Hate Vista? You May Like the Fix

For an operating system that took five years to create, Windows Vista’s reputation went down in flames amazingly quickly. Not since Microsoft Bob has anything from the software giant drawn so much contempt and derision. Not every company lives to see the day when its customers beg, plead and sign petitions to bring back the previous version of its flagship product.

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In Windows 7’s Libraries feature, virtual folders replace several Vista media folders.

One thing’s for sure: it won’t take Microsoft five years to produce the next Windows. The company wants to put Vista behind it as soon as possible. In fact, the next version of Windows is almost here already. It’s called Windows 7, and it’s available as a free download, in surprisingly smooth, stable test form, from microsoft.com/springboard (until Saturday).

It looks and works a lot like Vista. In fact, what Microsoft seems to be going for in Windows 7 is “Vista, fixed.”

If you ask the masses what they disliked about Vista (as I did using Twitter last week), you’re likely to get a certain common set of responses. That list of grudges makes as good a framework as any for assessing the prospects of Windows 7, which is expected to arrive within a year.

It’s naggy and intrusive. Windows Vista is always popping up warnings and messages, making you wish you could just be left alone. Many of them stem from the much-despised, Orwellian-named User Account Control (U.A.C.) feature, which is supposed to warn you about virus and spyware installations that would otherwise take place behind your back.

Trouble is, U.A.C. was way too suspicious, demanding your name and password even when it was just little old you making innocent changes (like setting your computer’s clock). In Windows 7, you can tone U.A.C. down — eliminating the warnings, for example, when you, the human, are the one making changes.

Furthermore, Windows 7 bites its tongue far more often. Ten categories of low-urgency alerts no longer appear as taskbar balloons; now they get consolidated in a new Control Panel called the Action Center. A tiny flag icon appears on your system tray to let you know that new nags are waiting there.

It’s slow. Microsoft definitely got the message here. Even in the test version, you can feel that a lot of things are faster: starting up (40 seconds on my three test machines), shutting down, reconnecting to wireless networks, copying files and inserting flash drives, for example. It’s no Windows XP, but even with months of fine-tuning still to go, 7 feels snappy. (On a Mac, paradoxically, it’s positively supersonic.)

It’s a resource hog. Microsoft intends to keep the same system requirements for Windows 7 that it had for Vista (at least a one-gigahertz processor, one gigabyte of memory and so on). This time around, though, fewer people will have to buy brand-new PCs to run it, because three years will have elapsed. Fewer people will be installing the new Windows on 2003-era computers.

Windows 7 is also supposed to be less bloated. (“Memory usage was reduced in hundreds of places,” says the reviewer’s guide.)

It’s incompatible. A big part of the Vista misery involved incompatible software and drivers. There’s no greater headache than updating your PC and finding out that you can’t use your printer, scanner or favorite program.

Even by Microsoft’s reckoning, only 2,800 programs have been certified to work with Vista so far, out of the tens of thousands available.

As Microsoft puts it: “If it works in Windows Vista, it will work with Windows 7.” That’s not great, but what else can Microsoft do?

It’s confusing. In Vista, a lot of things got moved around or renamed, often with no discernible purpose. There’s even more of that going on in Windows 7.

Among other changes, the Pictures, Documents and Movies folders have been replaced by something very cool — but very confusing — called Libraries. They’re virtual folders. Click the Pictures library, for example, to see all the pictures on your entire PC or even your network, no matter what folders they’re really in.

Oh, and talk about baffling: The core accessory programs for an operating system these days — e-mail, address book, calendar, photo management, movie editing and instant messaging — won’t come with Windows 7. Unless you buy your PC from a company that preinstalls these programs, you’ll have to download them yourself from a Microsoft Web site.

Microsoft explains that this added inconvenience permits it “to provide more frequent updates for consumers.” Beg pardon? Who complains about the frequency of updates to their address book program?

The editions are bewildering. Windows Vista is sold in at least six versions: Home Basic, Business, Ultimate and so on, each with a confusing and sometimes illogical subset of features. Officially, Microsoft says it hasn’t selected Windows 7’s version scheme, although a product manager at a conference mentioned to me that it will probably be similar to Vista’s. Ah, well — can’t win ’em all.

Not all of Windows 7’s features are intended to address Vista’s deficiencies. Some are all-new.

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