Windows 7 Keeps the Good and Tries to Fix Flaws

Windows 7 comes out Thursday. And if the programmers at Microsoft have any strength left at all, they are high-fiving.

Their three-year Windows Vista nightmare is over. That operating system’s wretched reputation may have been overblown; at the outset, it was slow, intrusive and incompatible with a lot of gadgets, but it’s been quietly improved over the years. Nonetheless, the corporate software buyers who order copies of Windows by the gross weren’t impressed. As recently as this summer, at least two-thirds of corporate computers were still running the positively ancient Windows XP.

Windows 7 is a different story. It keeps what’s good about Windows Vista, like security, stability and generous eye candy, and addresses much of what people disliked.

Item 1: Sluggishness. As Microsoft’s triple redundancy puts it, Windows 7 offers “faster, more responsive performance.”

Item 2: Hardware requirements. They’re no steeper than Vista’s three years ago (the standard edition requires 1 gigabyte of memory and 1 gigahertz processor; more is better).

Item 3: Nagging Windows 7 is far less alarmist than Vista, which freaked out about every potential security threat. In fact, 10 categories of warnings now pile up quietly in a single, unified Action Center and don’t interrupt you at all.

Best of all, Windows 7 represents a departure from Microsoft’s usual “success is measured by the length of the feature list” philosophy. This time around, it was, “Polish, optimize and streamline what we’ve already got.” That seems to be the industry mantra for 2009 — see also Apple’s Snow Leopard release in August — and it’s fantastic news. (I have written books about both operating systems for an independent publisher.)

There are three ugly aspects of Windows 7, so let’s get them out of the way up front. Upgrading from Vista is easy, but upgrading from Windows XP involves a “clean install”— moving all your programs and files off the hard drive, installing Windows 7, then copying everything back on again. It’s an all-day hassle that’s nobody’s idea of fun.

Microsoft doesn’t think XP holdouts will even bother; instead, it hopes that they’ll just get Windows 7 preinstalled on a new PC. (It’s no accident that new operating systems come out right before the holiday shopping season. ) The second bit of nastiness is the insane matrix of versions. Once again, there are five different versions of Windows 7 — Starter, Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise, Ultimate — each with a different set of features, each available in 32-bit or 64-bit flavors (except Starter), at prices from $120 to $320. Good luck figuring out why some cool Windows 7 feature, like the much-improved, TiVo-like Windows Media Center, isn’t on your PC.

Finally, out of fear of antitrust headaches, Microsoft has stripped Windows 7 of some important accessory programs. Believe it or not, software for managing photos, editing videos, reading PDF documents, maintaining a calendar, managing addresses, chatting online or writing e-mail doesn’t come with Windows 7.

What kind of operating system doesn’t come with an e-mail program?

Instead, you’re supposed to download these free apps yourself from a Microsoft Web site. It’s not a huge deal; some companies, including Dell, plan to preinstall them on new computers. But a lot of people will be in for some serious confusion — especially when they discover that the Windows 7 installer has deleted their existing Vista copies of Windows Mail, Movie Maker, Calendar, Contacts and Photo Gallery. (Mercifully, it preserves your data.)

Otherwise, though, Windows 7 is mostly great news. The happiest developments help Windows live up to its name: there are some slick, efficient new features for managing windows.

You can drag a window’s edge against the top or side of your screen to make it fill the whole screen or half of it. You can give a window a little shake with the mouse — kind of fun, actually — to minimize all other windows (or to bring them back again) when you need a quick look at your desktop.

The taskbar now resembles the Dock in Apple’s Mac OS X. That is, it displays the icons for both open programs and those you’ve dragged there for quick access. (Weirdly, though, you can’t turn individual folders and documents into buttons on the taskbar, as in Mac OS X, only programs.)

Better yet, if you point to a program’s icon without clicking, you see Triscuit-size miniatures of all the windows open in that program. And if you point to one of these thumbnails, its corresponding full-size window flashes to the fore. All of this means easier navigation in a screen awash with window clutter.

Windows 7 also introduces libraries: virtual folders that display the contents of up to 50 other folders, which may be scattered all over your system. Libraries make it easy to keep project files together, back them up en masse or share them with other PC’s on the network.

Speaking of which, networking is also more refined in Windows 7. Handling of Internet hot spots is much better than before, and the new HomeGroups feature lets you unify all Windows 7 computers and printers on your home network without having to mess with accounts or permissions. You just enter the same long, one-time password on each machine. (Only at Microsoft do “user-friendly” and “write down this password: E6fQ9UX3uR” appear in the same sentence.) Once that’s done, each computer can see the photos, music and documents on all the other ones. It’s a little buggy, but it’ll get there.

Compatibility is excellent. I connected a couple dozen cameras, phones, iPods, printers and scanners, and Windows 7 recognized them all. Recent, brand-name apps fare well, too, but there are no guarantees. I found a couple of smaller, older programs that wouldn’t work in Windows 7.

Some Windows 7 developments fall under the heading, “If you build it, they might come... eventually.” For example, the updated Windows Media Player program can now send music playback to another gadget on your network: an Xbox, digital picture frame, another Windows 7 machine and so on. The catch: the other gadget has to be D.L.N.A.-certified, which you’re supposed to know refers to an industry compatibility standard.

Or take the new Device Stage screen. When you connect a gadget to your PC, you’re supposed to see its actual photograph, model name and list of relevant features. But until all the gadget makers get on board, you sometimes see only generic icons here.

Even the multitouch feature of Windows 7 falls into that hit-or-miss category. On new laptops and even desktop PCs with multitouch screens, you can drag two fingers on the screen to rotate photos, scroll and zoom, exactly the way you do on an iPhone.

Alas, software programs have to be rewritten to understand these gestures; for example, they all work in Microsoft’s Photo Gallery, but only the zoom gesture works in Google’s Picasa. You’re in for many “Doh!” moments as you realize you’ve reached out awkwardly with your arm, dragged around on the touch screen, and produced nothing but some pretty gross grease streaks.

Now, Windows 7 is still Windows. It’s still copy-protected, it still requires antivirus software and its visual design still isn’t consistent from one corner to another.

On the other hand, it’s still Windows in a good way, too, meaning that it’s your ticket to a world of choice — a huge catalog of software and computer options. In particular, this Win is a win if you’re in the market for a new machine, or if you’re running Vista now and you’re not thrilled by it.

Above all, Windows 7 means that Microsoft employees can show up in public without avoiding eye contact. Looks like 7 is a lucky number after all.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: