Essentially, Windows 7 is what Vista should have been from the start: polished, functional, and supported by major hardware manufacturers. Many are lauding Windows 7 as a leap forward for Microsoft and a saviour from the plague that is Vista. But while my experience with Windows 7 has thus far been positive, I don’t quite ascribe the same level of “awesomeness” to Microsoft’s latest and greatest as many of the pundits do. And that’s largely because Windows 7 is not much more than a refined version of Vista. Not a breakthrough by itself.
But enough with the nay-saying, we’re supposed to be excited about a new operating system! And indeed, I have been pleasantly surprised at the usability of Windows 7 compared to its predecessor, Windows Vista. The interface has seen a facelift, memory management is finally under control, and the GUI has been tweaked for better window management. Basically, improvement over some of the worst aspects of Vista.
But there are still some clear vestiges of Vista: User Account Control is still a nuisance, but far less so than in Vista. The Start menu is still as clumsy as before (who wants to scroll to get to programs in any list over 20 items?). And unfortunately, there’s no going back to the “Classic” Start menu. So we’re stuck with the new version.
Graphics have seen a very important update, but this is largely a marketing decision by Microsoft rather than a technological limitation: Windows 7 will bring with it DirectX 11. There are some very important advantages to DirectX 11 over the existing DirectX 10 and 10.1 versions. And in gaming benchmarks, Windows 7 beats Vista in almost every test. Windows 7 also comes very close to matching XP’s results, which might finally nudge XP hold-out gamers into adopting a contemporary OS.
What initially interested me the most about Windows 7 was the facelift for Windows Media Center. As you may already know from previous entries in this blog, I’ve been working on a media-PC setup for almost a year now, and decided to try out the new-and-improved Media Center on our computer. Here are the results . . .
The performance and fluidity of the interface is much improved. Larger icons with more visible at one time (Vista’s Media Center would only show ghost images of the adjacent icons) make navigation easier as well. Setting up the ATSC (over-the-air digital TV) was especially gratifying, as the new Windows 7 drivers – for whatever reason – allowed the device to pick up more channels with better signal strength. Still can’t pickup PBS, though; might have to wait until the all-digital switch allows stations to broadcast their digital signals at full strength. Finally, the inclusion of support for almost all common video codecs and containers (including hardware-accelerated HD content) was the main reason I performed the upgrade. How did that turn out? Well . . .
Support for DVD-rip quality video was excellent. No need for extra codec packs or players. Windows Media Center could play just about anything. But any hi-def content started to cause problems. Mostly because the de facto standard video container for hi-def content is the Matroska (.mkv) format. Windows 7 doesn’t acknowledge its existence without additional programs or codecs. Even with those programs (Dixv 7 and Cyberlink PowerDVD) playback is hit-or-miss. Some movies play fine, while others (ostensibly with the same codec and container) either have no video or stutter horrendously.
Unrelated to my Media Center / Matroska woes, is driver compatibility. One game that the wife and I play somewhat frequently is Valve’s Left 4 Dead, a first-person zombie shoot-em-up based on Valve’s Source engine. When our media-PC was running Vista, the game played just fine on the media-PC’s 780G motherboard with integrated Radeon 3200 graphics. After installing Windows 7, however, the game is only playable at MAX resolution (any other resolution causes a red hue to cover the screen) and will hard-lock the system after about 10 minutes of play. That sucks. But the blame for this shouldn’t fall on Microsoft. Because on my main desktop computer, I can play the same game in Windows 7 with no problems. I, however, have an nVidia 8800GT graphics card. My guess is that nVidia has their Windows 7 drivers ironed out, while ATI apparently has some work to do.
So, my first impressions of Windows 7 have been largely positive. The problems that have cropped up so far are most likely attributable to the fact that this new OS is still just a Public Release Candidate, not even released to retail yet. But with my experience thus far, I might consider breaking my usual rule with Windows: wait until the first Service Pack. As long as Microsoft can address some minor bugs, get better support for hi-def content, and coax ATI to provide better graphics drivers, then I might be ready to adopt Windows 7 at its release in October.