Still present--and nicely spruced up--are the operating system's two applications for consuming audio and video, Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center. Windows Media Player 12 has a revised interface that divides operations into a Library view for media management and a Now Playing view for listening and watching stuff. Minimize the player into the Taskbar, and you get miniplayer controls and a Jump List, both of which let you control background music without having to leave the app you're in. Microsoft has added support for several media types that Media Player 11 didn't support, including AAC audio and H.264 video--the formats it needs to play unprotected music and movies from Apple's iTunes Store.
Media Center--not part of the bargain-basement Windows 7 Starter Edition--remains most useful if you have a PC configured with a TV tuner card and you use your computer to record TV shows à la TiVo. Among its enhancements are a better program guide and support for more tuners.
Windows Vista's oddly underpowered Backup and Restore Center let users specify particular types of files to back up (such as 'Music' and 'Documents') but not specific files or folders. Though Microsoft corrects that deficiency in Windows 7, it deprives Windows 7 Starter Edition and Home Premium of the ability to back up to a network drive. That feels chintzy, like a car company cutting back on an economy sedan's airbags. It also continues the company's long streak of issuing versions of Windows that lack a truly satisfying backup utility.
The new version of Paint has Office 2007's Ribbon toolbar and adds various prefabricated geometric shapes and a few natural-media tools, such as a watercolor brush. But my regimen for preparing a new Windows PC for use will still include installing the impressive free image editor Paint.Net.
The nearest thing Windows 7 has to a major new application has the intriguing moniker Windows XP Mode. It's not a way to make Windows 7 look like XP--you can do that with the Windows Classic theme--but rather a way to let it run XP programs that are otherwise incompatible with Win 7. Unfortunately, only Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate offer it, and even then it comes as an optional 350MB download that requires you to have Microsoft's free Virtual PC software installed and that only works on PCs with Intel or AMD virtualization technology enabled in the BIOS.
Once active, XP Mode lets Windows 7 run apps that supposedly aren't compatible by launching them in separate windows that contain a virtualized version of XP. Microsoft clearly means for the mode to serve as a security blanket for business types who rely on ancient, often proprietary programs that may never be rewritten for current OSs.
Device Management: Setting the Stage
Windows 7 offers you numerous ways to connect your PC to everything from tiny flash drives to hulking networked laser printers--USB, Wi-Fi, ethernet, slots, and more. Devices and Printers, a new section of the Control Panel, represents connected gadgets with the largest icons I've ever seen in an operating system. (When possible, they're 3D renderings of the device; the one for Sansa's Clip MP3 player is almost life-size.)
More important, the OS introduces Device Stages--hardware-wrangling dashboards tailored to specific items of hardware, and designed by their manufacturers in collaboration with Microsoft. A Device Stage for a digital camera, for instance, may include a battery gauge, a shortcut to Windows' image-downloading tools, and links to online resources such as manuals, support sites, and the manufacturer's accessory store.
You don't need to rummage through the Control Panel or through Devices and Printers to use a Device Stage--that feature's functionality is integrated into Windows 7's new Taskbar. Plug in a device, and it will show up as a Taskbar icon; right-click that icon, and the Device Stage's content will at once appear as a Jump List-like menu.
Unfortunately, Device Stages were the one major part of Windows 7 that didn't work during my hands-on time with the final version of the OS. Earlier prerelease versions of Win 7 contained a handful of Device Stages, but Microsoft disabled them so that hardware manufacturers could finish up final ones before the OS hit store shelves in October. The feature will be a welcome improvement if device manufacturers hop on the bandwagon--and a major disappointment if they don't.
Even if Device Stages take off, most of their benefit may come as you invest in new gizmos--Microsoft says that it's encouraging manufacturers to create Device Stages for upcoming products, not existing ones. At least some older products should get Device Stages, though: Canon, for instance, told me that it's planning to build them for most of its printers. And Microsoft says that when no full-fledged Device Stage is available for a particular item, Windows 7 will still try to give you a more generic and basic one.
Input: Reach Out and Touch Windows 7
The biggest user interface trend since Windows Vista shipped in January 2007 is touchscreen input; Windows 7 is the first version of the OS to offer built-in multitouch support (see "Windows 7 Hardware: Touch Finally Arrives").
Windows 7's new touch features are subtle on a touch-capable PC and invisible otherwise. Swipe your finger up or down to scroll through document files and Web pages; sweep two fingers back and forth to zoom in and out. Dragging up on icons in the Taskbar reveals Win 7's new Jump Lists. The Taskbar button that reveals the Windows desktop is a bit bigger on touch PCs for easier use.
