Windows 7 Release Candidate (RC) Review

  • Category: Software

Microsoft has been vigorously working to make Windows 7 their best operating system yet. One of their primary objectives with Windows 7 was to make it as compatible as possible with all existing devices right out of the box, which was what Vista was given a bad rap for not doing. has installed the Release Candidate of Windows 7 Ultimate (build 7100; 32-bit edition) on one of our desktop computers and have test driven it in a production environment. This allowed us to get the most accurate impression of Windows 7 RC as possible because real users will be using it primarily on their home computers and we tested the compatibility of Windows 7 with some hardware and software as well. Microsoft will be making the release candidate available for download for free to users beginning May 5, 2009.

We should first explain our test system, which is a HP Pavilion m7750n with an AMD Athlon 64 X2 2.6GHz with 2GB of RAM and 500GB hard drive space. Our graphics card is upgraded from the stock model to a nVidia 8600GT with 256MB of RAM. We realize that this computer may not be the fastest system out there today, but we wanted to use what would be an average user's computer to get the most realistic experience as possible.

Like Vista, Windows 7 uses an "image-based" install, which essentially copies a complete, working version of Windows 7 off the DVD to the hard drive. This dramatically speeds up the installation time; it took exactly 16 minutes from start to finish for our system, compared to XP which takes around 30-45 minutes to install. Installation times compared to Windows Vista are similar, if not faster as well. The installation process is very straightforward as well, asking for only a product key at the beginning and no other information to interrupt installation. Once the install was completed and the computer restarted, it prompted us for a user name and password and few other basic pieces of information and settings.

About Win 7
About Windows 7: Build 7100 Release Candidate

The boot sequence is very speedy and slick and feels faster than Windows Vista. The desktop looks very similar to Vista's when it comes to the icons and overall appearance. However, you will notice a new taskbar and accompanying notification area. You'll see icons for Windows Explorer and Windows Media Player in the taskbar, which are actually "pinned" shortcuts to those programs. When you click them, their respective program will appear and run and its icon will look "lit-up". To pin other programs to the taskbar for easy access, just click and drag them and arrange them in the order that you want them shown in. When you open a program that is not already pinned, its icon will show up and when you close the program, the icon will disappear. This system of icons replaces the old taskbar "buttons" that showed up when you ran programs. The new system provides a lot more functionality: one such feature is the ability to hover over an open program's icon and view a live thumbnail of the window(s) open and you can click on them to bring that window to front.When you have more than one window open of the same program, the icon will appear stacked with an extra bit of space on the icon's right side.

Hovering over an icon with more than one window, it appear stacked and lets you choose any one of the windows that are open. When you hover over the thumbnails, you can also click on a red X that will appear in the corner to close that window.

When you right-click on a program icon, you'll be presented with a list of functions, some programs have more than others. For example, when you right-click on the Internet Explorer icon, you can open frequently visited sites as well as sites that you have previously "pinned" to the top of the list. You can pin a site to the top of the list by clicking on the pin icon that appears when you hover over a frequent site in the list.

Right-click menu for Internet Explorer: List of frequently visited sites and pinned sites as well.

As mentioned earlier, the notification tray on the bottom right corner of your screen will look a little different as well. First off, the icons that appear in the tray will be very few in numbers compared to Vista because most of them will be hidden and shown only when you click the white upward arrow. In this hidden menu, the other tray icons will appear and an option to let you customize what icons appear and which are hidden.

Notification Tray
The new notification tray hides many of the icons and are shown by clicking the white upward arrow. The space next to the date/time on the right-side is the new "show desktop" button.

The new "show desktop" button is now permanently to the right of the date/time area and when hovered over, all open windows will be transparent and outlined, giving you a "windowed" view of your desktop. If you click on the button, it will take you to your desktop and hide all open windows.

Show Desktop
When hovering over the new show desktop button, a windowed view of your desktop will appear, making all open windows transparent.

The start menu is somewhat similar to both XP and Vista, with a few added tweaks. The most noticeable is the new program shortcuts menu, called "jump lists", that appears with some programs. If a program supports this menu, a little right-pointed arrow will show and when clicked or hovered over, the whole right half of the start menu transforms into a new list, which depending on the program, will show handy shortcuts. For example, the Internet Explorer jump list shows frequently accessed sites to give you one-click access.

Start Menu Frequent
The new jump lists in the Start Menu: Internet Explorer's shows frequently accessed Web sites.

