Judging from the test version that was widely downloaded by the public, shifting to Microsoft's Windows 7 promises to inflict much less pain than its predecessor, Vista. Some of the changes to Windows even make computing easier and more fun. We aren't alone in predicting that Windows 7 will be a popular upgrade when it hits the market later this year or early in 2010.
Buyers will have to pay the usual Microsoft tax to upgrade an existing computer. But the added benefit is that, unlike Vista, this new version of Windows will help them save some cash:
Cheaper Rigs -- One of the biggest knocks on Vista was its voracious appetite for processing power and memory. Many new PCs that were tagged "Vista Ready" were not, leaving consumers twiddling their thumbs waiting for the system to do its thing. The eye candy promised with the fancy, new interface disappeared if the hardware wasn't first rate. Happily, Windows 7 appears to run faster and demand less of hardware. Some reviewers even suggest it will run on older hardware that choked on Vista.
A Bite from Apple -- Windows 7 is more efficient and easy to use. The software, for example, makes it easy to find and "peek" at a specific window among many that might be open. That "Aero Peek" is a big hit with many reviewers. The software uses "libraries" to organize like files, such as music or videos, that are scattered across multiple drives. Microsoft also made Windows 7's security less of a nag than Vista's. Some reviewers have even predicted Windows 7 might reverse Microsoft's market share losses to Apple. And while some new Macs have recently matched premium PCs in value, Apple avoids the discount market where many consumers would rather buy.
[Read how Apple erased the Mac premium on some desktops.]
Printer Pal -- Many of us had to buy new printers, scanners and other gear that plugged into our PCs because old models wouldn't work with Vista. Hardware makers were slow to write new drivers, partly because Microsoft made late changes before launching Vista. The good news is two-fold for Windows 7. Manufacturers have largely caught up in writing their Vista drivers, at least the ones they intend to, and those drivers will work with Windows 7. So today's Vista users, and even many XP users, should be able to keep their current printer.
Cheap Starter -- Microsoft hopes to keep its system on the lowest-priced notebooks, the so-called netbooks. Vista was a no go on their limited hardware. Windows 7 already runs better on a netbook. Plus, Microsoft is crafting a special version -- a "Starter Edition" -- that it will sell at cut rates to netbook makers. Granted, the multiple editions of Vista caused consumer confusion and the same thing could befall Windows 7. And the starter edition isn't without controversy because it arbitrarily limits the PC to running three applications at a time. But it should help keep Windows netbooks competitive with Linux versions, and help keep overall netbook prices down.
[Read how netbook sales are soaring]
Cozy Connecting -- Getting two Windows computers talking to each other at home has been about as easy and fun as doing our taxes. Windows 7 introduces the idea of a "HomeGroup" that recognizes, finally, our homes don't need FBI-grade security and permissions. HomeGroup doesn't work as smoothly as we'd hope in the test version, and it only works with other Windows 7 machines. Still, it's light years better than Vista and anything before it. Users can hope that they'll finally be able to have home networks without hiring the Geek Squad or buying extra software like Network Magic.
[Read about the future for Network Magic]
Topple TiVo -- Windows 7 adds much-needed capability to the Media Center software for managing movies, TV shows, photos and music. The software has been part of some Windows versions since XP. But only now, for example, can it properly recognize and manage TV channels from over-the-air stations that have made the switch to digital. A new "Play To" feature also makes it push-button easy to send songs or videos to other devices. Just maybe we can forget TiVo or cable boxes and their monthly fees.
Power Miser -- Personal computers in general are surprisingly dumb about using power. Windows PCs in particular often run at full roar when idling or even sleeping is all that's needed. Windows 7 takes new leaps in using the PC's smarts to reduce power use. It cuts off processor cores that aren't needed and shuts down USB ports and Wi-Fi cards more forcefully. It also learns from the user: If it's timed to turn off a monitor in a minute but the mouse is moved immediately after, the timer adjusts to wait longer. Over several years, the bits of electricity saved will help pay some of the cost of upgrading.