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Computing Thoughts
Windows 7 ... Kind of Rocks
by Bruce Eckel
April 17, 2011
Summary
I waited extra-long before making the move to Windows 7, because I had such a terrible time with Vista. But my brother -- who installs and maintains computers and whom I rely upon to know what's good -- said it was worth upgrading.

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Vista was a very bad experience for me, and I wrote about it. Others had equally bad or worse experiences. Microsoft's response was a $300 million marketing campaign to convince us that we were wrong and that Vista was actually good (to think what that $300 million could have done if it had been invested in actual development instead!).

It looked like Microsoft had jumped the shark and would never create anything good again. It looked like I'd be an XP user forever. But then something new began happening: XP started getting worse. Every time I did an upgrade more things seemed to get creaky or start failing. It was almost as if ... Microsoft was injecting little bits of fail into the upgrades, so that eventually I would give up and throw more money at them to upgrade the OS. Think of the brilliance of the manager that came up with this plan: "We'll FORCE users to upgrade by making them miserable!"

Whether it was part of some grand plot or mere incompetence, eventually I grew frustrated enough with XP to consider risking another upgrade. My brother Todd told me that it was pretty good, so on my last trip to visit the folks in San Diego I hauled my big-iron fanless box out so I could get help from him if there were problems.

Right away there was a problem: you can't upgrade from XP to Windows 7; you have to do a clean installation. Todd suggested I get a new and very fast hard disk (which skews speed comparisons between the old and new OSes), install Windows 7 on that and move things over from the old disk as necessary. Certainly not as simple as an upgrade, but it wasn't as bad as I thought.

We had a little hiccup: the 32-bit version on the install disk I bought was broken, but the 64-bit version worked, so I installed that instead. Later I found out that it is the recommended version (if you have the hardware for it) and that might have contributed to the speed improvement.

A major reason was that I didn't have to install so much additional software. XP seemed to either lack a lot of essential software, or the Microsoft version of the software was limited or faulty. As a result, I ended up going to the best freeware lists and supplementing the Microsoft offerings.

With Windows 7, however, the included software not only did the job, it was often better and typically faster. So I've begun preferring the Windows 7 solution, and have installed very little "basic" supplemental software. This is very different from previous Microsoft OSes.

A huge part of the experience is speed and stability. It seems a lot faster to me (the faster hard disk is definitely part of this, but apparently the OS is faster as well), and (knock wood) I haven't had any crashes that I know of since installing it. It's feeling a lot like the Mac, except that on very rare occasions the Mac will actually lock up and seem to need a reboot, whereas Windows 7 has yet to do this. It's very surprising and not what you expect from a Microsoft product -- I had gotten used to having to reboot regularly, and now I don't reboot for weeks on end. (That said, I don't think the "resume from sleep" experience is anything like the instant-on effect of a Mac notebook -- still, it's probably not crashing like XP would do on wake-up).

They've added a number of niceties. For example, being able to quickly set up side-by-side widows. I'm sure there are a lot of other things that I have yet to discover, but in general it is a very pleasant experience. Yes, I'm sure that most of these ideas were stolen from other operating systems, but the net effect is very positive.

Some biggies: Windows backup, according to my brother, is now good enough to use instead of third-party tools. He also said Windows security is good enough that you don't need to add on one of the CPU-hogging supplements; no doubt Microsoft has an advantage here because they can hook directly to the services they need; indeed, they probably changed Windows 7 to make the built-in security a lot faster.

The bottom line is that I am amazed. I never thought I would be saying anything positive about a Microsoft OS ever again. Yes, both Linux and the Mac are still ahead in a lot of ways, but still ... for those who are for some reason stuck in Microsoft-land, this is huge.

The question for Microsoft is whether Windows 7 -- as much as it restores faith after the disaster that was Vista -- is too little, too late. When I got my first Mac laptop, I was still using XP on the desktop, and the Mac was an experiment. It quickly became my only laptop, which meant that I was pushed towards cloud apps (still in early days at the time) so that I wouldn't have to constantly move things back and forth between machines. Especially with handheld computers, the cloud has become more and more central to the computing experience. Google docs continue to get better and seem to be taking steps towards making something closer to a full document-creation system (it definitely has a ways to go) while Libre Office is a true cross-platform word processor (Microsoft Office is no longer consistent between Windows and the Mac, and has never supported Linux. Plus it's always been expensive, and they keep radically modifying the UI between one version and another, which is very annoying when you buy it for a bug fix). One great thing about Google Docs is that it is the easiest and lowest-bandwidth way to remotely collaborate on documents. Google spreadsheets are also an excellent way to collect and share data; both of these apps become preferable to standalone programs because of the ease of sharing.

As a result I -- and many new adopters of computers -- are less and less interested in OS-specific functionality. I spend more of my time on the web, via Google Chrome, and every time I encounter an OS-specific application I have to think about how I will move things between machines and back them up.

I wonder how long desktop-specific operating systems will survive. Windows 8 (or whatever it's called) sounds like it might focus more on handhelds and tablets. Mass-market users primarily use things like email, Facebook, photo, video, audio and simple apps. Devices and the cloud continue to get more powerful. In the meantime, developers seem to be moving more towards Unix-based OSes like Mac and Linux. Add to this the cross-platform development trend (despite attempts to force developers into corporate-specific niches) and ultimately we could see a plethora of different small portable computing devices with development happening on Macs or custom-built Linux workstations, and little else that could pass for a desktop.

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel (www.BruceEckel.com) provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2011 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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