What is Windows 7?
Er, ok. You really need this one answered? Well, Windows 7 is Microsoft's eighth consumer focused operating systems for personal computers. Don't ask us why the company chose 7 - possibly because it's a suggestion that we forget about either Windows ME or Vista or perhaps because someone miscounted. Either way Windows 7 it is and after quite a long run up it's finally been released for purchase by both consumers and businesses.
Why do I want it?
There's plenty of reasons to want the latest version of any OS, not least of which is that it's most often more secure than the last version meaning that your system is less likely to become compromised and your data and ID should stay exactly where you want them - with you. The slightly sexier reasons for wanting to upgrade are because it has a more modern look and feel, it runs smoother and quicker and it gives you a whole bunch of new bits and pieces to play with. In fact, the only real downside is having to part with some money for the privilege.
So, what's new?
At its core, Windows 7 has improvements to the kernel, which is at the heart of all operations, better performance with multi-core processors to get the most out of new CPU technologies and a more efficient boot too. What that translates to is a faster start up and shut down, a faster resume from sleep mode, a more responsive performance and more better use of processing power. That's the theory, anyway. To make it happen, Microsoft used a set of tracing tools to identity all the slack code and dysfunctional pathways of previous versions of the OS to work out exactly where the majority of the tweaks needed to be. There's also been special attention paid to laptops specifically by fitting a series of power saving functions like auto-screen dimmers and such. So, two reasons to make the switch is to get your battery to last a little longer and your PC running like the hot rod it promised it was when you bought it.
And what about the differences I can actually see?
Windows 7 continues the shell design first implemented in Vista - Windows Aero. Much of it will appear similar to many users. A lot of focus has been given to the taskbar with the addition of Jump Lists, bigger icons and even just the ability to move them about at will in the knowledge that they'll stay in whatever order you left them. If you hover the mouse over the icon of an open application in the taskbar, then mini full screen previews will pop up for each window that that program has running. So, if you have three Word documents open, then you'll see three small versions of each one when the curser is over the Word icon in the taskbar. From there, you can click on the one you want to go straight to it or just move the mouse away from the taskbar and go back to whatever it was you were doing on the desktop.
If instead, you right click on icons on the taskbar, then a Jump List will pop up. These lists contain all the recent files that you might have been accessing for that specific app. It doesn't remember all your browser pages but if, say, you right click on your media player icon, it'll come up with a list of all your recently played video and music files for you to shortcut straight to and in the case of media, you'll also be offered a degree of playback control straight from the taskbar too, but the level of access will vary from app to app. You can also choose to pin files to these lists for good or even pin them to the taskbar itself which might be handy if it's something you use all the time or at least repeatedly over a small period.
The windows themselves have also had a bit of a functionality twist too in a feature called Aero Snap. If you drag any open window up to the top of the screen it automatically maximises it. Likewise, if you throw them to the sides of your display, they'll take up exactly half the desktop. Drag one to the opposite edge and now you can compare two open windows in a split screen view. Very useful if you're taking notes from information online, for example. Finally, if all your open windows are beginning to take over your desktop, you can press the small button at the bottom right hand corner of the screen on the taskbar called Aero Peek which makes them all translucent, and if you actually click on the button, it minimises everything on the screen and shows you your desktop and any gadgets you might be running.
Any new applications?
Naturally, there's new versions of Windows Media Centre, which now comes with its own gadget, and Internet Explorer, if you really must. IE8 features a revamped address bar which can be used for search, there's new tabs and a make-over for the favourites bar as well. Web Slice allows users to be updated of any changes to sites they're monitoring without actually having to switch back to the tab in question. For example it would display updates to an eBay auction or a web mail inbox up on the favourites bar at the top of the browser. The final addition is the IE Accelerator which offers contextual menus for selected pieces of copy within a web page. So, you might be able to right click on the name of a shop and the options could include links to reviews, its online retail site or a map with its location.
One of the more impressive improvements is to the desktop search function which has now gone truly universal. Located at the foot of the Start menu, the search starts working as soon as you start typing and will bring up a string of results immediately from all corners of your machine including external devices and any shared PCs on the same network. It groups the suggestions by file type - be they docs, images, e-mails, applications etc - and highlights the part of the titles that responds the letters of your query. The whole process is also given a slight extra speed kick by suggesting frequently selected results from familiar search enquiries too. If you want to get deeper into it, you can open out the panel further and use the dynamic options with graphics to help you sort by date, size, name and other criteria in a much more simple way that was often quite painful in Windows packages of days gone by.
Windows 7 also sees some consolidation of functions too. The old Windows Security Centre has been renamed the Action Centre and works as an issues and problem solver to do list including requests from Windows Defender as well as any other tasks as recommended by your machine for you to deal with when you have a moment. Each is listed with a warning of how important it is. Finding an anti-virus program, for example, qualifies for the top of the list.
The other area of consolidation is of device management. Printers, phones, MP3 players and pretty much anything you can plug into your PC are all now dealt with in one specific area. Of course, each offers slightly different options of action but the place to find them has been homogenised and should be far easier for viewing and transferring the content off and onto them. One neat feature particular to printers is an auto-detect default which will recognise where you are based on the network connection and automatically select the appropriate default printer from your list without you having to chop and change manually.
And what about multi-touch?
Yes, probably the most high profile addition to the Windows OS is the added support for touchscreen PCs and more specifically multi-touch as well. There is a slew of computers set to arrive that take advantage of this. There's also some added fun with the trainable handwriting recognition software built-in, as well as smaller apps like post it notes and graphical add ons too. At its most basic though, the touchscreen allows you to scroll, zoom and navigate your way around the operating system using your fingers. You will, of course, require a touch enabled computer or PC tablet for this to work.
Naturally, there's a bunch of new desktop themes, there's better support for SSDs and virtual hard disks, there's a redesigned calculator with a statistics mode and the return of internet connected versions of the games Spades, Checkers and Backgammon, all of which had been apparently mistakenly dropped for Vista. Networking has been made easier with WindowsHome and DirectAccess which allow an automation of the set up of sharing content across Windows 7 machines in the home and intranet set up for businesses. A particularly useful feature called Play To lets users choose which machine in their network they'd like to stream any particular media onto.
Is it any good?
Well, early reports indicate that Windows 7 will be a winner. It's essentially a refined version of the unpopular Vista which should give the new OS a head start in a lot of departments, not least of which is general public feeling. It has a greater user-centric experience with performance improvements for far smoother day to day running. There's even a a few bits of fun left for the future with an upcoming patch for USB 3.0 support expected very soon and all the high speed data transfer that should allow – fingers crossed.
Can my PC handle it?
A 32-bit version of Windows 7 will require a machine with a minimum of a 1GHz CPU, 1GB of RAM and 16GB of disk space. If you want to go 64-bit, then obviously you'll need a 64-bit CPU, a minimum of 2GB RAM and 20GB of space to put it.
How much is it?
That all depends which version you go for. There are a slightly confusing six different variants but actually only three different names to take care of. The standard consumer version is Windows 7 Home Premium for £149.99, then comes Windows 7 Professional for £219.99 intended more for businesses and finally Windows 7 Ultimate at £229.99 for those in need of serious data protection and computing in 35 languages. You can also buy upgrade packages of each version for £79.99, £189.99 and £199.99 respectively but they'll only work if you already have Windows Vista installed. Officially speaking you can't even upgrade from the Windows 7 release candidate but there's a way around that one for the more adventurous.