Friday, March 18, 2011

Windows 7: Microsoft Gets It Right This Time

A couple of days ago, I finally took the plunge and upgraded from 32-bit Windows XP to the 64-bit edition of Windows 7 Premium. I'd already built a completely new PC a month or so earlier with the following specs:

AMD Phenom X4 9600B Quad-core CPU
Cooler Master AM2 95w CPU fan
Biostar MCP6PB M2+ GeForce 6150 (Socket AM2+) Motherboard
4GB Centon PC6400 DDR2 RAM
Asus GeForce 210 512MB PCIe Dual DVI, HDMI Video card
Western Digital Caviar 500GB SATA HDD
Lite ON 24x DVDRW SATA Optical drive
PowerUp Mid-tower ATX Case w/450w PSU

Building the system took me about two hours, and my old copy of 32-bit Windows XP ran fine on it; but I'd heard good things about Windows 7, and had never run a 64-bit operating system before, so I decided to try Microsoft's newest OS on for size.

Before I go further, I should admit that I haven't been much of a Microsoft fanboy for quite a while. I hated the whole activation thing they started including with their operating systems back with XP, and I still hate it. Also for a while I had a laptop which came with Windows Vista pre-installed, and as far as I was concerned, Vista was a dog. Plus I've run a number of major Linux distributions and really loved some of them for their rock-solid stability and security. In fact, if it weren't for the fact that I have a few games that I refuse to do without, which won't run on Linux even under their Windows emulation, and the fact that Netflix streaming still isn't available to Linux users, I'd probably be running one of them as my OS-of-choice today.

Anyway, my copy of Microsoft's Windows 7 Premium 64-bit operating system arrived a couple of days ago and with some trepidation, I began my installation.

I elected to do a complete wipe, repartition, and reformat of my hard drive so that I'd be installing my new OS on a completely clean system. That process took only a few seconds, and from there I was really surprised at just how fast the installation went. I didn't actually time my last Windows XP install, but off-hand I'd say that my Windows 7 install probably took half the time, possibly even less. Basically, the only information I had to supply was my correct time zone and a username; and I was very pleasantly surprised when the installer even let me skip typing in the product key altogether. I made that choice since I figured that if I managed to bork up the installation somehow, I wouldn't have used up one of the limited number of online activations you get before you have to call Microsoft and explain to them why you need yet another one in too short a period of time.

I did run into one issue, not after the installation was complete, because the first boot into it went flawlessly, but after I'd installed the appropriate drivers for my specific hardware and had to reboot again. What happened was that it appeared that the system hung before it reached the desktop, but I had both my LCD monitor and my HD-TV plugged into the video card, and it turned out that the video driver had somehow assumed that the HD-TV (which I didn't have turned on at the time) was my primary display. That wasn't Microsoft's fault, but rather an oddity in that particular video driver, which I solved at the time by simply unplugging the television from the video card. Once I did boot successfully to the desktop, I plugged it back in and was quickly able to identify the problem and set the driver to recognize my monitor as my primary display.

From there on, it was all a piece of cake. Windows 7 was able to supply a fantastic range of hardware support without my doing anything at all--much, much more so than any other Microsoft operating system I've ever used. I let Windows 7 update itself, including the newly-released Service Pack 1 and Internet Explorer 9, with no issues on my end.

Then I began installing my (mostly 32-bit) software. This had worried me, although I'd read where a number of people had claimed that the vast majority of 32-bit software works just fine in a 64-bit OS; so I had actually earlier downloaded 64-bit versions of as much of my software as I could find. With a single exception, it all installed flawlessly, and that single exception was fairly esoteric: a program designed to run old 16-bit DOS games with full sound and accelerated graphics under modern Windows operating systems. It had worked fine on 32-bit XP, and I knew I was in for a challenge to make it work in a 64-bit environment at all; but with some very helpful suggestions from the author of the program, I've got even that working perfectly now.

I have to add here that the new Windows 7 user interface is downright beautiful. XP's desktop looks like an old clunker compared to it, and while it looks a little similar to Vista in some ways, it isn't nearly the resource hog Vista was. As far as stability is concerned, so far Windows 7 64-bit seems to me to be every bit as stable as even the best Linux distributions I've run, and for me to say that is really extraordinary. It is absolutely rock-solid, seemingly no matter what I throw at it. It has capabilities which were only dreamed about when Windows XP was released, yet insofar as my productivity and gaming software are concerned, it runs like a racehorse.

For anyone thinking of an operating system upgrade, I would definitely at least recommend downloading the free Windows 7 Compatibility checker from Microsoft and giving it a spin. If your computer hardware will support it, either in the 64-bit or 32-bit versions, I would absolutely recommend it. If you're still running XP, you'll find that Windows 7 is at least one example where a Microsoft version upgrade doesn't add a corresponding amount of bloat; and if you're one of those poor souls running Windows Vista, if you can upgrade to Windows 7, you'll experience what it must have felt like when Lincoln freed the slaves.

For once, Microsoft indeed got it right, and my hat's off to them. Now, I've got to get around to doing that online activation!