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Some see things as they are, and ask "Why?"   I dream things that never were, and ask "Why Not".  
Robert F. Kennedy

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Old Chinese Proverb

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Windows 7 - The Right Stuff? (Part 1)

Originally published on 8/12/09 as
Windows 7 - The Right Stuff? (Part 1)

Today’s topic: Windows 7.

By now everyone knows that Microsoft’s release of Windows Vista was, shall we say, something less than stellar.

It’s slow.  It’s a resource hog.  It takes massive amounts of disk-space to install. It doesn't play well with others.  And – my biggest beef – it’s *WAAAAY* too noisy visually.  Microsoft promised us the Mercedes with a 12 cylinder engine – and we ended up getting a little grey Volkswagen with three flat tires.

With Windows 7, they come a lot closer to their original ideal.  It may not be a 12 cylinder roadster, but it’s certainly not something I’d be ashamed to be seen with.

My System:

My target system is a Compaq Presario FP5000 series laptop, with an AMD-64 X2 processor and two gigs of memory.  It’s not the slowest, smallest system out there, but it’s also not a drool-inspiring ultra-gamer beast either.  IMHO, it represents a close approximation to a "reasonable" machine that would be owned by mere mortals like us that don’t have thousands to spend on their PC’s.

I downloaded (from Microsoft TechNet):
  • Windows 7 Ultimate
  • Windows 7 Professional
  • Windows 7 Home Premium
  • Windows 7 Home Premium (x64)
I performed the following installs:
  • Windows 7 Professional – all by itself
  • Windows 7 Home Premium, Home Premium (x64), and Ultimate as a multi-boot install.
I did not do anything special to optimize the installation or operation of the machines.  I simply let the installers run and, (with the exception of the multi-boot install), accepted the default setup as given.  After each install, I ran Windows Update and allowed any software and/or hardware patches to be installed.

The one "non-default" setting I chose was to setup the Windows Update settings later – and when I *DID* set it up, I set it to simply notify of available downloads.

I installed Avira Anti-Virus, (http://www.free-av.com/), and EasyBCD, (a Vista / Windows 7 boot options editor – http://neosmart.net/), into each of the installs.

The Install Process:

The install for Windows 7 is a typical Windows install, reminiscent of XP, except you don’t get 30 minutes of commercials telling you how wonderful Microsoft and Windows 7 will be for you.

The nice thing about the install is that – even without custom drivers installed – Windows does an excellent job of detecting hardware and configuring sane options.

Another nice point:  On my Compaq laptop, installing either XP or Vista was a multi-multi-step process:
  • Install the base OS
  • Find and install the drivers for your machine’s specific hardware.
    This is a non-trivial exercise – many drivers are simply NOT available!
  • Update
  • Install updates to the drivers.
  • Re-update.
  • Install more updates.
  • Re-update again.
  • Etc.
These installs can easily take several hours to complete, just to get you to the point where you can begin to configure the machine to your liking.

On Windows 7, the first update after install provides all the drivers that the base install missed – like the Synaptics touchpad drivers, NVIDIA graphics and motherboard drivers, etc., for both the 32 and 64 bit versions. (It should be noted that driver support for the 64 bit versions of Vista was sparse, to say the least.)

Additionally, the updates are *small* - the 32 bit systems took about 90 megs of updates, and the 64 bit system’s update was 105 megs or thereabouts.  Unlike Vista or XP, you don’t have to wait hours and hours for all the updates to download and install.

After a reboot – and a short pause to set things the way I like ‘em – I was ready to go.

Multi-boot Installs:

Windows 7 does one thing that – depending on your point of view – is either a good thing or a bad thing.  The initial install of the first instance of Windows 7 to a clean hard drive creates *TWO* partitions:
  • A 100 meg "System" (boot) partition.
  • An install partition for the operating system.
The immediate disadvantage of this is that they use up a valuable "primary" partition for the system partition – leaving you with only three additional primary partitions that you can create.  (Actually only two if you exclude the operating system's install partition.)  Additionally, the installer's partition editor that Windows 7 provides was not able to make extended partitions.  This limits you to a maximum of three installed operating systems – unless you want to go through some extra-installation gymnastics – which I did not try.

