Windows 7 review.
kitten   May 3, 2009

Note: This post contains a lot of bitching and griping about computers. If you don't care, move along.

Now I know you web-surfing, Tivo-watching, Google-consulting, cellphone-using, router-owning, gmail-sending people out there love Linux. It's the driving force behind all of these services and more, and without it, the digital world as we know it would largely cease to function.

But I recently found there are alternatives to using Linux. Always interested in discovering new technology, I came across an operating system called "Windows 7" made by a company called Microsoft, with a suggested retail price of 400 dollars, and decided to take it for a test drive.

A few brief words...

I did my research beforehand, so I'll share a few things you need to understand about Windows before embarking on this adventure: It isn't an open system like Linux. Rather, it appears to be entirely programmed and controlled by the Microsoft company, so you more or less have to take them at their word that you're getting something decent for your money.

Like any operating system I expect it to have problems, but those of you who are used to being able to solve your own problems, or get someone to help you, should be aware that this isn't an option with Windows, for you're not allowed to view the source code of it. Microsoft provides quality assurance and promises that they'll fix any bugs sooner or later, though.

In fact, they claim that this system provides more security, because no one can view the source code to exploit it, meaning Windows 7 will be extremely secure, safe, difficult to hack, and virtually immune to viruses. In my research, I discovered that Microsoft had made similar claims about their previous versions of this Windows system, and it hadn't quite been true, but for the sake of experimentation I'll assume they got it right this time.


Onward! Upon booting the CD, I was presented with two options: Upgrade, or Advanced. I knew I wasn't upgrading from some previous version of Windows, but I wasn't sure that a straight, vanilla install was all that "Advanced". Nevertheless, this turned out to be the proper choice for what I wanted to do. With that, the install process was underway. Beyond that bit of confusion, the install was fairly smooth and fast, totalling about an hour on a 1.8ghz Intel Dual Core with two gigs of RAM.

The computer rebooted and I was prompted to type something called a "product key". This is how Microsoft keeps track of whether or not you've paid for your copy of Windows, and it was somewhat disconcerting and gimmicky, like those cheap warranty cards you get when you purchase an appliance, and promptly throw away because it's none of Whirlpool or Maytag's business how many people are in your home or what your income is.

However, you can't "throw away" this registration -- you must enter the key, and allow Windows to send unknown information about you to an unknown location, to be used for unknown purposes, in order to continue.

I wasn't too happy about it, but I complied. After a short while, Windows asked me to select my "network location", with the options of "Home", "Work", or "Other". I wasn't quite sure what to make of this -- does it matter where I am just to run a dhcp client? Nevertheless, I selected "Home", and was promptly connected to my network and the internet. Easy enough, I suppose.

I did note that the base install required a full 8.3 gigabytes of disk space. This was baffling to me as a Linux user, where a full desktop with all kinds of useful applications built in clocks in around three gigs, but I was excited to see what kind of neat stuff was packed into all that space.

As it turns out, not very much. But more on that in a minute.

Hardware and driver support.

I expect any operating system to have a few issues with drivers, getting hardware to work correctly and so on. The first thing I wanted to do was check to see what didn't get installed properly.

As you know, in Ubuntu, and most any other modern Linux distro, there are a variety of ways to do this. You can use your desktop environment's panels to get a look at your hardware, or you can issue commands to the terminal to get more detailed information about what specific things are installed, even if the drivers for them aren't there. In Windows, however, it works a little differently -- virtually everything is controlled through the GUI and there are no options for doing anything through the command line.

It took a while to get the hang of this. Using the GUI sort of assumes you already know where things are hidden, and there are very few contextual clues to help you find where to click. I could tell that controlling this from a remote location would also be a chore, but I put that off until later.

After some experimenting, I discovered that you can right-click certain things, even if it doesn't look like you can, and see "Properties". Doing this on an icon called "Computer" eventually led me to something called a "Device Manager", which listed my hardware.

I saw that my sound card had not installed, as well as something called "base system device", and I wasn't even sure what that was. I looked for some way to make these drivers install; in Ubuntu, you usually just click "Enable Driver", but I was unable to find anything comparable in Windows.

