The taskbar – the strip of icons usually found at the bottom of the screen – now does more than show which programs are running. You can also stick icons for your favorite programs on it, to launch them quickly. It's fast and convenient, combining the best features of the old Windows taskbar and Apple's Dock.
• File folders can now be organised into ‘libraries.' You can have a photo library, for instance, that gives you quick access to pictures in folders spread out over your hard drive, or even several hard drives. This is great because many applications don't automatically put files into My Documents and My Photos folders, and tend to deposit content in their own folders.
• Like Vista, Windows 7 will ask you twice if you really want to make changes to your settings or install programs, for the sake of security. But Windows 7 does it less often, and the prompts can be turned off.
• It can sense if you use more than one finger on your touch pad or touch screen, allowing for neat tricks such as spreading your fingers to zoom into a picture, just like on the iPhone.
• For a lot of users, the step up to Windows 7 will also mark a transition to a 64-bit OS. That means PCs will now be able to use a lot more of the Random Access Memory, or RAM, for better performance in demanding applications such as video editing. 64bits will be standard on Windows 7, installed on nearly all new PCs.
Windows XP users have a lot more to gain by going to the new OS. Unfortunately, upgrading an existing PC from XP to 7 is not easy.
After upgrading, users will have to reinstall all their programs and find their files in the folder where Windows 7 tucks them away.
They may also have hardware problems. I found an old HP laser printer no longer worked with Windows 7. This isn't really Microsoft's fault or, specifically, a problem with the new operating system – HP just doesn't provide a 64-bit driver for that printer. A driver is a program that tells the hardware how to work with an OS.
If you do upgrade, I would still recommend tackling that transition head-on by installing the 64-bit version of Windows 7, which doesn't cost more. However, Microsoft recommends a minimum of 2 gigabytes of RAM to run it.
If your PC runs Vista, I think it's hard to justify spending the extra money for an upgrade. The new features are nice but hardly must-haves. For daily e-mail and Web surfing, they won't make much of a difference. Vista was much maligned when it arrived in 2007 for being slow, buggy and annoying. Now, it isn't that bad, because updates have fixed a lot of the kinks.
If your PC is already running a 64-bit Vista, there should be no problems with drivers, and the upgrade will be much easier than one from XP. Windows 7 can keep your installed programs and your files in their old folders.
In weeks of testing the final version of Windows 7 on five PC, I encountered only one serious glitch. The backup function simply didn't work on one PC. The error message was obscure as always, and troubleshooting on Microsoft's site provided no solution. I ended up using third-party backup software. Given that regular backups are essential for a home PC, one can only hope that this will be an unusual problem that gets fixed promptly.
Another disappointment is that Windows 7 doesn't seem to improve boot-up times. In my tests, it took slightly longer to get going on Windows 7 than with XP or Vista on the same PC. I don't think this should be a major issue, though – instead of shutting your PC down, use ‘sleep mode' instead. This function has improved a lot since XP, and most PCs take about 10 seconds to wake up.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Windows 7 is that it's inspiring computer manufacturers to try new things, and reviving old ideas like touch-enabled ‘tablet' PCs. It's breathing new life into the computer market. It just won't do much for old clunkers.