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The Difference Between Windows Vista and 7? Like Night and Day

The Difference Between Windows Vista and 7? Like Night and Day

Edward C. Baig/USA Today

October 19, 2009

It is fitting that Microsoft’s new Windows 7 operating system arrives ahead of Halloween. When Microsoft buries Windows Vista for good on Oct. 22 and replaces it with Windows 7, the ghostbusters in Redmond will have exorcised a demon.

If you haven’t experienced the frights of Vista firsthand, you’ve no doubt heard about them: how it takes forever to power up and shut down, how the software constantly nags you, how it hogs precious PC resources and how it’s incompatible with all-too-many third-party peripherals and programs.

Throngs of PC users found Vista so scary that they stuck with the Windows XP operating system Microsoft launched in 2001, a lifetime ago in the tech world.

Microsoft doesn’t have to apologize for Windows 7. Vista’s replacement represents a monster leap forward. It’s Vista done right – at last. Microsoft claims hundreds of small improvements, and a few big ones.

“We’ll see what happens when Windows 7 is with (customers) all day every day, but I’m cautiously optimistic that we really have hit the right note there,” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told me in a phone interview.

What you’ll notice is that Windows 7 is snappier than its predecessor, more polished, and simpler to navigate. Screens are less cluttered. It has better search. Windows 7 rarely nags. I’ve been testing various versions for months on numerous computers. It sure seems more reliable so far. With a few exceptions, compatibility hasn’t been a major issue.

It’s worth pointing out that Vista received decent notices when it first came out, and Microsoft repaired some problems with the much maligned operating system over time. Despite the fact that it periodically drove me bonkers, I’ll probably invite scorn by suggesting Vista sometimes got a bad rap.

But make no mistake. Windows 7 is better. I’ve run a bevy of third-party programs on Windows 7 machines, including Apple’s iTunes, Google’s Picasa, Mozilla’s Firefox and Intuit’s Quicken, without incident. Same goes for connected HP printers, a Canon digital camera, and smartphones such as the iPhone and Palm Pre.

Windows 7 boasts some nifty touch-computing enhancements that I’ll elaborate on in a future column. But you’ll have to fetch free e-mail, calendar, photo, instant messaging and video-editing programs online from Windows Live Essentials; such programs used to be included in the operating system. Manufacturers may preload some of these.

Windows 7 shows up as Apple continues to run scathingly funny Macintosh ads lampooning PCs. The ads work in part because they indeed strike a raw nerve among the Windows crowd. Apple recently launched a new operating system of its own, Mac OS X Snow Leopard. I have long preferred the Mac operating system to Windows – and still do. Macs are more attractive, and it’s hard to beat the bundle of programs Apple includes. Macs haven’t been hit with the malware that has plagued Windows. But the improvements in Windows 7 narrow Apple’s advantage, and in a couple of instances Microsoft moves past its rival.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether consumers who put off buying a computer because of Vista are ready to take the plunge now. “With Vista it was almost like they had a justifiable reason not to upgrade,” says Michael Cherry, an analyst at independent research firm Directions on Microsoft. But he wonders if Windows 7 will be enough to get people to spring for a new machine in this economy.

Microsoft also has to be mindful of an upcoming challenge from Google, which has already brought out a mobile operating system called Android and is readying its “in-the-cloud” Chrome operating system. “I don’t even know who the competitor is over at Google,” Ballmer says. “Is it Android, is it Chrome, is it something else? Maybe they’ll have another operating system to announce.”

Based on my tests, you can buy a new PC confident that this latest Windows operating system ought not bog you down. Upgrading an existing computer is less clear-cut. Go for it if you’re dissatisfied and running Vista. But if you’re running XP, the upgrade decision is more arduous because you have to remove and reinstall your programs. And you’ll need a machine that can handle the load: at minimum a 1-gigahertz processor, 1 or 2 gigabytes of RAM and 16 or 20 GB of free disk space, plus high-end graphics.

Here’s my takeaway for consumers from Windows 7

Choosing the right edition

As with prior iterations of Windows, there’s no single version of Windows 7, which gets confusing. Windows 7 Starter is a bare-bones edition that’s pre-loaded on some budget netbooks. It lacks the fancy graphics of its more accomplished siblings. For a few extra bucks, however, even a netbook can run a more complete version of Windows 7.

At the other extreme are the powerhouse Windows 7 Ultimate and Windows 7 Enterprise editions, for individuals and businesses who crave each and every last feature. Other versions are called Home Basic and Professional. But most consumers will choose what is likely to remain the most popular edition, Home Premium. It costs $120 to upgrade (or $200 for a full retail package).