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Microsoft Windows 7 Test Drive
It's time to look at Microsoft Windows 7, which I'm doing in two phases. First, I'll upgrade an existing Windows XP installation and detail the experience and my first impression of Windows 7. Then, using a multiboot computer, I'll test the performance of Windows Vista against Windows 7, and if the stars align, perhaps even Windows XP.
Today, I'll walk you through the process of converting from Windows XP to Windows 7 on an HP Z400, which was manufactured in 2009 and has a 3.2GHz Intel Nehalem-based Xeon W3570 CPU with 8GB of RAM, currently running 64-bit Windows XP. I start by inserting the DVD into the drive, which loads a splash screen with three options: a clickable link to "What to know before installing Windows," a button to check compatibility online, and another button to forge on and "Install Now." I click the "What to know" link and learn that I can either upgrade the computer and save my programs, install Windows 7 on a partition I select, or overwrite XP. I decide to delay this decision and click "Check compatibility online."
This takes me to a web page where I can download the "Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor." I do, and am told to make sure that all peripherals that I typically run on this machine are turned on so the Upgrade Advisor can check them as well. I do this and click Start Check. The program tells me that the check will take "a few minutes," but it returns in about 2 minutes with bad news: Since I'm running XP, I can't upgrade, I have to run a "clean" install, which means that none of the programs installed in XP will survive—I'll have to install them all manually after installing Windows 7.
Figure 1. What I want to do is upgrade. What I have to do because I'm on Windows XP is a Custom install, which means that I will have to reinstall all my programs.
At this point, I flash back to a Stephen Wildstrom column in BusinessWeek I read a few months ago, grumbling about how hard it is to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7.
For the record, here's Microsoft's full statement on the subject: "Microsoft remains committed to making the transition to Windows 7 easier for all customers. With tools, guidance, and the work we're doing with industry partners, it is our belief that this will be an improved process. Furthermore, we expect most customers who upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7 will be doing so through the purchase of a new computer, thereby making the upgrade virtually effortless. That said, Windows XP customers planning to upgrade to Windows 7 will need to perform a clean installation."
Wildstrom said he felt that this was a good decision because "the upgrade from XP to Vista was very difficult and often unsuccessful and people trying to upgrade of XP to 7 would likely face the same or greater difficulties. And the overwhelming majority of consumer and small business PCs running XP most likely lack enough memory or processing power to run 7 effectively, even though it appears to be somewhat less demanding of hardware than Vista."
While this is generally true, I think that many video editors eschewed Vista in favor of XP even on their most current purchases—which, like my Z400, should be more than capable of running Windows 7.
I'm not going to dwell on the statement, "We expect most customers who upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7 will be doing so through the purchase of a new computer, thereby making the upgrade virtually effortless," but doesn't it sound strangely like "Let them eat cake?" I'm not a Mac snob by any means, but I'm recalling how painless it was to install Apple Snow Leopard on multiple computers, which took about 30 minutes and required no reinstallation of any programs. I can't help but think that Microsoft really, really needs to do a better job making its newer technologies accessible. I mean, I'm going to pay up to $300 for this and then have the privilege of reinstalling all programs on my computer?
I should say that HP has several programs designed to make this migration easier, but it's late Friday night and the column is due Monday, and I have to order the programs on DVD. So I guess I'll just install over my current installation of XP. HP did point me to a Microsoft site detailing the five steps to upgrade from XP to HP, so I surf over there on a different computer and start reading and listening to Kellie Eickmeyer describing the process. The first thing I hear is that it might take a couple of hours to perform the upgrade, though as I later learn, most of this time is allocated to program re-installation.
Figure 2. From the Microsoft video on upgrading from XP to Windows 7. Nice tabbed, step-by-step explanation. Interestingly, the video was produced for Windows Media Playback, not Silverlight, so Microsoft doesn't seem to be drinking its own Kool-Aid internally.
