One of the major improvements to Windows 7 over Vista and even XP is its ability to bring together all of the devices in your home and manage connections - wired and wireless - successfully. Sounds like an easy trick, but any home users with networked PCs knows that while being able to print on the remote printer should work, it doesn't always.
Happily for users with wireless routers, Windows 7 will talk to machines running different operating systems and is easy to connect to either wired or wireless networks. I used it on a network with systems running Windows 2000, Windows XP and Ubuntu Linux, although it needed a little security adjustment to allow it to share resources with the some operating systems (if you're techie and curious, I had to allow plain text passwords for third party SMB servers ).
On a Windows 7-only network, there are extra benefits (and if your machines can cope, Microsoft is currently offering a Family Pack of three Windows 7 licenses for about $200 to make the upgrade more affordable). A Homegroup is a collection of Windows 7 machines that can seamlessly share resources (documents, music, photos, videos, or even printers). They show up in Windows Explorer as though they were local, so you don't even need to know where any given file resides to access it. Any Windows 7 machine can access a Homegroup, but only Home Premium, Professional or Ultimate editions can create one.
But don't worry if your machines all can't run Windows 7 - mixed networks can still share all of their resources the same way they always have. Homegroup just automates the process of initiating the sharing, and makes finding shared resources easier.
Managing devices, shared or not, has been streamlined with Device Stage. It gathers all of the information and links to management tools for each device into one place. If you have, for example, a multi-function printer/scanner, instead of having to launch the scanning program from the Start menu and manage the printer from Devices and Printers, all functions will be accessible from Device Stage, and your smart phone may have connections to software for creating or adding ringtones, decanting photos or image editing on its Device Stage entry. Hardware vendors are encouraged to add goodies such as photo-realistic images for their units, links to their support sites and links to device software.
Of course, plug and play device detection is still alive and well, and device support is good. When I scanned the network for new devices, it even found and installed printer drivers for an elderly HP multi-function shared on my Windows 2000 box, though it didn't figure out that it also has scanning capabilities - no surprise, since full vendor support for the device ended at Windows XP.
Security settings can always make life interesting, both on a network and on your local machine. Vista users will be acquainted with User Account Control (UAC), the feature introduced to protect machines from stealth software installations. Under Vista, it was disturbing and intrusive, with frequent pop-ups asking permission to make any sort of change, even one initiated by the user. It scared the socks off many users, and annoyed others to the point that they shut it off, leaving the machine vulnerable to drive-by installs of malware.
Microsoft has struck a happy medium between security and usability in Windows 7. It lets you configure levels of UAC, from Vista's over-enthusiastic pestering through two more moderate levels to completely off. The default setting asks for permission if programs try to change system settings, but doesn't bug you if you initiate those changes.
Windows 7 Device Stage Watch Lynn Greiner's desktop capture video of this new feature
Windows Firewall has also had some renovation. It now examines incoming and outgoing traffic, instead of just incoming, so it can alert you to (or block) programs that sneakily "phone home." It's still complicated to configure if you want to adjust its filtering rules, but it's a huge leap forward from older versions that only looked at incoming data.
With the increasing popularity of netbooks, there have been a lot of questions about how well Windows 7 would support them. I first tried the release candidate on an HP Mini 2140 netbook, then the RTM (Released To Manufacturing) version on an HP Mini 5101 netbook. While I had to use the Vista driver for the 5101's wireless adapter (HP will release its Windows 7 drivers on Oct. 22), the machine performs just fine under Windows 7.
No, it's not (and wasn't designed to be) a blazingly fast system or a high performance computer of any sort and that's not operating system specific: netbooks are meant to be ultra-mobile secondary computers. The 5101's Windows Experience Index (a measurement introduced in Vista) is only 2.2, because of its lower-end graphics chipset, but the machine performs quite acceptably. It feels every bit as responsive under Windows 7 as it did under XP. I can't accurately judge battery life, since the machine is not running all of the proper drivers, but it didn't seem to be adversely affected by Windows 7.
I'm only a casual gamer (Ted Kritsonis took a look at the OS for the serious gamer), but found that most of what I tested worked adequately. The odd older game choked (Lucky Duck, for example, appeared to run, but would then not respond to keyboard or mouse), but online Shockwave games like Text Twist and Jewel Quest were OK. Don't, however, assume that a game's age means it won't work under Windows 7; I was amused to find that most of the games in the antique Windows Entertainment Pack, vintage 1991, ran fine.
Lynn Greiner is a freelance writer and techie who has been chronicling and working in IT since 1971. She has been involved in testing and evaluating Windows since version 3.1 .
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