I installed the final version of Windows 7 and beta touchscreen drivers on an HP TouchSmart all-in-one PC. The touch features worked as advertised. But applications written with touch as the primary interface will determine whether touch becomes useful and ubiquitous. Until they arrive, Windows will continue to feel like an OS built chiefly for use with a keyboard and mouse--which it is.
You might have expected Microsoft to reinvent familiar tools such as Paint and Media Player for touch input. But the closest it comes to that is with the Windows 7 Touch Pack, a set of six touch-based programs, including a version of Virtual Earth that you can explore with your finger, and an app that lets you assemble photo collages. The Touch Pack isn't part of Windows 7, but it will ship with some Win 7 PCs, and it's a blast to play with.
Still, ultimately, the Pack is just a sexy demo of the interface's potential, not an argument for buying a touch computer today. Third-party software developers won't start writing touch-centric apps in force until a critical mass of PCs can run them. That should happen in the months following Windows 7's release, as finger-ready machines from Asus, Lenovo, Sony, and other manufacturers join those from HP and Dell. And even then, touch input may not become commonplace on Windows 7 PCs. But if a killer touch app is out there waiting to be written, we may know soon enough.
Bottom Line: Is Windows 7 Worth It?
Reading about a new operating system can tell you only so much about it: After all, Windows Vista had far more features than XP, yet fell far short of it in the eyes of many users. To judge an OS accurately, you have to live with it.
Over the past ten months, I've spent a substantial percentage of my computing life in Windows 7, starting with a preliminary version and culminating in recent weeks with the final Release to Manufacturing edition. I've run it on systems ranging from an underpowered Asus EeePC 1000HE netbook to a potent HP TouchSmart all-in-one. And I've used it to do real work, not lab routines.
Usually, I've run the OS in multiboot configurations with Windows Vista and/or XP, so I've had a choice each time I turned the computer on: Should I opt for Windows 7 or an older version of the OS? The call has been easy to make, because Win 7 is so pleasant to use.
So why wouldn't you want to run this operating system? Concern over its performance is one logical reason, especially since early versions of Windows Vista managed to turn PCs that ran XP with ease into lethargic underperformers. The PC World Test Center's speed benchmarks on five test PCs showed Windows 7 to be faster than Vista, but only by a little; I've found it to be reasonably quick on every computer I've used it on--even the Asus netbook, once I upgraded it to 2GB of RAM. (Our lab tried Win 7 on a Lenovo S10 netbook with 1GB of RAM and found it to be a shade slower than XP.)
Here's a rule of thumb that errs on the side of caution: If your PC's specs qualify it to run Vista, get Windows 7; if they aren't, avoid it. Microsoft's official hardware configuration requirements for Windows 7 are nearly identical to those it recommends for Windows Vista: a 1-GHz CPU, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of free disk space, and a DirectX 9-compatible graphics device with a WDDM 1.0 or higher driver. That's for the 32-bit version of Windows 7; the 64-bit version of the OS requires a 64-bit CPU, 2GB of RAM, and 20GB of disk space.
Fear of incompatible hardware and software is another understandable reason to be wary of Windows 7. One unfortunate law of operating-system upgrades--which applies equally to Macs and to Windows PCs--is that they will break some systems and applications, especially at first.
Under the hood, Windows 7 isn't radically different from Vista. That's a plus, since it should greatly reduce the volume of difficulties relating to drivers and apps compared to Vista's bumpy rollout. I have performed a half-dozen Windows 7 upgrades, and most of them went off without a hitch. The gnarliest problem arose when I had to track down a graphics driver for Dell's XPS M1330 laptop on my own--Windows 7 installed a generic VGA driver that couldn't run the Aero user interface, and as a result failed to support new Windows 7 features such as thumbnail views in the Taskbar.
The best way to reduce your odds of running into a showstopping problem with Windows 7 is to bide your time. When the new operating system arrives on October 22, sit back and let the earliest adopters discover the worst snafus. Within a few weeks, Microsoft and other software and hardware companies will have fixed most of them, and your chances of a happy migration to Win 7 will be much higher. If you want to be really conservative, hold off on moving to Win 7 until you're ready to buy a PC that's designed to run it well.
Waiting a bit before making the leap makes sense; waiting forever does not. Microsoft took far too long to come up with a satisfactory replacement for Windows XP. But whether you choose to install Windows 7 on your current systems or get it on the next new PC you buy, you'll find that it's the unassuming, thoroughly practical upgrade you've been waiting for--flaws and all.
For more information about Windows 7, sign up for PC World's Windows News and Tips newsletter.
Former PC World editor-in-chief Harry McCracken now blogs at his own site, Technologizer.
This story, "Windows 7 Review" was originally published by PCWorld.