Windows 7 is fantastic!

Like most avid computer users, the whole concept of trashing my computer and reinstalling everything from scratch is not something I relish doing because it is a task fraught with many technical difficulties that could easily leave one without a functional computer, which would be a major disaster, of course. So when Windows 7 was released on October 22 2009, I was in two minds about whether or not to upgrade to it.

Like many technically-minded persons, I have a long history of doing Windows installs, both for myself and for my customers, and let me tell you, Windows 7 is the least painful install I have ever done.

Back in 1994, before Windows 95 came out (in October 1995), I was running Windows for Workgroups 3.11, which was ┬áreally unstable and a very unreliable operating system to use. It frequently embarrassed presenters doing PowerPoint presentations on it at conferences, because it would often terminate with a GPF (General Protection Fault) in the middle of their presentation, usually at the point where they were boasting about how robust their new software was. The alternative at that time was Windows NT workstation 3.51, which was better in many ways. However, the biggest obstacle to running Windows NT was it’s huge memory requirement – 16MB! Okay, today that is a joke, but back in 1994, 16MB of memory was expensive, and only “high end CAD stations” had so much memory *rolls eyes*.

By the time Windows 95 came out, Windows NT 4.0 was also on the scene and there was some confusion about whether to run Win95 or WinNT. I eventually sided with Win95 and then later Win98SE because it boasted plug-and-play, a feature which only made it into the NT line in Windows 2000. Windows 98SE served as my operating system till October 2005 when I finally decided it was worth my trouble to upgrade to WinXP. I was supposed to have migrated to Windows 2000 in 2001 when I purchased a new PC from Siltek Dynamic Distribution (shortly before they went bust) which came with Win2000. However, Win2000 never worked on the supplied hardware. It continually froze the system and I was forced to downgrade to Win98SE in order to use the system.

In 2005, in order to install WinXP, I had to buy a new machine, because the hardware of 2001 was not good enough to run XP. I purchased an entry level Intel Celeron machine from LightEdge (which has also subsequently gone bust), which suffered continually from an overheating problem which would cause the PC to just turn itself off, often right in the middle of something important. In July 2008 its motherboard finally gave out, and I purchased a new Foxconn 45CMX motherboard, 1GB DDR2 667Mhz RAM, 160GB SATA2 HDD and Intel Celeron 440 2.0Ghz processor from Sahara. Sahara assembled the components for me. This system, although Celeron based, is fully capable of running Windows 7, both 32 bit and 64 bit versions.

One might think that a mere Intel Celeron processor is not powerful enough to run Windows 7, but if you think that, then you are wrong. In fact, Windows 7 runs faster on this hardware than WinXP did. With 1GB of RAM, the 32 bit version of Windows 7 can be installed. If you want to install the 64 bit version, you just need another 1GB of RAM, which costs about R250. To install the 64 bit version, your processor must support 64 bit operation. There are two utilities you can use to check out whether your hardware is up to scratch: Belarc Advisor and Windows 7 upgrade advisor.

I never installed Windows Vista. After hearing about all the problems people were experiencing with Vista, I felt it really wasn’t worth the trouble to switch from XP, which was doing the job well enough.

In March this year, I purchased an external 1TB USB hard drive, which I use to store all my data on. At the time, WinXP was installed on a 20GB IDE drive, and I wanted to see if it would run any better on a faster SATA2 drive, so I did a reinstall of XP on the 160GB drive I had purchased last year from Sahara. However, something went wrong with the installation. I’m not sure what, but there was something about the new hardware configuration that XP didn’t handle well and some parts of XP remained broken (I managed to fix almost all the issues, but not all) until last Friday when I decided to install Windows 7.

The installation of Windows 7 was much easier than I anticipated. I expected to hit numerous driver issues, but I only had one (with getting my iBurst Desktop USB modem installed). Unlike with installing WinXP, Windows 7 didn’t ask me to feed it a driver disk for each bit of hardware in the system – Windows 7 came equipped to handle all of it (with the exception of my iBurst modem).

Before installing Windows 7, I knew the most important thing to me was that my Internet work right away. So a week before doing the install, I checked for drivers for my iBurst modem on iBurst’s web site, but did not find one for Windows 7 at the time. They only had the usual 32 bit WinXP drivers, a 64 bit driver and a 32 bit Vista driver. I downloaded all of them, just to be sure. They now have a 32 bit Windows 7 driver available for download, which is the correct one to use. I managed to get my iBurst modem working with the Vista driver, just to get online and then I got the Win7 version. The XP drivers do not work with Win7.

