Windows 7 RTM: Is it really better than Vista?

Now that Windows 7 RTM is out, it looks like Vista's replacement is just around the corner. Here's a rundown of all the major features.

Windows 7's Release to Manufacturing (RTM) build is now out, which mean's Vista's replacement is just around the corner. We look at all the major features of the new OS.

With the appearance of Windows 7's Release to Manufacturing (RTM) build, Microsoft may be hoping that it can finally dismiss Windows Vista as an unsuccessful experiment that paved the way for something better.

The company is obviously hoping that Windows 7's new and enhanced features will be enough to entice users back into the Microsoft fold and finally put Windows XP to rest. But the real question is: Will Windows 7 come across to prospective users as a new product or just a rehash of Windows Vista?

The only way to answer that question is to take an in-depth look at what is new and different about the new OS. I've noted which features are new, which are improved (in other words, have the same functions but perform them better), and which are enhanced (which have had new functions added).

Note: Most of these changes were discovered during my hands-on examination of Windows RC1 (which was reviewed for Computerworld by Preston Gralla.) I've been informed by a Microsoft representative that the only significant differences between this version and the RTM is that Windows Starter Edition is no longer limited to only three active applications at the same time (a change which was announced back in May), and that the desktop has a new default background.

Security

One of the biggest complaints about Windows Vista was security. The reality is that Vista did offer several security enhancements over Windows XP, but the way Microsoft went about those enhancements was problematic, to say the least. Users were hassled by frequent pop-ups, with cryptic messages that only seemed to complicate matters.

Microsoft's underlying security improvements were actually introduced with Windows XP SP2 and enhanced with Windows Vista, leaving most of the security fixes under Windows 7 to be relatively minor changes. Yet those changes will make a big difference in the user experience.

User Account Control (UAC)(enhanced)UAC has undergone several changes and enhancements to make it more user friendly, but without sacrificing essential security. First, users can reduce the frequency that UAC asks for permission to install or change a program. Users also have the option to turn off permission requests and set UAC to notify only.

AppLocker(new)AppLocker is a new feature that allows users to restrict program execution based upon firewall profiles. That could prove to be a handy feature for portable systems that are used both in a business environment and a home environment. Applications that are deemed less secure can be disabled when a user is connected to a corporate network and re-enabled when on a home or public network.

AppLocker also features in-depth application controls, which can be used to define polices to allow or prevent an application from launching.

BitLocker(enhanced)First introduced in Windows Vista, the BitLocker disk encryption feature has gone through some evolutionary changes which make it easier to use. BitLocker now supports single key instances, allowing data to be recovered using a common encryption key assigned by the network administrator.

BitLocker Mobile is a new addition -- it's an encryption scheme that can be applied to removable devices, such as USB drives, to keep information secure while in transit. Network policies can be defined to require all users to encrypt data on removable devices, perhaps preventing data leakage problems.

System Application Permissions(improved)Microsoft has reduced the number of applications that require administrator-level permissions to execute. With Windows 7, users will be prompted less frequently for permission to run system applications, which were once thought of as an administrator-level event.

Action Center(new)Action Center is a new security management feature that rolls all alerts and warnings into a single console, available from the Windows taskbar. Action Center informs the user of several events, including security problems, diagnostics and solutions. Having a single console is a much more efficient way to deal with the numerous events, warnings and messages that Windows tends to broadcast -- unlike Windows Vista, where warnings and messages would pop up at different times and were stored in different logs, making it hard to consolidate critical information for troubleshooting problems.

Windows Defender(improved)Windows Defender, Microsoft's anti-spyware product, sports a new interface that is much easier to understand than previously. What's more, Windows Defender now integrates with the new Action Center, which helps to keep users better informed. Under the hood, Windows Defender has been improved to provide more reliable continuous monitoring.

Windows Firewall(enhanced)Windows Firewall offers better integration with third-party security applications, which can now add extended features or provide customized firewall policies. Windows Firewall now supports multiple profiles, which can be active concurrently or separately based upon a user's connection status or other defined policies.

Other security enhancements and improvements include support for newer security devices, such as biometric access devices, as a means of logging into Windows 7. That feature will prove handy for the scores of notebook computers that sport fingerprint readers. Windows 7 also has plug-and-play support for smart cards based on elliptic curve cryptography (ECC), a highly secure method of storing data.

Another change: The autorun feature is now disabled by default for all media except for read-only CDs and DVDs. This should prevent drive-by virus attacks from USB key drives or other forms of rewritable media.

Although Windows 7's new and improved security features are welcome, they will not eliminate the need for third-party anti-virus and anti-malware products.

Navigation and UI

With each release of Windows, there are usually noticeable changes to the basic user interface and to Windows Explorer. Windows 7 follows the trend of changing things, but in this case it really is for the better. While Windows Explorer benefits from a minor face-lift, the real agent of change here is the user interface, where several new features have been introduced and other existing functions have been improved. The net result is more efficient navigation and a better experience for the end user.

Aero desktop(improved)Enhancements to Aero include features like Aero Peek, which allows users to make open windows transparent to see what's underneath. Users will also find the new Aero Shake a welcome feature -- you can simply "shake" the active window (by moving the mouse rapidly back and forth) to minimize it.

