Windows 7 – It’s Vista All Over Again

“There you go again”. The Gipper said it in 1982, and I’m saying it today – but about Windows 7, not Jimmy Carter.

Because the more I play with Windows 7, the more I see the Vista debacle unfolding all over again. The commonly accepted wisdom is that Windows 7 is oh-so-much-better than Vista. Well, based on my own extensive testing, it’s not. Not at all.

First a bit of history. Back in 2006 I was editor-in-chief of PC Magazine. Vista was coming out and we were pretty darn laudatory. Microsoft provided us with new hardware, we tested beta versions of Vista, and we loved it. Shortly after it shipped, alas, the Wow was less Now than Ow. Vista sucked upon release to the world for a wide range of reasons – not least because the networking and audio driver models were completely rebuilt in the six months prior to release. That led to driver problems, along with general instability. When I left PC Magazine in 2007, my parting column was a bit of an apology – we’d been too easy on what turned out to be one of Microsoft’s more uneven efforts.

It’s easy to get snowed. Microsoft provides its favored reviewers a steady stream of highlights, new versions, and new features – along with brand new hardware to run the new builds upon. A team of technical marketers inside the borg stand at the ready – helping the anointed work through, and around, any problems that develop during testing.

I was definitely MFN last time around – but this time I’m less than a pimple on Microsoft’s ass. As full-time CEO, and only part-time and casual geek, they could care less about what I think about Windows 7. And surprisingly, that’s become truly liberating. Because I got a chance to evaluate the new OS not based on how MSFT wanted me to see it, but how it really is.

Over the past two months, I’ve been testing the Win7 release candidate not on brand new hardware, nor on the free systems Microsoft has been providing to its favored reviewers. Instead, I’ve suffered through trying to upgrade a wide variety of systems that are a lot more like what you’re probably running – 1-3 year old notebooks and desktops. And what I’ve found is sharply different from the overweening bootlicking being spewed by most reviewers.

I don’t fault them – well, not too much. They’ve been running Windows 7 in a best-case environment, and I’ve been running it in the worst. They have access to a near-limitless supply of new computers, new notebooks and new peripherals from vendors eager to ride the expected coattails of Microsoft’s triumphant release. I’ve been relegated to testing Windows 7 on the old systems that you and I are still running.

They love it. I’m not so sure. I’ve installed windows 7 on 8 different machines – a mix of notebooks and desktops – and I’ve downgraded all but two of them. Why? Because despite the hype, it worked more slowly, crashed more often, and just flat out didn’t work right.

So I’m here to tell you that Windows 7 is definitely a step forward – but not for many existing computers. You may not want to hear this, but Vista Service Pack 2 – the current upgraded version – is actually better, in many cases, than Windows 7.

If you’re buying a new system, you’re probably better with Windows 7. There are some annoying interface glitches, but overall you’ll probably be happier. But for the vast majority of Vista users – those that have upgraded to SP2, and have a relatively stable environment – you’re much better off with Vista. My advice: don’t upgrade. The path is likely to lead to frustration, pain and long nights fighting with drivers, displays and other configuration nightmares. Here’s an in depth look at what I found during my extensive testing, and how Windows 7 proved generally unacceptable to the carefully crafted Vista-based world I live in today.

 

INTERFACE CHANGES

Bad ComputerWindows 7 obviously suffers from Mac envy. A lot of the newly adopted conventions are build atop long-time Macintosh capabilities. But that doesn’t make them right. For the vast majority of Windows users that have never played with a Macintosh, the new conventions will be curious at best, and bewildering at worst.

Take the start menu and task bar. Mac-faithful have lauded the new “jump lists”, which let you see a pop-up list of most recently used files in a right-side pull up list. Google’s Chrome browser, for example, makes good use of this to expose pages you’ve most recently visited. But the vast majority of today’s applications can’t begin to support this feature. And that legacy unfortunately makes the taskbar changes – which eventually should be positive – into a mishmash of competing and inconsistent behaviors.

Consistency. We crave it as kids, and expect it as adults – at least in our operating systems. Click on an icon, and it should to the same thing today, tomorrow, next week and next year. And that’s what makes the changes to the Windows taskbar so frustrating. Let’s say you open a bunch of browser windows in IE, or documents in Word. Click on the Vista-based taskbar logo, and you’ll see a LIFO list of opened windows, with the most recent item at the top of the list. In computer terms, a LIFO stack, where the most recent sits at the top of the stack, the oldest at the bottom. Logical, and after years of windows usage, what we all expect.

