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Windows 7 Review From a Linux User

Starting with August 21st I have installed Windows 7 on my home desktop, right after installing Ubuntu 9.04 with custom packages so that I could obtain the maximum hard disk performance gain for Linux. Being a student at an Automatic Control and Computers Faculty has its advantages, one of them being the MSDN AA membership which offers free licenses to students and personnel.

Talking with friends and acquaintances (fellow geeks and IT professionals) we almost unanimously declared that Windows 7 seems to be, comparing it to Windows Vista, what XP proved to be for Windows Millennium: salvation. I have used Vista too for almost 6 months on the same hardware I now run 7 and the gap between them is amazing. Given the fact that support for Windows XP is offered until 2014, I don’t see why Microsoft risked so much of its public image by launching an operating system with serious usability flaws, not to mention the huge amount of resources wasted for anything but performance, instead of directly launching 7.

MSDN AA offers students licenses for Windows 7 Professional, on both current architectures: x86 (32-bit) and x64 (64-bit). Since I do not have 4 GB of RAM on any of the computers I own, I chose to use the 32-bit version. This was also imposed by the system requirements:

  • 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64)

  • 1 gigabyte (GB) RAM (32-bit) or 2 GB RAM (64-bit) (my desktop has only 1 GB of RAM, my laptop has 2 GB)

  • 16 GB available hard disk space (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit)

  • DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM 1.0 or higher driver

To provide some real facts about my systems, these are their specifications:

Desktop Laptop
Processor Intel P4 [email protected] with HT Intel Core 2 Duo [email protected]
Memory 1GB@667 MHz 2 x 1GB@667MHz
Graphics card GeForce Nvidia 7300 GT, 256 MB GDDR3 GeForce Nvidia 9500M GS, 512 MB DDR2
Hard disk WD Caviar SE 160 GB SATA 3Gb/s 7200rpm 8MB buffer Seagate Momentus 5400.4 250 GB SATA 3Gb/s 5400 rpm 8MB buffer

The install process

Installation went pretty smooth, with 15 minutes to complete on my laptop and almost 20 minutes for the desktop. Just choose the partition on which you want to install the system, your language and location and wait for the process to finish. Provide your username when finished and, for obvious security reasons, provide a password since the first account created is an Administrator account. The single stupid field here is the one where you must provide a password hint in case you accidentally forget the password. Use a space if you don’t want to provide a real hint.

Keep in mind though that it took 20 minutes to install an operating system without any additional software like email client, office productivity suite, graphics editing, etc. Not the same comparing to Ubuntu.

Drivers

The model adopted by Microsoft now is pretty close to what Linux does for years: either integrate the drivers in the OS, either provide easy ways to automatically download and install them to your system. It’s surely a premiere for Windows, but there are still a few things that could be improved. While in Ubuntu I get the latest Nvidia drivers for my cards, Windows just provides a generic approved driver by Microsoft that doesn’t enable the use of full potential graphic power processing. Therefore you still need to download and install the drivers from Nvidia’s site in order to enjoy the best performance.

The things don’t go the same when the OS must recognize a laptop’s special keys (the ones that offer you alternative functions when you press the Fn button too). For my laptop I had to download the driver for Vista from the manufacturer’s site, although in Ubuntu everything works by default (some of these buttons became a standard on all laptops).

Vista comparison

Comparing Windows 7 with Vista is a natural thing to do. After all, 7 is here to try to fix what Vista has done to Microsoft’s sales numbers and image. And I personally think that its purpose is accomplished. UAC (User Account Control) doesn’t bug you anymore for every little operation you want to do, copying files doesn’t take an eternity now (and 7 doesn’t need a service pack to correct this issue), finding drivers is easier and the overall speed of the operating system is considerably improved.

Running software made for XP though is supported better in a strange way because Microsoft offers a free downloadable Windows XP virtual machine that runs inside 7 (you need at least 2GB of RAM and an extra 15GB HDD space for Windows XP Mode and this can only be achieved on Windows 7 Enterprise, Windows 7 Professional, and Windows 7 Ultimate). Add that to the system requirements for 7 alone and you will need almost 31GB of HDD space just for running the new Windows with improved compatibility for older versions of Windows.

