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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

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