Oh not with Windows 7. Instead, you get two entirely different representations of opened application instantiations. The first, very similar to Vista, simply stacks the windows atop each other vertically. But inexplicably, the most recently opened file or page is at the BOTTOM of the stacked list, not the top. WTF? Why change from FIFO (first in first out – with the last opened on the top of the stacked list) to LIFO (Last in First Out – with the most recent on the bottom)?

Oh, and it gets worse. Sometimes, when you click on a taskbar icon, you get a vertical list of the latest opened documents in reverse LIFO order. Other times, inexplicably, you get a horizontal display of document thumbnails that give you a window into those opened files. That would be all well and good – except its far too difficult to actually bring up any of those open windows. Navigating up or down a stack is far easier than right to left – especially when I often found myself selecting a thumbnail with no apparent effect at all.

Anyone who regularly moves from Vista to Windows 7 will find themselves disoriented, confused and frustrated by the convention change. Because inconsistency in operating systems – just as with abusive parents – is not something we’re readily able to deal with as a species. Doing it the wrong way – but doing it that way all the time – is far preferable to what seems like a random implementation that changes based on rules we cannot comprehend.

I’m sure there’s a rational, logical reason for why Windows moved from LIFO to FIFO stacks, and why they move from vertical stacks to horizontal thumbnails. But alas, I didn’t’ get invited to the special analyst briefings, so like everyone else in computerland, I’m forced to muddle through on my own. And I just don’t get it –even after months of using Windows 7. And if I’m frustrated and confused, chances are you will be too.

Here’s my uninformed answer as to why so many dumb changes were implemented. Some PhD interface god convinced TPTB that LIFO, horizontal lists, and so much more were more intuitive than FIFO, and the status quo. But guess what? The conventions I’m already used to are guaranteed to be more intuitive than anything you change. And that’s a theme that pervades Windows 7. They changed to ape OSX, or to hew to someone’s academic usability beliefs – without realizing that hundreds of millions of Windows users already have a habitual use case in place. This, unfortunately, is a theme of windows7. Arguably poor interface conventions were changed to a more preferred version – with little thought to how familiarity trumps even the most fashionable user interface theories.

There are a wide range of other UI elements that you may find useful, but I found distracting. One of the most praised – the ability to mazimize a window by dragging it to the top of the screen, or minimize it by dragging it down, proved irritating and relatively useless in my tests. I like hauling Windows around to different parts of my screen, to cut and paste, or keep real-time apps open. Invariably Windows 7 would maximize my IM window, or twitter client, when all I wanted to do was safely tuck it out of the way.

Sure, in a year or two, it’ll all seem perfectly lovely and normal.   But for now, it’s a lot to unlearn, and a lot to figure out.

 

NEW FEATURES

I was really looking forward to the new HomeGroup feature. It promised to let home users easily share files, music and more among computers on a network. Let’s face it, networking on Windows has been abysmal, whether you’re running XP, Vista, 3.1 or the Lan Manager NOS that underpins it all. HomeGroup promises to wipe away all those problems and easily let you share among peer systems on the same network.

Unfortunately it didn’t always work consistently among my Windows 7 machines, and it doesn’t work at all with Vista or even Microsoft’s own Windows Home Server. I often found machines that were previously linked to a home group suddenly become orphans – unable to connect to another Windows 7 PC sitting right next to it on the desk.

Nice concept. But until it works consistently, and until Microsoft deigns to bring Vista, XP and Windows Home Server into its HomeGroup, this feature is more trouble than it’s worth.

And speaking of the excellent Windows Home Server, why doesn’t it completely support Windows 7 today? Microsoft is promising true integration with the upcoming Service Pack 3, but it’s still not out – and according to Microsoft it won’t be until year end. Without that support, Windows 7 just isn’t ready for my house, and probably not for yours too.

 

SYSTEM BY SYSTEM RESULTS

So what went wrong? Here’s a system by system list of the 7 computers I tested, and whether Windows 7 is still running.