The advantages of a separate system partition may be a lot more subtle.

The folks at Microsoft, in all probability, decided on a separate "boot" partition to overcome the issues that Vista had with installing multiple instance of itself, or installing it with other operating systems – like XP or Linux.

To be perfectly fair, a "typical" (one OS per box) user won’t even notice the difference.

I do have one gripe:  Though Windows 7 handles multiple installs relatively well – they missed the boat as far as labeling the systems were concerned.  I am quite sure that Microsoft – and its installers – know how to determine the version of a previous OS install, so providing a better label than "Windows 7" for every Windows 7 instance it finds should not be difficult.  They could have - at the very least - have labled them as "64 bit" or "32 bit".  Or maybe used partition-labels, if they existed?

The workaround to this is to manually edit the boot labels using BCDedit from the command line – or download a boot manager program like EasyBCD.

Install Footprint:

After the install, setup and update, a check of the hard disk properties shows that the 32 bit versions weigh in at just less than 10 gigs total disk used, and the one 64 bit version used just a tad over 11 gigs of hard drive space.  Compare this with Vista which used closer to 20 or 30 gigs of space on my machine after install.

Next: Using Windows 7

Windows 7 - The Right Stuff? (Part 2)

Originally published on 8/12/2009 as
Windows 7 - The Right Stuff? (Part 2)

In part one we looked at the installation and update process for Windows 7. Now, let’s fire it up!

Using Windows 7:

The first thing you notice when you launch Windows 7 is that it is not as visually noisy as Vista is.  No gadgets.  No “side-bar” hogging precious desktop space.  You also do not get the plethora of system-tray icons demanding your attention.

The gadgets and side-bar are not gone – they are just not enabled by default in Windows 7.

Likewise, a lot of the resource-hogging eye candy has been toned down by default.  It’s still there; you just have to ask for it.

What you *DO* notice is a clean, uncluttered workspace done in a more muted, pastel color-scheme that borders on minimalist.  Even the task-bar is a muted blue-grey with the START button being the only real splash of color on it.

It’s almost as if Microsoft, knowing how they shot themselves in the foot with all the hoopla and eye-candy surrounding Vista, decided to tone the visuals waaaay down in Windows 7 – and let the operating system itself do the talking.


The one big difference you will notice when you start up Windows 7 is the new splash screen.  Four illuminated color sprites dance around the center of the screen, eventually morphing into an illuminated Windows logo that seems to pulsate with energy.  I don’t know who the graphic artists were, but they obviously watched way too many Sci-Fi movies. It’s actually not bad, but it is kind-of weird in an eerie New Age / Alien way.

Start-up speed is good.  It’s not really any slower than a cold XP start-up.  Your computer is up and running and you are either presented with your desktop – or your login prompt, (if you use passwords), in a reasonable amount of time.


My setup, (a Compaq Presario FP5000 series laptop, with an AMD-64 X2 processor and two gigs of memory), was rated by Windows 7 with a “Windows Experience Index” of about 2.5 out of a possible 8, which is about the same as Vista rated it.  However the difference in performance is striking:
  • Application launch times are visibly faster.
  • Applications run more smoothly and evenly.
  • Applications that were originally written for XP seem to play better with Windows 7 than Vista.
  • Media – played through the new Media Player on Windows 7 – runs smoothly, even if being accessed from a network share.
  • The disk tools – error checking and defragmentation – are considerably faster in Windows 7 than in Vista.

    When I originally installed Vista Ultimate – and then did a defrag – it took over thirty hours to complete.  The same defrag, using Windows 7 Ultimate, was done in a matter of minutes.  Repeating a defrag on a previously defragged drive in Vista did not take any less time than the original.  However re-defragging a previously defragged drive in Windows 7 takes much less time – as would be expected.

