Windows 7: faster or just smarter?

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If you’ve been following the PC Pro blogs, you’ll know that we recently received a preview build of Windows 7. Useful work has pretty much ground to a halt as we’ve all set about nuking our Vista installations and upgrading our work PCs to this unsupported pre-alpha OS.

And the net effect? Surprisingly little. At this stage of development, over a year from release, Windows 7 looks almost identical to Vista. There are some welcome new features, as already noted by our esteemed editor and deputy editor (see their blog posts here and here); but the high profile changes (such as the snazzy new taskbar that Barry Collins saw in California the other week) are yet to be plumbed in.

Tortoise and hare

Yet Windows 7 does already offer one compelling advantage over Vista: it’s fast. Both our senior pontificators were struck by how nimble Windows 7 feels after you’re used to its predecessor. As Tim Danton writes, “Vista was never this nippy. You press on an icon and it leaps into action. . . . I can’t remember using any new OS that was this quick.”

Now if that’s not cause for celebration, I don’t know what is. Vista has had us driving with the handbrake on for the past two years, but at long last Windows 7 is coming to set us free. Admittedly it’s not actually going to get here for another year, but at least salvation is in sight.

But it’s a funny thing, you know. Because I’ve been running a few benchmarks, just to find out exactly what sort of speed boost we’re talking about. And I can exclusively reveal that the actual performance gap between Vista and Windows 7 is... nada. Absolutely nothing. Our Office benchmarks and video encoding tests complete in precisely the same time regardless of which OS is installed.1

Perception is reality

It’s tempting to see this as a bit of a con. They’ve sped up the front end so it feels like you’re getting more done, but in terms of real productivity it’s no better than Vista.

But personally I think it’s an inspired move. Over the past few years, Microsoft has learnt the hard way the power of perception. Once the masses got hold of the idea that Vista was a lumbering step backwards, no Mojave Experiment could rescue its reputation.

Now, to borrow a phrase from Steve Ballmer, they’ve “woken up smarter.” They’ve recognised that perceptions of speed focus almost exclusively on interactive performance. Very few people notice or care whether a big mail-merge job takes thirty seconds or forty, but they sure as hell notice when they click a button and nothing seems to happen. That’s what wrecked Vista’s reputaton, not its disappointing benchmark scores; and that’s why we’re all hankering after Windows 7 despite its identical scores.

All the small things

Of course, it’s a disappointment to realise just how similar Microsoft’s new OS is, under the bonnet, to its current one – similar enough to explain why Windows 7 actually has an internal version number of 6.1. We all had high hopes of a lightweight “MinWin”, akin to what Apple is reportedly working on for OS X 10.6 (“Snow Leopard”).

But while this faster front-end seems like a superficial change, it makes a world of difference. As I’ve said before, there are plenty of things in Vista to like, but I find it impossible to enjoy them while the whole experience is weighed down by a sluggish interface. No longer. I can only echo Tim Danton's conclusion: “Windows 7 is exactly what Vista should have been.”

Of course, it’s shameful that it’s taken so long to get here. It’s generally suspected that Vista was a rush release, but there’s no reason the improved window manager couldn’t have been dropped in via Windows Update once it was ready. Holding it back for Windows 7 is a real two fingers to users who paid for Vista, and I’m not sure it makes sense for Microsoft. The company surely realises what Vista is doing to its reputation, yet here it is giving Apple another year, on top of the two it’s already had, to thumb its nose and woo away potential customers.

All’s well that ends well

But ultimately I see Windows 7 much as I see the latest edition of Norton Internet Security. In both cases, previous versions acquired – with some justice – a reputation for terrible performance. In both cases, that’s now been fixed. We can kvetch all we want about how and when it should have been fixed, but the fact is that the battle is over. If you feel you were ripped off in the past, you can signal your displeasure by choosing a competing product now; but arguably it sends a clearer message to invest in a fixed product than to boycott it. Plus, this way you get the thing you really wanted, albeit late.

So when Windows 7 finally comes knocking next Christmas, I won’t be turning it away. Sure, there will be admonishments about how long it took to get here. And I’m sure it will bring new faults as well as benefits.

But deep down we’ll both know how much I’ve been looking forward to its arrival. And together, at long last, we’ll once and for all close the book on Vista.

Follow-up: Benchmarking Windows 7

1 On 2GB systems the tests took around 3:45 and 2:05 respectively, with a spread of around three seconds between runs due to unpredictable factors such as background services. When I repeated the test with memory reduced to 512MB, times increased to around 4:10 and 2:15 but remained identical between OS versions. For comparison, the PC Pro benchmarks complete around 22% more quickly on XP than on Vista, as detailed in my feature "Memory Laid Bare" (issue 169, p122).