Perhaps one of our most favorite new features of Windows 7 are the new side-window shortcuts. If you click and drag a window of any program to the far left or right side and let go, it will automatically half the window horizontally, allowing you to tile two windows side-by-side very quickly. Prior to this new feature, you had to manually resize the windows to place them side-by-side. You can also maximize any window by dragging it to the top of the display. Despite being a small addition to the overall operating system, this is the one new feature that we are really appreciative of Microsoft adding and we find ourselves using it all the time.

The traditional file explorer window is pretty much the same, but with a new menu running along the top, which gives you one-click access to sharing options, burn to disc, including in a library (more on this later), and a few other basic tasks. Again, the only real change here is a little more usability and organization. The left navigation tree includes some of the usual elements, but also has new ones, including the libraries folders.

File Window
The File Explorer window in Windows 7 hasn't changed too much aside from a few tweaks here and there.

Libraries are Microsoft's way of trying to move away from a tradition file system where there are absolute file paths to files and folders (ie: C:\Users\Alex\Documents\Letter.docx). The end goal down the line is to have virtual folders with similar content organized into them. These "libraries" in Windows 7 are a step toward that goal in the sense that they will show all of the request file types in one place in an organized fashion. For example, clicking on the picture library will show you all of the pictures on your computer and on computers in your home network (aka: Home group...more later) in one place. This is particularly useful in a home work situation, where many different pictures for example may be spread out across many different computers on the network. The pictures (or whatever requested) are not physically stored in that specific library, but they are virtually "linked" to that library. You can create new libraries and it will give you the option to include/exclude certain folders, file types, and other properties.

Libraries in Windows 7 are a way to bring all of your content together in easy to navigate virtual groups.

Libraries: Pictures
The pictures library, for example, will show all of the pictures on your computer and any networked computers on your home network. Here it shows files from the current computer I'm on as well as from the Photos folder on my Windows Home Server on my network.

Homegroups are used in conjunction with file sharing between networked computers. They are a way to share files in a very easy manner across multiple computers on the same network. You can select what folders you want shared and Windows 7 will automatically connect to other Windows 7 computers on the network and be able to view and edit files on each computer remotely. Each homegroup network has its own unique password that is randomly generated on the first computer setup and must be entered on each computer you wish to have part of the home group network. There are other benefits to a home group setup, such as sharing of printers and the ability to print to the nearest printer to your location in the home (useful for a laptop computer) and other advanced networking features.

Home groups in Windows 7 lets you easily network multiple Windows 7 computers on the same home network to seamlessly share files between each other.

The control panel in Windows 7 is mostly similar to Windows Vista, but adds a few new modules. Some of which are a new backup and restore program, a home group preferences panel, notification area settings, and a credential manager, which securely stores login information for remote desktop connections and other more advanced networking. You can also still view the Control Panel in the categorically organized view if that's what you prefer.

Control Panel
The Control Panel in Windows 7 RC

In the screenshot you can see the control panel module called "Devices and Printers", which is a new place where Windows 7 displays all of your external hardware that's connected to your computer. Here is where your printers, scanners, web cams, digitizer tablets, external hard drives, keyboard/mice, and more are shown. From here you can add a new device and modify a connected device's settings. For example, right clicking on your mouse displays the right-click menu with an option to show the mouse settings and a printer's right click menu gives links to printer settings and status windows. Your computer itself also appears in the first spot under Devices, and right clicking it gives you one-click access to system and hardware settings. Double-clicking your computer's icon shows you useful information about your system, such as the model number. It's a nice way to bring all of your devices together in one place instead of fumbling through the more complicated device manager. We would consider this new control panel module to be one of Windows 7's most practical and useful new features.

We should take a moment to tell you about our experience with our existing hardware and how it all worked with Windows 7. Our HP Photosmart 8250 printer successfully installed right off the bat without any driver CDs or anything. The same goes for our HP Scanjet scanner, infrared wireless receiver for our computer's media center remote control, ethernet network adapter, sound card, Wacom Graphire3 tablet, and even our graphics card. There were a few drivers that we were told we could download from Windows Update, such as our motherboard's serial ATA controller as well as a graphic driver update from nVidia, and an audio driver update. Even without these updates installed, all of our devices worked successfully right from the moment the install was completed.

Devices & Printer Window
Windows 7's new Devices and Printers brings together all of your hardware connected to your system in one place.

