Microsoft has quite a task on its hands. Most people agree that its last operating system release, Windows Vista, was actually a perfectly respectable bit of software once driver manufacturers were on board after a year or so, but that didn't stop it becoming the butt of almost every single one of the tech industry's jokes since 2006 (that weren't about the Zune).
This time round, Microsoft has taken a decidedly different approach to the launch of the OS. In stark contrast to the relative secrecy of the Windows Vista release, combined with a marketing campaign with the slogan: "The Wow Starts Now", the launch of Windows 7 has been totally open and subject to very little marketing.
Many technology enthusiasts, ourselves included, have been running 7 in either its Beta or Release Candidate version since early 2009. The OS hasn't changed significantly in that time, but a few features have been tweaked and improved upon, and we've been running the final release of the OS now for a little while.
As such, we've got a good idea of how it runs in both the short and long-term. We've worked with it, played games with it, and this review will aim to answer three main questions - "is it any good?", "should I install now, or wait a year like with Vista?" and "is Ultimate worth the price over Home Premium?".
So let's start with the first thing most people will experience - the install procedure. For a long time Microsoft has been trying to cut down the amount of steps required to install its operating systems and Windows 7 seems to have stripped the whole thing down to the bare minimum.
The whole process is mercifully brief - slightly longer if you want to upgrade from Vista rather than reformat your hard disk (required if you want to switch from XP or any of the early releases of Windows 7). You just pick a language, pick a drive to install on, and that's it! Go make a cup of tea and you'll be done.
When you get into the OS itself, the first thing that'll strike you is the brand new taskbar. It's wider, and the start button no longer says "Start" on it, but it functions mostly the same as it always did with one exception - the quicklaunch area and the list of running programs have been merged.
Now, when you launch a program its icon appears along that list and mousing over it will give you a preview of what the window looks like. In some cases, you'll also be able to interact with that program, thanks to "jump lists" accessible with a right-click. These lists include options like skipping between tracks on a music player, or setting status on an IM application.
This seemingly minor UI improvement actually increases productivity quite a bit. Instead of a rammed taskbar where you can't see which windows are which, icons will stack, so it's a rare situation where you run out of space. Also handy is that the system tray won't fill up with icons either - it's easy to relegate ones you don't need into a hidden space.
That usability factor is a difficult one to pin down. We found that after using Windows 7 for a bit it was actually a little bit painful to go back to Vista. We would work slower, despite having used Vista for years in the past. Windows 7 is a genuine pleasure to use, and seems to suffer considerably less than its predecessors from random crashes and blue screens.
Media streaming is another big deal in Windows 7. Straight out of the box you can have a hard disk chock-full of content (acquired legally, obviously) and then share that media with other Windows 7 devices on your network, or even over the web. A biref download lets you link a Windows Live account with your Windows account, and from there you can use Windows Media Player to send audio and video wherever you like.
You can share particular libraries from Windows Media Player 11 and 12, from Windows Home Server, but most excitingly of all you can hook up a DLNA-enabled television or stereo and see it appear as a device on your network to stream music to. From there, you can just right-click tracks and send them to your television, for example.
Windows Media Centre is mostly unchanged from its Vista incarnation, but has a few nice features that you may find useful. There's a whole pile of media extenders available that are a bit like Firefox Extensions - they can enable additional functionality.
For example, if you have an Xbox 360, you can install an extender that lets you view all your computer's multimedia content on your Xbox. If you have a Sky subscription, another extender will add a tile in the "TV" section that enables Sky Player content streamed over the web. Windows Media Centre is a well-put-together bit of software that should cover most of your audiovisual needs in the OS.
Those of you who are purchasing the Ultimate edition of Windows 7 will get a few extra features too. There's BitLocker encryption for drives if you want to protect particular content from prying eyes. This offers AES encryption algorithm in CBC mode with a 128 bit key, combined with the Elephant diffuser for additional disk encryption specific security not provided by AES. If you're not sure what that means, then it basically means "you're not breaking into this one".