Step one is running the Upgrade Advisor, which I've already done. One disturbing note that I failed to mention was that during its examination of my system, the Upgrade Adviser had problems recognizing some pretty basic hardware, such as multiple integrated memory controller registers, and even an HP LaserJet 1100 printer. Fortunately, HP includes a program you can use to back up your OS installation on every computer. I do so in case of catastrophe, and click to the next step.
Figure 3. Yikes! How will Windows 7 run if it doesn't recognize these devices?
Step two is moving my files and settings. Fortunately, I've already harvested all the data I wanted from this computer in anticipation of its return to HP, so there's no worry there. I take a quick look at Windows Easy Transfer, and it seems pretty straightforward—especially if you're on a network and don't have to worry about saving your files to an external drive.
Then I click step three, which is installing Windows 7. First, the installer asks if I want to go online and get the latest updates for security and hardware drivers or skip this step and risk installation failure or making my computer more vulnerable to installation threats. I chose the former, and then, after a brief pause, click Custom to start installing. I choose the C drive, and I learn that the installer will save information from my previous installation of Windows in a Windows.old file.
Then I click Next and the process begins. Fortunately, Tiger Woods just announced his hiatus, so there's plenty of interesting reading to keep me occupied. As it turns out, the installation requires no manual intervention—about 20 minutes and three or four autoreboots later, it's time to start adding details such as computer name, time zone and time, and computer location for security purposes, and Windows 7 starts running.
Obviously, the device-related issues shown in Figure 3 weren't a problem. However, at least from the perspective of this computer, my HP LaserJet 1012 is dead, since HP hasn't released a Windows 7 driver (despite its being listed on the initial drivers page). To be fair, the printer is probably close to eight years old, but it still works fine and meets all of my printing requirements. Not a huge deal for me in this case, because the Z400 is an editing station, not a computer I write on. Still, if you have any peripherals that are still critical to your day-to-day operation, better check for a Windows 7 driver before upgrading.
First impressions of Windows 7
The biggest day-to-day irritation with my Vista computers is the inability to share files back and forth between other computers on the office LAN. When my world was all XP, I could share all drives on all computers and trade files back and forth with no problem. With Vista, in the same environment, I never did figure out how to share complete drives, though I did manage to expose folders on drives for sharing, which was clunky, but workable. I'm guessing there's a way to gain full drive access on a LAN, but I never could figure it out. With Windows 7, I spent a few moments twiddling with security settings, and every computer on the LAN could access the D drive on my Windows 7 computer—including the Mac I'm writing on. That's nice.
Figure 4. Wow, I can access my Windows 7 drives from other computers on my own LAN without a Ph.D. in computer science.
My second biggest complaint with Vista was search. For me, XP search was pretty much perfect: You choose a file name, a drive, and perhaps a date and size, and you're off and running. With Vista, you could get to the same search parameters, but you really had to know where to look. In Windows 7, Microsoft made the search function both harder to find and more cumbersome. Basically, you click a drive, then enter a search term, then add modifiers such as those shown in Figure 5. Not trying to be a hater here, but it seems like search in Windows XP was both easier to find and easier to use. Perhaps there's some under-the-hood functionality that will take a while to sink in, but otherwise, it's a step backward in a function I use a lot.
Figure 5. Windows 7 new search function is harder to find and harder to use.
One function that I've missed in every version of Windows since 3.1 is the ability to open up two windows in Windows Explorer. Though you still can't do that in Windows 7, you can open two instances side by side and have them snap into place just by dragging them to the extreme left and right side of the windows. That is one feature I know I'd use.
Basically, the ease of accessing Windows 7 computers is a huge feature for me; if it didn't mean that I had to throw away my LaserJet 1012 printer, I'd install Windows 7 on my primary writing station, my HP Compaq 8710p notebook. Other than that, I have to say that even after scanning the new features lists of Windows 7, there weren't many new features that felt like "must haves," especially if I was going to have to shell out $300 for the pleasure. Basically, it's going to come down to performance, which I'll assess in the next edition.