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.

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Enhanced external display support makes it easier for users to switch between internal and external monitors on notebook systems, or to work with projectors or second displays. Other enhancements include the ability to group common tasks together for external devices, such as music synchronization for media players or contacts/calendar synchronization for smartphones or PDAs.

Of course, there is a lot more to the performance and stability story. System administrators will find a slew of features aimed directly at their needs, such as the ability to remotely access trouble logs and memory dumps, as well as improved remote-control abilities.

Microsoft has also put a lot of effort into speeding up boots and shutdowns by improving the core code of the operating system. Other speed enhancements come from faster application launches, along with a taskbar and Start menu that respond more quickly. Alone, each of the improvements has a small impact on the user experience, but when viewed together, Windows 7 takes on the appearance of a faster, more stable OS than Vista ever hoped to be.

Windows 7 also sports improved backup and restore capabilities that should remove some of the excuses for not backing up systems. System restore points are now included in backups, making it much easier to return a system to an earlier state when all else fails. Users can back up Windows 7 PCs to network shares, eliminating the need for local external drives or expensive backup hardware.

Other features worth mentioning include a new fault-tolerant heap, which is supposed to reduce the number of crashes significantly, and the new Process Reflection, which clones crashed processes to memory, where Windows 7 will try to recover each cloned process and diagnose why the original process failed.

Multimedia

Windows Vista's media capabilities did not succeed in overpowering third-party applications, which are still available to users who prefer them over Windows Media Player or Microsoft's Media Center. Microsoft has clearly put a great deal of effort into Windows 7's multimedia capabilities, hoping to make Windows 7 the centerpiece of a modern entertainment center.

Windows Media Player 12(enhanced)Media Player supports more media formats than ever before, including AAC audio and H.264, DivX and Xvid video, with no third-party downloads required. The application now supports streaming of media to remote PCs or devices, allowing a Windows 7 system to function as a media server. Those using Windows Live services can also stream media to remote systems over the Web.

Media Player's interface has been redesigned and now offers a nifty pop-up mini music player that is less intrusive than its predecessor. Users will find it easier to do common tasks such as play, burn and sync, thanks to a new set of tabs on the right side of the player's screen.

One of the most interesting additions is the new "play-to" feature, which has the ability to send music, video and photos to any compatible device on the network. That can be done without running any proprietary software and without any additional setup. In other words, sending a song, video or photo to an Xbox or other compatible device just takes a mouse click and nothing more.

Windows Media Center(enhanced)On the surface, Windows Media Center offers a new UI that makes the product a little easier to navigate, but it's what's behind the scenes that really defines the Media Center's new capabilities.

First off, Media Center now supports more devices and can be used with Windows Touch. Those connected to cable TV will welcome the addition of ClearQAM support, a technology that receives unencrypted digital TV over cable-TV lines. With ClearQAM, users will no longer need to jury-rig a set-top box into the mix to get digital cable TV feeds.

The channel guide sports several improvements, including faster updates and improved controls, making it easier to record programs. An on-screen keyboard eliminates the need for a wireless keyboard and brings more functionality to a Media Center remote control.

Other enhancements include a better "commercial skip" feature, which allows viewers to skip ahead 30 seconds at a time. Those looking to build large libraries of recorded content will appreciate the new sorting features, which allow users to sort by title, date, length and so on, almost instantly.

It appears that Microsoft has listened to user gripes and has put much effort into getting both Media Player and Media Center right in Windows 7. The enhancements to Windows 7's multimedia capabilities could, in fact, place Microsoft's operating system back into competition with other PC-TV solutions and could eventually make a Windows 7 PC a fixture in the entertainment center.

Connectivity

While few users had complaints about the connectivity options under Windows Vista, Microsoft did find a way (or several ways) to improve on them.

Wireless connectivity(enhanced)Wireless devices are more easily installed, and many more devices are supported with Windows 7. Wi-Fi security has been enhanced with the addition of support for the industry standard Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS). The Windows Connect Now (WCN) feature helps to simplify the process of joining wireless networks by offering a cleaner, leaner UI, which uses the new View Available Network applet.

Users will find new device wizards that support wireless printers, network-attached storage (NAS) devices, cameras and other wireless devices. A new single-click capability eases access to available networks (Wi-Fi, mobile broadband, dial-up, VPN). Windows 7 can act as a wireless access point, allowing users to share a wireless broadband connection over a Wi-Fi network, which could be a very useful feature for mobile workgroups that can share a single 3G WAN connection over a Wi-Fi LAN.

Remote connections and Internet access(improved)VPN connections can now automatically reconnect if there is an interruption in service. Offline files are now automatically synchronized in the background, eliminating the need for user intervention to update file stores.

Several new capabilities have been added to remote desktop protocol (RDP) that will enhance remote desktop functions and capabilities when used with Windows Server 2008R2. Windows Parental Controls now offer more blocking and filtering options, along with better reporting and monitoring capabilities. Remote connections to corporate networks can be automated to work whenever Internet connectivity is available.

There are several other connectivity features that are enhanced and improved in Windows 7, not the least of which is the new version of Internet Explorer, which is available as an upgrade on Microsoft's earlier OSes as well.

XP Mode -- and more

XP Mode, which uses virtualization technology, is currently available as an add-on download. XP Mode works by creating a virtual Windows XP PC on the Windows 7 system, allowing users to run applications as if they were on a Windows XP system. Windows XP Mode should solve many of the compatibility problems users experienced with Windows Vista when running XP-specific applications.

There are dozens -- if not hundreds -- of other improvements incorporated into Windows 7, so many that a thick book would be needed to explain them all.

Windows 7 will be available in three different editions: Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate. The core feature sets are the same among the editions -- Professional adds XP Mode, business networking and automatic backup capabilities, while Ultimate includes the Professional features plus BitLocker encryption and multilanguage support.

One thing is certain: Windows 7 will prove to be much more than just a rehash of Windows Vista. It seems Microsoft has learned a lot from the failures of Vista and has created Windows 7 as a new operating system that looks to change people's perceptions about Microsoft's products.

Frank J. Ohlhorst is a technology professional specializing in products and services analysis and writes for several technology publications. His Web site can be found at www.ohlhorst.net.

This story, "Windows 7 RTM: Is it really better than Vista?" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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