New features

To create the impression of new, Microsoft added some enhancements to 7:

  • a new taskbar with functionalities similar to Mac’s dock, but still looking like a taskbar;

  • jump lists for Microsoft programs which basically adds common used program menu entries to its taskbar icon’s context menu;

  • auto expanding a window (snap) when you drag it close to the top screen margin;

  • the crappy Internet Explorer 8;

  • they say better device management (a window that should show you relevant information about devices and printers connected to your PC), I say a function that will work only after hardware manufacturers implement Device Stage (which has nothing to do with standards);

  • HomeGroup - a feature that should carelessly enable sharing printers and files between computers that run 7 (it needs IPv6 enabled). This one represents actually the sole new feature. The others are just visual effects or windows showing more details than before.

Broken interoperability

Before Windows Vista, you could have seen Windows shares on the network from GNOME’s Nautilus file browser from Linux. The only thing one had to do was to go to Network, select Windows Network and then just browse the computer available and the shares. From Vista and forward, Microsoft changed the way their OS handles file sharing with non-Windows OS, resulting in a lack of functionality by not allowing Linux users to easily browse shared filed and folders from Windows. To be able to see Windows’ shared folders you have to manually mount the shares using a command like this:

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sudo mount -t cifs -o username=windowsUserNmae,password=windowsPassword //win7share mountFolder

Another option (which I don’t recommend in case one of the computers is a laptop) is adding and entry in your fstab file describing your Samba share. The reason for which I do not recommend this is that when the share is unavailable, your Linux system log will be filled with errors related to the failed mount operation, not to say about the processing time lost just because of this.

Probably this issue will be addressed soon by the Linux community. After all Ubuntu 9.10 will be launched the same month like Windows 7. Therefore if you are lazy enough to not want to write that line every time you want to mount a Windows share, you could build a script for that sending the shareName and theFolderWhereYouWantTheMount as parameters.

Conclusions

Is Windows 7 better than Windows Vista? Positively sure. And I can say that it’s better than XP too. After all Windows Vista tried to introduce some new technologies comparing it to XP. It failed, I give you that, but the step has been made. 7 corrects these issues and represents the OS  that Microsoft probably wanted in the first place. Most users say that Vista(and consequently 7) is bad just because it eats more resources than XP. But remember that XP needed more resources than Windows 2000 and that it wasn’t quite the OS that became after SP2 from launch time. I think the most important thing that Vista failed to offer was compatibility. 7 fixes that. Having decent system requirements (1GB of RAM is extremely cheap these days), 7 feels fast and responsive and has great boot times. After all, don’t expect that your 1.6 GHz P4 with 256MB of RAM bought in 2002 should last for years and run all the new software that appears nowadays. Even video games increase their system requirements from the previous version to the current one. Yes, Linux runs on lower resources and it’s faster, but it might not appeal all the users out there unfortunately (look at the market share), although distributions like Ubuntu, openSUSE and Fedora try to compensate for this becoming more and more user friendly.

For the non tech savvy user Windows 7 is a delightful operating system. He/she won’t feel the limitations imposed by Microsoft and other proprietary software vendors. It costs more than Linux (I am talking about Linux distributions that for a fee offer you support and updates) but being more common it offers you a great stack of acclaimed software (free or not). You still need to install an anti-virus to keep your system clean, although one could use Windows Defender (I personally don’t trust it).

Given the fact that I use Linux constantly on my machines, Windows 7 doesn’t have any chance in making me change my mind. And I guess the same applies for each experienced user. Windows seems okay for browsing the web, reading emails, writing documents and creating spreadsheets but when I really want power and control, Linux is the winner. When it comes to GUI (Graphical User Interface) Linux can do things that a Windows user can only dream on. Not only that I am the one who controls what my computer does, I am free to change every little aspect of how my computer works. And I can’t do that in Windows, despite how hard I try.

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