Thursday, October 22, 2009

The pros and cons of switching to Windows 7

By Woody Leonhard

If you're still sitting on the fence about upgrading to Windows 7 — after all, it's been widely available for all of a few hours now — I'd like to regale you with my top eight reasons to jump in with both feet.

I'll also tell you three possible reasons for keeping the new OS on the shelf — for a while, at least.

After you wade through the Win7 marketing hype, you'll find a solid core of real improvements in the new release. There are many aspects of Windows 7 that cry out for adopting it and just a few that suggest sticking with Vista or XP.

• 8. Windows 7 is easier on the eyes

No doubt you're way beyond the stage where fancy wallpaper and cute icons curl your toes, but any way you look at it, Windows 7's a stunner. From wallpaper that changes itself to the tightly controlled group of icons in the area near the clock, Win7 puts the things you need most where you need them. The OS also moves the flotsam out of the way.

Since there's no Sidebar in Windows 7 — good riddance, I say — Win7's gadgets move to the high-rent district of the desktop, where you can move, resize, and snap them together neatly.

• 7. The Action Center puts all the nags in one place

Windows XP and Vista are notorious for scattering important information all over creation. At the same time — and quite perversely — every two-bit application you install on an XP or Vista PC can pop up annoying messages, distracting your attention while you're trying to get some work done.

Win7 reduces the shrill impositions to a minimum by funneling almost all interactions through the Action Center. Yes, the Action Center has its roots in the old Security Center, but it's all grown up now.

The Action Center serves as traffic cop for announcements that inform, warn, and often annoy. But rather than a pop-up window, the only alert you'll see is a flag in the notification area (near the clock) that turns yellow or red as needs dictate.

• 6. Win7's security is stronger and less intrusive

Security stuff gets complicated very quickly. Suffice it to say that Windows 7 is significantly more difficult to crack than Vista, which in turn was an order or magnitude tougher to break into than XP. (Internet Explorer and the .NET Framework are noteworthy exceptions.)

Compared to Vista's in-your-face User Account Control (UAC), the equivalent in Windows 7 is clipped and reined in. You can get to the settings easily. For most people, security won't be nearly so difficult in Win7 as it was in Vista — and it won't be as, uh, permeable as it was in XP.

• 5. You can make a movie of what ails your PC

If you haven't seen Windows 7's new Problem Steps Recorder (PSR), you owe it to yourself to try it. Click Start, type psr, and hit Enter. This little utility lets you record everything on the screen — except the stuff you type — as it happens. When you're done, PSR spits out an MHTML file that can be opened and played back in Internet Explorer.

Like the Snipping Tool in Vista (also available in Win7), once you try PSR, you won't know how you ever lived without it.

• 4. Search works — finally!

Windows XP's built-in search feature is a slow, painful, buggy joke. In Vista, search is a little less labored, occasionally usable, but still unreliable.

In Windows 7, Microsoft has, at long last, woven search into the operating system itself. There's no noticeable system overhead, searches proceed fairly quickly, and — most important of all — the results are accurate.

You can initiate a search from just about any location in Windows 7: on the Start menu, inside Control Panel, and in Windows Explorer. Although there are a few idiosyncrasies — such as no true wildcard searches and text searches that match only the beginnings of words — searches in Win7 usually find what you're looking for.

• 3. You get better control of your devices

Windows 7 centralizes control of all devices: printers, MP3 players, phones, keyboards, mice, fax machines, and anything else you plug into your computer. The controls all appear in a place called Device Stage.

The revolutionary part of Device Stage isn't its omniscience. Windows has had various Devices and Printers–type capabilities for years. Device Stage differs in that manufacturers have started writing their drivers to hook into Device Stage directly.

If you're tired of having 10 different programs in 10 different places to control your attached hardware, those days are rapidly drawing to a close. The junky little programs that go with the devices will disappear, too. At least I hope they will. So long, commercial driver-update utilities!

• 2. Win7 Libraries beat out My Documents any day

I first described Windows 7's Libraries feature in my May 14 Top Story. While Libraries don't do away with the need to organize your files, they make it much, much simpler to track files and put them in the right locations.

"A place for everything, and everything in its place," as Mom used to say. With Windows 7 Libraries, file management is easier than ever.

• 1. HomeGroup makes sharing safe, fast, and fun

A stroke of pure design genius, Windows 7 HomeGroup bundles all the sharing options you'd likely want in order to make files, printers, and media accessible to any other Windows 7 PC on your network.

As described in my May 14 Top Story and my Oct. 1 Woody's Windows column (paid content), homegroups work only among Windows 7 PCs — there's nothing analogous in XP or Vista. Still, sharing among Win7 PCs couldn't be simpler.

Three reasons why Windows 7 isn't for everybody

Despite these and other Win7 positives, there are at least three good reasons for Windows XP and Vista users to stick with their current OS:

• 3. If your PC isn't up to snuff, fuhgeddaboutit!

While Windows 7's hardware demands are less stringent than Vista's, there are zillions of PCs that simply can't handle Win7.

In my March 5 Woody's Windows column (paid content), I described how to convert any three- or four-year-old desktop PC into a Windows 7 wonder by bumping it up to 2GB of memory and sticking in a sufficiently powerful video card. I've retrofitted dozens of Windows XP desktops in this way, and the results are hard to believe. With a little bit of goosing and a couple of hundred bucks, those old PCs run Win7 much faster than they used to run XP.

However, if you have a desktop machine or laptop that's more than a few years old, upgrading its hardware to support Windows 7 is likely more trouble than it's worth. Don't bother.

• 2. If your hardware or software demands XP, stick with that OS

The XP Mode built into Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate is a Virtual PC–based implementation of XP. XP Mode makes sense for large companies that want to get the benefits of Windows 7 but have to put up with hardware or software that runs only under Windows XP.

For the typical home or small-business user, however, XP Mode is a pain in the neck. My advice? If the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor (which you can download from the Microsoft Windows 7 site) indicates that your XP setup isn't compatible with Windows 7, either upgrade the machine's software and hardware or give up on running Win7 on the system. Life's too short.

• 1. Don't try to fix what ain't broke

By far the most-compelling argument for staying with Windows XP or Vista is this: The Windows you have now does everything you need, and you aren't overly concerned about rootkits or other nearly invisible malware hosing your machine. In this case, there's no compelling reason to go out on a limb with Win7.

Replacing your operating system is slightly simpler than performing a self-administered brain transplant, but it's still no walk in the park. In the vast majority of cases, upgrades to Windows 7 go in smoothly, with a few minor irritations — maybe you can't find the install CD for an old program, for example, or you forgot to write down a password.

But in a small percentage of cases, the Windows 7 installation doesn't go well at all. As they say, stuff happens. Any upgrade could potentially become calamitous, and Windows 7 isn't immune.

If the thought of upgrading your system makes you lose sleep, hey — don't worry. Better the devil ye ken, eh?

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