One of the questions I had to answer before installing Windows 7 was whether to install the 32 bit version or the 64 bit version. To get the full benefit of a 64 bit operating system, the software you use should be compiled to that platform. When I checked, I saw that there exist no 64 bit versions of Firefox, Safari, or Google Chrome. There is a hacked 64 bit Firefox version, but no official 64 bit release. It seems likely that within the next 12 months, a lot more 64 bit software will be released, but right now there is still a dearth of 64 bit applications. 64 bit drivers are also scarce. Not every bit of hardware has a 64 bit driver, and if you are the owner of such hardware it means that you will not be able to use it with the 64 bit version of Windows 7. At this time, Linux has more support for the 64 bit platform, mainly because most of the software can simply be recompiled for the targeted platform. Doing that on Windows is only possible if you have access to the driver source code and the requisite compilers.

So my personal recommendation, after doing a lot of reading around, is that the 32 bit version is probably the “right version” to install for most people at this time. The nice thing about getting Windows 7 Ultimate edition is that it includes DVDs for both the 32 bit and 64 bit editions. So when my favourite web browsers are available for the 64 bit platform, I will be interested in giving 64 bit computing a try. But I will probably only do that on future new hardware. Without a doubt, the future of personal computing lies on the 64 bit platform and five years from now, new systems will install 64 bit operating systems without a second thought about it. If you do install Windows 7 64 bit, you will not be able to run any 16 bit software, which includes old DOS and Win3.x apps.

WinXP cannot be upgraded, so to install Windows 7, I booted from the 32 bit Windows 7 DVD. The installation process allowed me to delete the partitions on my 160GB SATA2 HDD that contained my WinXP installation and then recreate them for use by Windows 7. The whole installation process was fast, lasting about 20 minutes. It basically did everything and only asked me a few questions, such as my username, computer name, password to create, what country I lived in and what hard disk to install Win7 on.

If you only have one hard disk, upgrading will be painful, because you will have no choice but to back up all your data to CDs or DVDs before you trash your system and start over. A two disk system is much less hassle because then you just use a smaller hard disk for the operating system, and a larger one for your user data. A 1TB or 1.5TB hard disk for user data is a good option. I recommend an external USB hard disk for data, because you can take it anywhere with you.

So once its all installed what do you get that’s so fantastic?

Essentially, you get a very polished operating system that just looks great and works well from day one. Windows 7 seems to be on top of things from the start. It knows what hardware you have, knows what drivers to install to make it work and then gets everything setup right, so from the moment you first start using it, you don’t have to spend hours tweaking it.

For instance, WinXP didn’t know what to do with my Samsung SyncMaster 24″ LCD display, nor did it have the drivers to make my RADEON ATI HD3450 1GB display card work right. So I had to install drivers for both the display card and the LCD display panel and then with those great specs, XP thought it would be great to default to a screen resolution of 800×600. Like duh. Nobody installs a 24″ display to view the world in 800×600 resolution. Windows 7 has the sophistication to know that a screen like that should default to 1920×1080 resolution, with 32bit pixel colour. And it turned on the fancy new Aero desktop, without me having to tell it what refresh frequency to use etc.

Out of the box, Win7 has great support for multimedia applications. If you have a sound card and a DVD writer installed (like most systems do these days), you can start listening to music, watching DVDs, managing your library of movies and music without having to scramble for software disks, because Win7 installs both Windows Media Player and Windows Media Centre for you.

Navigating your hard disk with Windows Explorer is much easier than the old My Computer interface. I found the bread crumb navigation bar really effective, because you can jump back up the directory (folder) tree with one click. The bread crumb navigation style is found everywhere, even in applications, and in the Control Panel. The Control Panel interface is slick. It hides complexity from the non-technical user, but easily allows more advanced users to access the finer details.

Everywhere you look, you see enhancements – a better interface, an easier way of doing things, more eye candy. The built-in Calculator mini-app, for instance, now has options for programmers and statisticians in addition to the usual standard and scientific. I like the Sticky Notes app. Just write a short note to myself and stick it on my desktop. I like the built-in Chess game. I like how they have a desktop theme for South Africans which displays a gallery of photos of locations from around South Africa, including my home city, Cape Town. I like that I can go browse for more eye-candy laden themes online. When you have a huge LCD display, you can treat it like your very own personalised window on a world of beautiful art and natural beauty from all over. My personal preferences are for photos of beautiful landscapes. Windows 7 helps me to indulge this fetish.

Running on the same hardware, Windows 7 offers a more compelling user experience than Windows XP. Nevertheless, I will be installing an extra 1GB of RAM into my system (for a total of 2GB). Windows 7 will make good use of it. Windows XP would look at the extra RAM and wonder what to use it for.

So if you’re wondering if it’s worth it to switch to Windows 7, then my conclusion is a resounding YES. This is a good operating system, the best version of Windows to date. If you like using Windows, you will love Windows 7.

UPDATE:

Microsoft has two useful utilities for businesses wanting to deploy Windows 7 across their network. Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit and Microsoft Application Compatibility Toolkit 5.5.