  • Performance in Ultimate was a tad more sluggish than either of the Home Premium installs, but not by much.  Most of these comments were taken on the Ultimate install – and then confirmed on the two Home Premium installs later on.

Windows 7 still uses the Vista security model including the UAC.  However the UAC paradigm has been tweaked to make it much less annoying.  For example, if you click on a control panel option that requires Admin privilege – and you are an administrative user – you don’t always get the UAC.  Many of the more commonly used features silently elevate privilege for you.  Serious system changes – such as installs or explicit privilege elevation – still require the UAC, but it’s much less annoying.

[Update: Windows 7 appears to be able to "remember" privilege elevation in the same way that many Linux distributions do - i.e. if you do something that requires Admin - and you have successfully elevated in the last "X" amount of time - it doesn't require elevation again.]

The 64 bit versions of Windows 7, (as judged by my experience with Home Premium 64), are actually useful.  They run well, drivers and updates are available, and there seems to be no problem with either 64 or 32 bit software.

System and network performance – as judged by the media testing I did above – are vastly superior in Windows 7 when compared to the performance under Vista.

On the subject of media, two applications that come with Windows 7 are the new IE-8, and Media Player 12, both of which have been vastly improved over their Vista-era counterparts.

Internet Explorer 8:
Internet Explorer 8 – compared to IE-7 and IE-6 – is actually a usable web browser.  Many of the annoying features of IE-7 have been cleaned up.  It gives you much more control over plug-ins and application extensions, and is all-in-all much more civilized.  It’s also much faster, comparable in speed to IE-6 or Firefox.  In my opinion, it gives me everything I use IE6 for -compatibility with those sites that insist on a M$ browser - with the advantages of tabbed browsing and an improved user interface.

Media Player 12:
Media Player 12 is also a much improved version of the Windows Media Player.  Besides supporting streaming – it now natively supports most common media types, including Divix and Xvid files – so you don’t have to go searching for additional codecs, or download additional media players just to play files from your AVI library.
Windows 7 also introduces a new network grouping paradigm – Homegroups – which are a special kind of network group exclusive to Windows 7 that, (supposedly - I've not tested it), use 128 bit encryption and secure tunneling to connect computers in a homegroup.  Note that homegroups are *NOT* workgroups.  That’s a separate setting.  It's buried - but it's still there.

Homegroups allow multiple computers running Windows 7 to create what is supposed to be a tighter and more secure group session between them.

What I have not tested:
  • I have not tried an “Upgrade” install from either Vista or XP so I cannot comment on it.
  • I have not tried it with a wider selection of applications yet – but based on what I see so far, I don’t expect problems.
  • I have not tried placing either Ultimate or Professional on a domain.  That’s on my “to-do” list, but I want to thoroughly work it in a stand-alone mode first.
  • I have not tested to see if they have fixed the “Vista Virtual Store does not sync” bug yet.  That’s also on my “to-do” list.

Based on my initial experience with Windows 7 – comparing it to both Vista and Windows XP – I believe that with Windows 7, Microsoft has finally hit the mark they were trying for with Vista.  It is cleaner, faster, smaller, less annoying and – overall – a much better computing experience, especially if you want to migrate to 64 bit code.

Performance wise, I believe it’s more like Windows XP than Vista.  You start it, it’s there, and it does the job.

There are still things that may need work – or maybe I just have to get used to the way they work in Windows 7.  These are – by comparison to the incredible annoyances with Vista – virtually microscopic, the kinds of things you would normally expect to bump into when changing operating systems.

Is Windows 7 the answer to a maiden’s prayer?  I guess it all depends on the maiden in question.

In other words, it depends on who is using it, and what they’re using it for.  What I can say is that it appears to be the successor for Windows XP that Microsoft has been looking for.  If you liked WinXP or Win2k – you might want to give Windows 7 a try.