Hasta La Vista, Baby. Hello Windows 7

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted July 21, 2009

Contain your excitement, here comes another new Windows operating system from Microsoft. On October 22, barely three years after it debuted the less-than-stellar Windows Vista, Microsoft will launch Windows 7.

Small business owners who were underwhelmed – or, like many, really ticked off – by Vista may wonder why they should care. But this time could be different. Early reviews and word-of-mouth on Win7 – the first “release candidate” is currently available as a free download – are surprisingly positive. Most say it’s a distinct improvement on Vista. Some say it’s the operating system Vista should have been in the first place.

Windows 7 screen shot
Windows 7 Taskbar Peek.
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Does that mean small businesses should plan an upgrade to Win7 in the short term? It depends, according to Mark Tauschek, lead research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Inc. “I believe that it is a significantly improved operating system over Vista,” Tauschek said.

Windows 7 is not, however, a release that adds a lot of significant new features and functions. It received the good notices for its improved stability, reliability and efficiency, and for minor but telling feature enhancements.

When to Upgrade?

Info-tech cautiously recommends that clients who still run Vista’s predecessor, Windows XP – and there are many – should wait until Microsoft issues the first Windows 7 “service pack” bundle of bug fixes and software upgrades, and then make the switch.

Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (SP1) should appear toward the end of the first quarter of 2010 or the beginning of the second quarter, Tauschek said. If you’re already using Vista without any problems, don’t rush to upgrade. Waiting until your company’s next scheduled refresh of desktops is probably soon enough, he added.

If you’re using Vista and are having problems – you’re not alone – Info-Tech recommends the same schedule as for people using XP. Some small businesses may not be so patient.

Why Upgrade?

As with previous operating system releases, Microsoft enlisted people to test it as part of an early adoption program. Ivonne Perrig, Microsoft’s senior marketing manager for Windows in the small business group, said that many participants plan to upgrade right away.

John Tworsky, general manager and chief technology officer at  Bergen County Camera, a two-store camera retailer in suburban New Jersey, is one. Tworsky participated in the Windows 7 early adoption program initially because he was replacing single-purpose Unix-based cash registers with Windows PC-based registers that let employees surf the Web and do other tasks with the same terminals they use to ring up sales.

Tworsky saw no compelling reason to switch from Windows XP to Vista for the 20 or so PCs already in the organization, but he likes what he’s seen with Windows 7. “For me, it is the next operating system,” Tworsky said. “And it seems to be rock solid. We’re planning to migrate to it from XP [as soon as the final version comes out in October].”

Mark Taushek’s company has been testing Windows 7 for a few months, and has also been talking to its small and medium business clients about their plans around Windows. The “vast majority” never migrated to Vista, he pointed out. Their plan all along was to stick with XP and wait for Windows 7. It looks in retrospect like a smart plan.

Of course, small businesses without IT management resources were often forced into completely or partly converting to Vista because the new computers they bought at retail came with Vista whether they wanted it or not.

Boo Vista!

If not an out-and-out disaster, Vista was a disappointment to Microsoft — because it didn’t sell well — and to many people who hated it. It worked only adequately on the latest, most powerful PCs. Compatibility with applications and device drivers was often a problem – many didn’t work or didn’t work well with Vista.

And some people – your correspondent included – experienced seemingly insoluble problems: Vista performance degraded for no easily discernible reason, the operating system appeared to grind away at unnecessary tasks and used up all the computer’s processing resources.

Most, if not all, of those flaws appear to have been corrected.

“The biggest downfall of Vista was that it was very bloated,” Tauschek said. “I’m not sure of how many millions of lines of code there was in it, but Windows 7 is significantly scaled down from that.”

The Vista code bloat meant there were many more opportunities for “issues,” he poined out. The much leaner Windows 7 is faster to install than past versions of the operating system. And it works even on relatively under-powered PCs. Tauschek has it running on a netbook, a small portable computer that can only run a stripped-down version of Vista, and even then not very well.

Tworsky has noticed the same thing. “It seems to have a smaller footprint,” he said. “It requires less memory and seems to run better when you’re at the low end of Microsoft’s recommendation [for hardware requirements].”

Enhancements

At the same time, there are nice, if small, changes to the interface, and a few good new features. Perrig said some people in the early adoption program cited seemingly minor feature changes as significant time savers and reasons for wanting to migrate to Win7 immediately.

An online job agency, for example, liked a new feature that makes it easier to display two documents side by side on a wide screen by dragging them to opposite sides of the screen. It meant the company could easily do side-by-side comparisons of resumes.

Others liked the new task bar. Clicking a program icon shows open documents or instances of programs as legible and “live” previews arranged side by side above the bar. Under Vista, the task bar preview function was virtually useless because previews were too small and stacked on top of each other.

Windows 7 screen shot
Windows 7 Preview Pane.
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Some other early adopters appreciated improvements to power utilization and management under Windows 7 that means longer laptop battery life, Perrig said.

Still others liked the location-aware printing feature that means the computer automatically senses which network it’s connected to and automatically sends print jobs to a printer on that network.

Tworsky likes the way people can now get a combined view of documents stored in multiple locations by opening one folder in Windows Explorer. He also likes the new troubleshooting tool that lets him record a series of steps that lead to an error and send it to a technician for review.

Bottom Line

None of these new features is earth shattering, but they add up to a subtly better experience. That, combined with the much more important improvements to stability and the lower hardware requirements, means most small businesses should probably consider switching to Windows 7 within nine to 12 months.

Tauschek admitted that the recommendation to wait for Service Pack 1 may be erring on the side of caution. Companies should certainly be testing the current Release Candidate now, he said, and making sure the applications and devices it uses work under the new operating system.

If they do, especially if you’re currently struggling with Vista, there may be no reason to wait for SP1, he said.

How much will Windows 7 cost? It’s complicated. If you buy some PCs with Vista today, or upgrade your current XP PC to Vista with a package from Microsoft, you’ll get Windows 7 for no additional cost when it launches in October.

You can also pre-order Windows 7 Upgrade packages for Vista or XP PCs. Costco, for example, has Windows 7 Home Premium and Windows 7 Professional Upgrades for $115  and $190. There will also be volume discounts, not yet announced.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!


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