If you're upgrading from Vista to 7, you'll have relatively few of the problems that you might have run into between XP and Vista. 7 uses almost exactly the same architecture, meaning that if something worked in Vista then it's more-or-less likely to work fine in Windows 7 too.
In fact, it's fair to say that if your device doesn't work in Windows 7 or Vista now, then the blame can only be pinned on the manufacturer - they've had nearly four years to get things working. The only issues we faced were linked to running a 64-bit operating system which, while supported pretty well, didn't have quite the same catalogue of drivers as the 32-bit edition.
And if the worst happens, and a program defiantly refuses to work then Ultimate edition also includes an XP Mode that lets you virtualize the aging OS inside Windows 7. From there, anything that worked on Windows XP will work, though you'll suffer a slight performance degradation.
Those who experiment a lot with different operating systems will also find Windows 7's virtual hard disk booting a boon. This allows you to section off a bit of your drive and pretend that it's an entirely different hard drive, allowing you to test out alternative operating systems without having to partition your drive. It's a bit like Boot Camp in OS X - allowing you to run more than one operating system with ease.
There's now widespread support for more file formats. Wordpad, for example, supports .docx and .odt extensions from Office 2007 and upward and OpenOffice respectively. Microsoft seems to have tried very hard to make Windows as compatible as possible with a wide range of different bits of hardware and software - a task that's not trival for it to accomplish thanks to the huge ecosystem of software developers that code for its platform and the sheer weight of users that go for Windows.
We don't really do benchmarks or overwhelm you with graphs here - instead we prefer to tell you what kind of experience you'll get. With Windows 7, performance is great. While Windows 7 isn't as lightweight as the latest Linux builds, it behaves beautifully on both weak and powerful machines alike.
We didn't get the change to test it on a netbook, but we did try a laptop that's about four years old. We found Windows 7 perfectly operable on systems that Vista struggled with. Give it a try on a netbook or old laptop to see what we mean - you'll likely be impressed.
You might have to turn off Aero mode, which is the translucent window edging that you'll see in many screenshots of Windows 7. This was present in the more expensive editions of Vista and also lets you use the Windows and Tab keys to scroll between Windows as if they were bits of paper. Try it and see.
Windows 7 doesn't waste the capabilities of top-end hardware, either. While you might lose one or two frames per second on the latest games compared to the same hardware on XP, you'll benefit from considerably better security and usability than Microsoft's 2001 OS. We found games performance unnoticably different in real terms from XP and considerably better than Vista. Gamers have nothing to fear from Windows 7.
So, firstly then - is it any good? Unequivocably yes. Windows 7 is the best OS Microsoft hasever made, and they've learnt all the necessary lessons from Vista. While it doesn't have some of the slickness of OS X, or the speed of Linux, it offers a fantastic compromise between the two with by far the biggest choice of software available.
But if you're happily running XP or Vista, is it worth the upgrade right now? We'd still say yes, but more hesitantly this time. Despite Microsoft's wide-open testing process, once the final version of Windows 7 hits the big, bad, world there's sure to be one or two glitches that show up and need patching.
Lastly, is it worth shelling out for Ultimate over Home Premium or Professional? On this one, we'd probably say that for most users it's not. If you're using software that refuses to work in Vista and Windows 7, but worked fine in XP and you need the virtualization mode, then you could be swayed. If you work with sensitive information regularly, and need Bitlocker's encryption, then you should get it. But most users don't need those things and will be happy with Home Premium or Professional.
Microsoft, probably as a result of being such a big company, can be a little schitzophrenic with the quality of its products. Sometimes you'll get an Xbox 360, other times you'll get Windows Mobile. This time round, Microsoft has learnt from its mistakes in the past and created a stable, speedy, and usable platform for computing. Thumbs up.