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Windows 7 Review

Google-Caliber Desktop Search

The new global search feature will undoubtedly become the new user’s best friend. It’s available as soon as you open the start menu (which otherwise exactly replicates Vista’s) and churns up results as soon as you start pouring in text, letter-by-letter. It most obviously eliminates the need to use deeply buried shortcuts – just type “photoshop” and you’re there – but because it searches so deeply, we found it even more useful elsewhere. For instance, we uncovered OS options much faster with search than by manually combing for them. Want to know how to customize the taskbar? Just type “taskbar” and the relevant control panel options all pop up in an instant – no need to root around looking for just the one want. Those with an aversion to keyboards can still click their way to what they need, but a little prudent searching removes a lot of bumbling around.

Windows 7 Search

Windows 7 desktop search

Performance

Though an impressive basket of extras went a long way in smoothing over our Vista misgivings, the real test came when we broke out the stopwatch and measured frame rates. After all, bells and whistles don’t go very far when they slow your computer to an unbearable chug. (We’ve learned that, right Microsoft?)

On paper, you wouldn’t really expect any major difference, based on the system requirements. Both Windows 7 and Vista demand a 1GHz processor, 1GB of memory, and the required hard drive space has swelled from 15GB to 16GB. That said, needing the same hardware can be considered progress when computers continue to get faster and cheaper every day. Any new machine on the market today should be able to handle Windows 7.

Racing both operating systems against each other on boot-up times proved that system requirements don’t mean everything. Windows 7 took us from our dual-boot menu to a working browser window opened on the desktop in 45 seconds. Vista did it in one minute and five seconds. That’s some significant progress.

Though we don’t have an actual metric to prove it, we can also attest – based on the impression of every DT editor who tried Windows 7 – that it definitely feels faster. Windows open and close quicker, menus snap open without delay, and that dreaded spinning wheel of blue that indicates the system is busy has been all but banished.

Game Time

Of course, the real test for Microsoft will be winning over gamers, an audience that almost universally shunned Vista for its negative impact on performance. When you’re dealing with audience willing to rip open their computers and cool them with water for an extra ounce of performance, all the glassy windows and widgets in the world just don’t matter.

And they won’t be disappointed this time around. Microsoft has vastly improved gaming performance with Windows 7. As you’ll recall from our HP Firebird review, the machine seemed to struggle with both MotoGP and Crysis at 1080p resolution when running Vista. Both games were technically playable, but in both cases we had to trim back other settings to get the smooth frame rates that make games enjoyable and fun to play.

Running the same games on Windows 7, we encountered no such issues. Same system, same games, same settings – no stutter. The big firefights that brought the Firebird to its knees in Crysis went over without issue, and MotoGP 08 played – with all settings maxed out – without a hiccup. Benchmarks didn’t really seem to bear out any improvement, though. Running 3DMark06 produced a score of 12,266 3DMarks, which is incredibly close to our original 12,297 from Vista. But we know a difference when we play it.

The Junker Test

Windows Vista notoriously strangled older PCs, but with the reputation for performance Windows 7 had started to garner, we couldn’t help but test it on the same aging, nearly-broken laptop we turned into a home media server. With a Pentium 4 processor and paltry 512MB of RAM, it wasn’t even technically over the minimum requirements, but we went ahead and pushed anyway. After installing new firmware for the DVD drive to get it to load, it miraculously worked. Unfortunately, it’s no substitute for Windows XP. Where XP could go from power button to desktop in 30 seconds on this machine, Windows 7 hit a much longer one minute and 23 seconds. It also seemed a bit more sluggish on the desktop, but to be fair, just idling ate up 44 percent of our RAM, so a rather inexpensive memory upgrade would probably improve performance significantly. We also have to give it credit for finding most of the drivers we needed on its own, including some notoriously finicky ones for an old Linksys PCMCIA card. Gamers need not apply, but for surfing, typing, and some light Solitaire, it actually worked. Will Windows 7 replace XP as the OS of choice on aging computers? Probably not. Will it work in a pinch, even on machines that shouldn’t even be able to run it? Unlike Vista, that answer is yes.

Dell Inspiron 5150 Junker

Dell Inspiron 5150 junker running Windows 7

Still a Few Hiccups

Despite otherwise shining experience with Windows 7, we do feel obliged to report a few zingers it sent us during our days of testing. After changing themes, for instance, we found that the taskbar icons no longer worked until we reopened the windows. We also had Launcher.exe crash the first time we ran MotoGP 08, and some older software forced us out of Aero mode and into Windows Basic mode since it lacked support for it. So it goes. These are all minor inconveniences, and none of them significantly diminished our experience, or held us up from accomplishing anything important. Our biggest hang-up actually came from the wireless mouse included with HP’s Firebird, which sporadically stopped working every 10 minutes until we turned it off and on again.

Conclusion

With OS X Snow Leopard, innumerable different flavors of Linux and now Google’s own ChromeOS lining up to challenge Microsoft’s superiority in operating systems, its stranglehold on the market has never seemed more precarious. But let Windows 7 lay rumors of an OS coup d’état to rest. Like an old fascist dictator, Vista is officially dead and buried, and its successor is one you can actually warm up to. Microsoft has not only atoned for Vista’s grievances with vastly improved performance and fewer nags, a number of old standbys that no one was complaining about (like the task bar) have been reimagined and made better at the same time.

Pros:

  • Painless installation
  • Quick boot times
  • Reimagined, clutter-free taskbar
  • Vastly superior gaming performance

Cons:

  • Some users will still crave more customization
  • Windows XP still outshines on older systems

For more on Windows 7 check out our articles: Experts Review Windows 7, Recommend You Upgrade and Windows 7 Upgrade Guide: Everything You Need to Know.

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