A bit of googling revealed that I had to go to the manufacturer's website and download an executable installer, then run it on Windows. I had no idea what sound card I had, and the Windows "Device Manager" provided no information on this either, so I had to do some more research on my specific model of computer, find out its specifications, then go to Dell's website and click through a bunch of menus and end-user-license-agreements to get this installer. The entire process was turning into rather a pain.

Once downloaded, I ran it, and the entire screen turned dark. I thought I'd broken something, but after a second, a window appeared informing me that the thing I had just tried to install was, in fact, trying to install, and asked if I really wanted this to happen. The entire computer was unusable until I selected "Cancel" or "Continue". Well, I certainly would like sound on my computer, so I selected "Continue".

I answered a series of questions about where to install some files I didn't recognise, agree to another EULA, and finally the sound drivers installed. Windows told me it needed to reboot the entire computer to make this work.

I rebooted as instructed, and when it came back up, the screen resolution was wrong, at 800x600. I figured out how to correct this by right-clicking the desktop. Pretty simple.

Sound still didn't work, though. An icon appeared that invited me to click it for troubleshooting. The troubleshooting "wizard" (as Microsoft calls it) danced its dance for about three minutes, then told me it was unable to find a solution for my audio problem.

Meanwhile, the installer also left a little icon in my system tray which would not go away no matter how many times I tried to close it. It kept appearing, trying to update, and flashing balloons and windows in my face as I tried to work. I'm told there's a way to disable this but there was no obvious way that I could find after a few minutes of checking the "Control Panel", so I gave up and put it off until later. *

I also gave up on having sound for the time being.

The basics.

That sorted, it was time to see what Windows 7 could do. I thought I'd start by checking some websites. Windows 7 doesn't use Firefox -- it includes something called "Internet Explorer", which sounds bold and intrepid. I was ready to explore the internet, so I launched it.

Internet Explorer, or "IE" as Microsoft sometimes calls it, is a strange browser indeed. The controls, rather than being lined up in a central location, are spread all over the place -- the refresh and stop buttons are in the address bar for some reason, while the home page button is embedded in a secondary panel which, incidentally, takes up virtually all of the real estate used by tabs.

This, I found, was fairly typical of the entire operating system's interface -- it looks clean at first but actually using it feels awkward and confusing. For example, it puts all your running applications down at the bottom of the screen, but it doesn't label them; instead it shows icons of the programs. After opening four or five applications, it's difficult to tell what's going on without hovering the mouse over them, as the icons themselves are completely arbitrary and have little symbolic connection to what they are supposed to represent.

Some programs open seperate instances of the icons, while others inexplicably use the program launcher itself as an icon. *

Likewise, the Start menu, which stores most of your application shortcuts, was constantly changing its list of items for no reason I could discern. Every time I went to launch something, the items and their arrangement had been altered, making it difficult to keep track of what was located where. * Additionally, program shortcuts are slotted into arbitrary categories, usually by the name of the software maker who wrote the program, which isn't something I tend to remember. *

In any case, it was becoming clear that consistent, predictable behavior wasn't a priority for Windows 7, which was acting like a sadistic landlord that rearranges your furniture every time you leave the apartment. I would just have to get used to it.

I surfed around a few of my favorite sites, and it was all fairly straightforward. It did pretty much everything Firefox did, without any surprises. Simple enough but hardly impressive. Time to shift gears and see what Windows 7 can really do. Let's get some real work done.

At work...

First up, I wanted to compile a C program I'd written for work. Oddly enough, Windows doesn't come with any sort of compiler. Some googling suggested I might install cygwin, which provides Linux-like functionality for Windows.

This gave me pause. Microsoft has repeatedly said that Linux, and open-source software in general, is inferior to closed-source products like Windows, so why would I need to install something "Linux-like" for this? However, I didn't really see a choice.

A word about installing software in Windows -- Microsoft doesn't provide software repositories. I checked high and low for anything like Synaptic or Yum or YaST but there was nothing.

