless of where the content is stored, and access that content through a single entry point.

Improved search capabilities

The search function in Windows 7 has also been given significant enhancements, making it simpler for enterprise users to search across a broader variety of data sources. With federated search, Windows 7 allows users to search across local and networked storage, as well as intranets and data contained in firms’ SharePoint installations. Microsoft has based federated search on the OpenSearch standard, and users can populate the feature with sites to be searched or IT administrators can set up links using group policy.

Google is no doubt hoping the recent announcement of Chrome OS for netbooks might cause a few IT managers to delay Windows upgrades to see if they may have a genuine alternative – although Chrome OS is unlikely to be available much before summer 2010.

But we would expect most businesses to leapfrog Vista rollouts and move straight to Windows 7. Only Microsoft could release an operating system that garnered as many bad reviews as Vista, and still live to fight another day. Windows 7 promises to be what Vista should have been.

Click on to page 2 to read about Windows 7 upgrade issues

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