In Windows 7 RC, Microsoft has included the finished version of Internet Explorer 8 (build 8.0.7100.0) as opposed to the beta version that was included in all of the previous Windows 7 betas. The functionality of IE 8 is mostly the same as IE 7 or IE 8 betas. Included is the new private browsing mode (called "InPrivate") that when activated, does not keep track of your browsing history, cookies, or cached files during your browsing session.

Internet Explorer 8
The final version of IE 8 is included in Windows 7 RC.

Windows Media Center in Windows 7 RC is mostly the same in Windows Vista with all the same functionality, but with an updated interface. The new menus and design of the Media Center interface strongly resembles the interface used in Microsoft's Zune portable media player.

Media Center
Windows Media Center in Windows 7 RC has an updated look with the same features from Vista.

Another neat addition to Windows 7 is the ability to stream media from Windows Media Player over the network and Internet. It works in similar fashion to steaming media programs like Orb where you can access your media files from anywhere on the Internet. To set it up, you just have to link an online ID to your user account. An online ID can be obtained from the configuration menu itself, which links to Windows Live, where you can setup your Windows Live account to give you access to your media from anywhere online. This is a useful feature, especially for listening to your music from work or watching videos from on-the-road. Windows Media Player also has a new interface that's very streamlined and clean and has been updated to version 12.0.7100.

WMP Steam Media
Internet Home Media Access within Windows Media Player lets you stream your media collection on the Internet for you to access when you're away from your computer.

Windows 7 RC includes a lot of specialized programs that serve many uses. For example, Microsoft has put a lot of tablet PC programs and functionality into Windows 7. In the screenshot below is from Windows Journal, which allows you to handwrite notes and lets you convert them to typed text and do other things as well. A lot of emphasis has been placed on tablet PC functionality in Windows 7 due to the growing market of touch computing and its potential for more widespread use in the near future.

Windows Journal
Windows Journal comes with Windows 7 and lets you take notes in a digital writing notebook.

There have also been a few changes to the Windows calculator, but just mostly cosmetic changes. There are new calculator modes as well, allowing for unit conversion and other handy tools. Wordpad and Paint have gotten the "ribbon" interface that Microsoft first introduced in its Office 2007 suite.

We had the opportunity to install some software to test out how it all worked with Windows 7. We were able to install successfully and run Adobe Photoshop/Dreamweaver CS4, Microsoft Office 2007, AOL Instant Messenger (ver 5.9), Apple iTunes, AVG 8.5 (free edition), WinRAR, and Nero 8. We have yet to encounter a software or hardware incompatibility and if we do, we'll be sure to update this review to reflect that.

Overall, we can comfortably say that Windows 7 is the best version of the Windows operating system to date. As we said in our beta 1 review, Windows 7 has the stability of Windows XP and the look and feel of Windows Vista. The operating system responds quickly and without hesitation and generally feels like it works nicely. Microsoft has definitely worked with the elements of Windows 7 that are "under the hood" and in the code, which is seen by the stability and fluidness of the operating system as a whole. Without a doubt in our mind, we believe that Windows 7 will be a huge hit when it's released to the public in late 2009, mostly due to its rock-solid stability and performance. It would also seem like Windows 7 is the first real competitor to Apple's Mac OS X and is exactly what Microsoft needs if it wants to stay ahead of Apple and regain some of the ground that Apple has taken away recently. Anyone who still uses XP and is afraid to upgrade to Vista, Windows 7 is exactly what you need, even if you are using old XP-designed hardware. We, however, would not recommend users with pre-XP operating systems and hardware upgrade to Windows 7 simply because the computer would be too old to run most of today's software programs. Users running Windows Vista will want to upgrade to Windows 7 even if they feel comfortable with Vista because you will want to snappiness of Windows 7 and those small features that are new.

UPDATE (5/3/09): Microsoft has released the system requirements for the final version of Windows 7 when it is shipped in a few months:

* 1 GHz processor (32- or 64-bit)
* 1 GB of RAM (32-bit); 2 GB of RAM (64-bit)
* 16 GB of available disk space (32-bit); 20 GB of available disk space (64-bit)
* DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM 1.0 or higher driver

According to ZDNet, "If you are planning to run Windows XP Mode along with Windows 7, Microsoft is recommending a PC with a minimum of 2GB of memory and 15 GB of additional disk space." Microsoft stated, "In addition, Windows Virtual PC requires a PC with Intel-VT or AMD-V enabled in the CPU, as it takes advantage of the latest advancements in hardware virtualization."

Check prices on Windows 7 Home Premium Upgrade Edition: