10 things you need to know about Windows 7

Windows 7 officially ships on Thursday, which means end users and administrators running Windows XP (and to a lesser extent, Windows Vista) have some interesting decisions to make.

Test of Windows 7

To help you make those tough choices, here are 10 things you need to know, based on our hands-on testing of Windows 7.

1. Windows 7 is faster.

Win 7 performance is better than Windows XP SP3 and Vista SP2, but only if you run 64-bit Win 7. One potential gotcha: Much of the performance gains are reliant on having up-to-date 64-bit hardware drivers and components. That may mean buying new hardware, as older hardware may not have the necessary components and updated drivers.

2. Buy Microsoft's Desktop Option Pack.

It's only $10 a seat, and well worth it. MDOP contains important components, such as Microsoft's Diagnostics and Recovery Toolset (DaRT), which helps users and support personnel deal with catastrophic machine failures. There's also Advanced Group Policy Management, which allows for active and "pushed" policies to users and groups. This feature can prevent damage from zero-day failures and fine-tunes policies for system admins. And there's Asset Inventory Service, which tallies software inventories for both compliance and provisioning purposes. Other MDOP components address application and desktop virtualization.

3. Win 7 offers a clean start

There's a school of thought that says, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." In other words, why not stick with good old XP? Our answer is that where Windows on the desktop is needed, Win 7 is the way to go. Win 7 has the inherent architectural changes that secured XP, but it also doesn't have the estimated 1,300 patches (including Microsoft Office patches) that XP SP3 has. The user interface has improved dramatically with Win 7, we found that it's Microsoft's best behaving operating system since Windows 2000, and migrating to a fresh environment rids machines of the clutter that has built up over the years.

4. Upgrading from XP on the same hardware will be tricky

If you're considering upgrading from XP to Win 7 on the same machine, Microsoft doesn't directly support this, and recommends that a fresh installation be made on new hardware. Any attempt to upgrade will move the directory structure known as Documents and Settings into the new, Unix-like 'user' directory structure, and registry settings for Win 7 will break many applications.

Many applications will need post-Win 7 upgrade adjustments, or even re-installation. Win 7 also needs at least 5GB of extra space to perform an in-place upgrade from XP temporarily.

Of course, it is possible to upgrade. We tried it and found that upgrading a single machine from XP could take up to two hours.

5. Consider Windows Upgrade Advisor

Microsoft is offering a beta free download of an upgrade tester called the Windows Upgrade Advisor. It's good but not infallible, we found, especially when upgrading from XP 64-bit editions. Because it's beta, some of its foibles may be fixed by the time it's offered as a production app.

It's installed, examines a machine, and annotates a list of what will and won't work in an upgrade from XP and Vista editions. (However, Microsoft makes clear on its Web site that Upgrade Advisor is recommended only for Vista users and that XP users should buy new hardware.)

6. Another option: Third-party upgrade tools

Third-party tools like Laplink Software's PC-Mover Windows 7 Upgrade Assistant allow you to upgrade from XP to Win 7 on the same hardware. But, of course, the Laplink software isn't free, so that's an additional expense and an additional complication that you would be adding to the equation.

7. Check for hardware compatibility

Fresh Win 7 installations on new hardware will likely be successful if the hardware has Vista support, as most Vista drivers can be used successfully in lieu of Win 7 drivers, and drivers are the biggest portion of compatibility -- unless running XP is desired.

Remember that a 64-bit installation is what we recommend, and the drivers need to be 64-bit to gain best performance.

A trip to a hardware vendor's Web site to explore it for specific machine drivers is worth the effort. Some vendors, such as HP, have Win 7-specific information on compatibility, while others have promised Win 7-specific drivers — especially for 64-bit kernel use.

8. User Access Controls are much improved

Underneath the surface of Win 7 is a reformed kernel that's similar to Vista's in construction. Userspace is now separate from kernel space in strong ways, a policy that shocked and rocked the world at the advent of Windows XP SP2, and was then manically manifested in Vista's User Access Controls (UAC).

The UAC was designed to isolate bad behavior from viruses/malware from the basic components of the system and apps running above userspace. This isolation alone stopped many forms of badware. This same protection can be found in Win 7, but it won't drive you as ballistic as the constant nervous messaging to the user found in Windows Vista. By comparison, it's calm and its UAC messaging can be largely disabled.

9. Virtualization allows XP on Win 7

If you buy Windows 7 64-bit Professional version and higher, then XP can be run on Win 7 in a virtual machine. That's if you have a V/VT-compatible CPU in your machine and you remember to add additional memory (a gigabyte will often do) for running an XP session. XP must still be secured separately in this configuration as though it were 'stand-alone'.

10. Go for 64-bit

We can find no reason to recommend running Win 7 on existing 32-bit hardware as the 32-bit version of Win 7 has little performance advantage over Vista or XP in our comparative tests. The 64-bit version, however, can be much faster.

Henderson is principal researcher at Extreme Labs, Inc. He can be reached at thenherson@extremelabs.com.

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