Microsoft doesn't expect you to install software through the normal vetted-and-verified repository system we're all used to. Instead, the standard procedure seems to be to either purchase a CD or other install medium from a third-party vendor, or seek out and download random executables from the web and run them. *

It's definitely strange, but I have Microsoft's assurance that this is safe, so I gave it a shot and was able to download and install cygwin, and after some fiddling about, got my program compiled.

Still, I wasn't impressed that I had to get a third-party application just to do something so very basic.

Microsoft apparently does provide some software to do this sort of thing, though. Their website provides a place where you can download Visual C++ or Visual Studio or any number of other "Visual"-named programs for development work.

There's a catch, though. You have to either pay for a full version of the software, or you can download a version with crippled, limited functionality, or you can get a trial version which will stop working after a fixed period of time.

I quickly found out this is true of most software you want to install in Windows! There are free or open source alternatives to most of these programs, of course, but as noted, Microsoft says these are all inferior, not to be trusted, and take too long to learn.

At any rate, I wasn't interested in purchasing software right then, so I stuck with cygwin, which is not entirely in keeping with the spirit of the Microsoft modus, but it'll be our little secret.

A short while later, my boss told me he sent a Powerpoint presentation to review. The drudgery of office life. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any email program in Windows 7, and had to once again resort to downloading something to do this. I selected Mozilla Thunderbird, which is another open-source program.

I felt like I was cheating, having to install all sorts of extras -- open source extras, no less -- to get anything done, but I persevered.

I saved his email attachment to my desktop and double clicked it, expecting to be bored senseless with endless charts and bullet points, but instead.. absolutely nothing happened. It wouldn't open. A window appeared telling me that Windows 7 didn't have an application that would handle this type of document.

Strange! Back to google, which was rapidly becoming my best friend in this adventure. I found out that in order to open a Powerpoint presentation, I'd need something called "Office", a product offered by Microsoft for one hundred dollars if you're a student, or between three and four hundred dollars if you're not.

By this point I was getting seriously annoyed. A four hundred dollar system should be able to open a little Powerpoint presentation, but instead I'm expected to pay another three hundred. I began to wonder what advantages all this expensive software had over my free software, which could do all these things out of the box.

However, not having a three hundred dollars to drop right then, and being unable to convince my boss that I should be allowed to expense that kind of money when the free program was doing the exact same thing, I gave up, and saved the presentation to my Linux computer for later viewing. *

...and at home.

Enough work. Let's have some fun! I thought I'd burn a CD full of mp3s for my sweetie. Rummaging around my desk, I found a blank CD and shoved it into the computer. Windows 7 immediately offered to "format" the CD, which made absolutely no sense to me. What is "formatting" a CD? It's blank; I just want to write data to it.

There was an option for a normal CD, which could be read by any computer or stereo, but that was inexplicably grayed out. The other option was to to create a CD that could only be read by Windows 7 or a previous version of Windows known as "Vista". I didn't want that and couldn't select the option I did want, so I gave up.

Maybe Windows 7 was better at making music CDs. I inserted the blank again, ignored the "formatting" options, and looked in the menus for a program to burn music CDs. Finding none, I once again turned to google, and tried to follow the instructions for making CDs using a media player (?!). However, I had no luck with this either, as Windows Media Player whirred away for a while, claiming it was converting the mp3 files, and then stopped without any explanation. Once again, I gave up. Waving the white flag at Windows 7 was becoming a familiar gesture.

The verdict.

All things considered, my Windows 7 experience was not a pleasant one. With a four hundred dollar pricetag, I expect quite a bit, but instead, I found that it can do virtually nothing byitself but browse the web (poorly), and to do anything else required third party software, for most of which I was also expected to pay, or resort to open-source solutions.

It choked when asked to do simple things like burn a CD, was unable to provide me any information about hardware or driver problems, and much core functionality, like being able to send email, edit or even organise pictures, or play certain DVDs or songs, was missing entirely.

But it sure looks shiny, and I also discovered, through some trial-and-error, that it can burn ISOs, which I'm told is something no previous Windows product has ever been able to do. I'm glad this one can, for I think I'll burn an Ubuntu CD in order to replace this mess.