 

clip_image003Toshiba Portege R400: This tablet PC was designed for Vista, and shipped right around when Vista did. Featuring a convertible, writable screen, it also had a tiny OLED display on the front, which tracked emails and other system messages even when the system was asleep. Windows 7 installed well, but there were a few problems. First, the system converts from landscape to portrait in tablet mode, depending on how you hold it – that function didn’t work in Windows 7. I couldn’t get the OLED display to work right. And the machine was just sluggish, even with 3 gigs of RAM. Plus Toshiba didn’t have any windows7 drivers available on their site. VERDICT: DOWNGRADED

clip_image005Lenovo T400s: This was actually the newest device I tested. The upgrade to Windows 7 went fine, although Lenovo’s site lacked windows7 driver support, and I couldn’t get one, key feature to work – the built-in EVDO card. Although many kind users had posted work-arounds, I spent fruitless hours trying to implement them. In the end, the lack of Windows 7 drivers in general, and specifically for EVDO, doomed Win7. VERDICT: DOWNGRADED

clip_image007Dell XPS 1330: This 18 month old system upgraded to Windows 7 easily. However, after using it for a week or so, the machine inexplicably went belly-up, and ceased booting altogether. Dell called it a complete loss, and advised me to junk the machine. Spurious correlation? Did windows 7 kill my machine? Probably not. But still, you have to wonder. VERDICT: DEAD AND BURIED

 

clip_image009Dell Studio Hybrid: Essentially a notebook computer in a desktop package, again the upgrade was quick and easy. And despite a curious inability to sleep regularly, Windows 7 is performing well. VERDICT: SUCCESS

 

 

clip_image011Home Theater PC, based on ASUS M3A78-EMH HDMI: I used this year old motherboard to build a home theater PC, with dual USB-based ATSC tuners to let me record over the air HD, along with serving up music and photos. This was a brand-new installation, and I started with a clean Windows 7 64-bit installation. Alas, nothing went right. Only one of my four ATSC tuners were even supported by Windows 7, and that support was sporadic. ASUS had no drivers on its website for Windows7, which meant that I had to jump through hoops to upgrade the BIOS. And the system regularly, and inexplicably, crashed horribly with a Blue-Screen of Death. A terrible experience. I wiped it clean, loaded Vista Ultimate 64, and it’s been working like a champ since. VERDICT: DOWNGRADED

 

imageAsus Rampage II Republic of Gamers Motherboard: If anything should support Windows 7, I’d expect this relatively new motherboard, built around the X58 chipset, and with a super-fast Core i7 processor to work great. This was designed to be my video and audio-editing workstation, so I loaded it with memory and disk. I installed a clean version of 64-bit Windows 7, but I ran into the same problems here as with the Home Theater PC above. ASUS hasn’t provided any Windows 7 drivers, and the generic ones are full of bugs. The system regularly crashed with a Blue-Screen of Death. Ouch. Vista Ultimate runs great on it, by the way. VERDICT: DOWNGRADED

 

clip_image015MSI 975X Platinum Motherboard: This has been my workhorse PC for the last 2.5 years. I built it to run Vista – you can read all about that here. It runs Vista quite well, and now it runs Windows 7. The upgrade was pretty easy, even though ASUS Windows 7 drivers were unavailable, the stock Windows versions seem to work. And despite an occasional crash, and an odd tendency to startup in the middle of the night, things are going reasonably well. However, I can no longer use any of my ATSC HD cards to watch TV, and for some reason DirecTV’s DirecTV2PC program doesn’t work anymore either. But with a full-on plasma display right next to it, that’s not a big deal. I’d put Vista back on, but I figure I should have at least one Windows 7 machine I use regularly. VERDICT: PARTIAL SUCCESS

 

MAC WANNABEES

We’ve seen this story before. Vista was overhyped when it came out by everyone from PC Magazine to the Wall Street Journal. And now Windows 7 is getting the same treatment. One new wrinkle this time – most of the reviewers have embraced Apple’s Macintosh line, and instead of comparing Windows 7 to Vista – as most users would. Microsoft knows this, and they’ve added in a number of Mac-like features. That’s not necessarily bad, but it will mean some significant adjustment for most end-users. That, coupled with the driver, compatibility and upgrade issues I ran into, lead me to not recommending that users upgrade existing compuers from Vista to Windows 7 today. Things may change in six months or so, but for now Vista SP2 is simply a better product.

If you’re buying a new computer, definitely move to Windows7. But for everyone else, you’re better off staying pat, and spending that Benjamin on more memory instead.

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