Windows 7 First Impressions

Windows 7 RC was made widely available for download on 5th May from the Windows 7 home page. RC stands for Release Candidate, which means that it is a trial pre-release version that will expire in 2010 but be upgradable to the official release. The story behind the naming of Windows 7 can be found on the Windows Team blog.

Like many, I’ve played with Vista but never made the effort to install it as my primary workstation operating system. Windows 7 is reportedly much less bloated (see for example this Gizmodo article), and with XP at the end of its support life I decided to take the plunge. Windows XP cannot be upgraded directly to 7. Although it is possible to upgrade using a temporary Vista licence I decided to backup all my files and do a full reinstall instead. Like Vista, there will be multiple editions of Seven, but 7 RC is the Ultimate edition, with the most consumer features such as Media Center. 7 RC is available in both 32-bit and 64-bit variants, I chose the latter.

I have a Dell Latitude D830 with a 120GB Momentus FDE.2 drive that provides hardware level full disk encryption. The initial install was drama free and used a little under 14GB of disk space. Wireless networking configured with no fuss, only the Verizon EVDO broadband wireless minicard was missing a driver. Bluetooth discovery of my mobile device worked fine. Ironically it was a while before I realized my nVidia graphics chipset was not being fully utilized and I was missing some of the flashier aspects of the Aero UI. USB devices recognised and configured after I enabled automatic driver downloads included an HP printer, headphone/mic and an external drive for file backups. A USB fingerprint reader and a Logitech webcam did not install automatically, however.

7 RC comes with Internet Explorer 8 installed, though it can be removed. The first thing I did was change my default search provider and home page to Google. First stop was Adobe to install Reader 9 and Flash. Second stop was Sun for Java 6 and then OpenOffice. In addition I visited Microsoft to install a free trial copy of Office Professional 2007 and Windows Mobile Device Center (fka. ActiveSync). The first add-on I installed was Xmarks, which allows me to automatically synchronize bookmarks between Firefox and IE on different workstations. Finally I imported the root certificate used to authenticate the various sites I work with. IE 8 works fine with Outlook Web Access, Zimbra and Yahoo! Mail.

Getting back to the missing Verizon broadband wireless driver I downloaded the 64-bit Vista driver from Dell support and it worked fine. Then I also downloaded and installed the Dell 64-bit Vista nVidia driver and refreshed the performance indexes from the control panel: the results are truly slick graphics, I’m not going to miss CrystalXP. To setup the Logitech webcam I went to the support site and found a driver installation program for 64-bit Vista. Initially this didn’t work, but then a “Program Compatibility Assistant” stepped in and reran the program successfully. I was unable to find a 64-bit Vista driver for the fingerprint reader.

A description of the new features in Windows 7, most notably a new task bar, is available online. Various themes and gadgets are also available. Apart from the new taskbar and slick graphics, another noteworthy new feature of Seven are Libraries. I also like the way that favorites are easily accessible in the left hand pane in Windows Explorer. After installation I went to the Windows Features panel of the control panel, removed Windows Media Center and installed Services for Unix Applications (SUA) and Services for NFS. Having setup my hardware and explored the personalisation I started reinstalling various tools and utilities: Rainmeter, WinDirStat, 7-Zip, WinRAR, KeePass and jEdit. Only old versions of FinePrint and pdfFactory with a kernel mode print driver failed to install. For Linux systems administration I installed Xming-portable-PuTTy and FileZilla. For database development I installed Oracle Database Express Edition and Quest Toad.

Intel’s Processor Identification Utility (PIU) confirmed that my workstation’s Core2 Duo CPU has Intel’s Virtualization Technology and will be able to run Windows XP Mode if I really have to. (Hardware virtualization has to be enabled in the BIOS setup screens also.) Instead, however, I reinstalled VMware Workstation, which works with or without hardware virtualization support, and it boots both my Windows XP and Ubuntu VMs. Additionally I installed the VMware View client for Windows to access centralized VMs running in a VDI environment.

Finally I backed up the workstation with Windows Backup to the external drive. In summary Windows 7 RC has good driver and application compatibility, a slick UI and the good performance Vista lacked, so far I’m not missing XP at all.

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