Aero Snap offers the opposite approach: Users can simply "snap" (by flicking the mouse up or down) a desktop item to expand it to the borders of the screen. Other changes are far too numerous to mention here, but it is safe to say that the Aero Desktop sports plenty of improvements.

Windows Sidebar(enhanced)The Windows Sidebar is no longer a Sidebar. Microsoft has decoupled Sidebar applications (called "gadgets") from the static area known as the Sidebar. Users can now place gadgets anywhere on the desktop and, thanks to Aero Peek, can see those gadgets behind transparent windows.

Jump lists(new)Windows 7 offers a new feature called jump lists, which enhances the functionality of the task bar. A jump lists pops up when the user right-clicks on an application in the Windows 7 task bar, and displays frequently-used elements for that application. The jump list can be populated with documents, audio, images, links and so on, making those items faster and easier to access.

Jump list information varies, depending on the application. According to Microsoft, the Jump List for IE 8 will show frequently viewed websites while the jump list for Windows Media Player 12 will list commonly played songs. Jump lists are customizable and users can pin anything they want to a jump list for a specific application.

Libraries(new)Microsoft has extended the tried-and-true concept of folders into something new. Libraries are similar to folders, but they group files based upon file type. For example, you can define a library for music files; regardless of what folders those files are actually located in, they will be included in your music library. Libraries are only for files and not shortcuts or links; they rely on Windows' built-in indexing and search functionality.

Windows Search(improved)Searching from both the Start menu and Windows Search has been improved. Search can now return results from libraries and external resources (SharePoint, Web sites, etc.). Windows 7 employs an enhanced search algorithm and now highlights related words, features dynamic filtering and offers input recommendations for search terms.

Windows Touch(new)Users can now leverage touch-screen technology to select icons and control applications, as with a mobile device. Windows Touch supports multitouch, allowing users to zoom in and out as well as perform other tasks by using multiple fingers.

Tablet PC support(enhanced)Handwriting recognition has been improved, and users can now input mathematical formulas and have them recognized. Personalized dictionaries and improved training are also part of the Tablet PC enhancements.

Microsoft has also included several other small improvements in the interface and some of the included applications. For example, the calculator now features support for touch, has a new interface and handles date calculations. Ribbon support has been added to WordPad and Paint, giving those applications more of an Office 2007 look and feel. Sticky Notes are now resizable and support virtual ink, as well as cut and paste.

An improved magnifier -- offering higher levels of magnification, a clearer image of the displayed items (text and graphics) and easier navigation -- and better speech recognition are highlights of the changes to Windows accessibility. Finally, some small but useful changes have been incorporated into Windows Explorer. For example, navigating the hierarchy to a parent folder is simpler -- even if the navigation box is reduced in size due to lack of space, the parent folder always remains in view.

Performance and stability

One of the biggest gripes against Windows Vista was performance. The OS came across as bloated and slow, with users waiting and waiting for systems to boot up or shut down. The performance shortcomings of Vista extended to program launches, as well as the responsiveness (or lack thereof) of the Start menu.

With Windows 7, Microsoft aims to make performance issues a forgotten annoyance. Make no mistake -- Windows 7 is still a complex bit of code and no one should expect earth-shattering performance out of the product. However, the improvements are readily noticeable when compared to Windows Vista.

ReadyBoost(enhanced)Microsoft's ReadyBoost technology was introduced with Windows Vista as a method to cache applications and data into fast RAM, instead of relying on slow hard drives. With Windows 7, ReadyBoost can be used with multiple memory devices concurrently. In other words, with Vista, ReadyBoost could only use a single USB key drive to cache with -- Windows 7 lifts that limit and allows users to plug in multiple key drives or other high-speed memory devices to crank up the boost.

Battery performance(improved)To extend battery life on laptops, Windows 7 offers more intelligence than Vista when it comes to powering peripherals and running applications. Windows 7 shuts down more processes and suspends more applications when the system is idle; the OS also features adaptive display brightness, automatically dimming the screen during periods of inactivity.

Windows 7 also powers down network ports if no cables are plugged in. A more efficient video decoder reduces the processing power needed when playing DVDs, further stretching battery life. New, more informative battery controls and tools give users the ability to fine-tune performance for extended battery life.

Troubleshooting, support and device controls(enhanced)Windows 7 features enhancements that should make troubleshooting and recovering from problems much easier than in earlier versions of the OS.

Startup Repair is now automatically installed, eliminating the need to boot from the installation DVD to repair a non-booting system, as was the case in Vista. After an unsuccessful boot, Windows 7 will load Startup Repair and try to automatically repair the installation.

End users can now document their experience with an application failure -- the Problem Steps recorder saves each step as a screenshot, along with accompanying logs and software configuration data. Windows 7 also includes a unified tracing tool, which collects network-related event logs and captures packets across all network layers to help network administrators solve problems.

Device management(improved)Windows 7 groups all external devices together under a single device state window, which makes it much easier for the user to work with and manage external devices. Device drivers are now automatically downloaded when not found locally, which eliminates the need for user intervention when installing a new device.

Mobile users will appreciate the new location-aware printing feature, which automatically determines which printers are available based upon which network a user is connected to.

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