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Windows 7 Up Close and Personal
Date: Jan 20, 2009
Author: HH Editor
Windows 7 - Evolution

When Windows Vista first hit the scene, it was quite a departure from Windows XP. It had been a while since a major desktop operating system release from Microsoft, and consumers along with many businesses, were slow to adopt the new OS, if at all. Add to that the new and sometimes cumbersome security features and reports that Vista was slower as a gaming platform, and you had an equation for slow initial uptake.  Even as service pack 1 was released adoption was still less than stellar, prompting Microsoft to launch creative marketing campaigns in an attempt to sway public opinion.

As news about Windows 7 leaked to the public, many wondered what type of improvements it would offer over Vista or legacy Windows XP installations. That curiosity changed to a fervor when Microsoft announced the first public beta of Windows 7 was to be released. The scheduled release date was surrounded by such anticipation that when it was time to deliver, Microsoft could not handle the download demand for the their latest version of Windows. Finally, after a small delay, the public now has access to the first beta of Windows 7. We here at HotHardware have been experimenting and testing it and have compiled a first look, replete with plenty of screen shots and benchmark comparisons between Windows 7 and Vista as installed on the same hardware platform.

The Installation Process: 

The Windows 7 installation was relatively painless because most of the necessary drivers for our test system were included on the DVD. We were installing on an new Centrino 2-based Lenovo notebook, so Vista-based drivers downloaded from Lenovo's site, where needed, rounded out the install. Once booted and ready to go, it was time to take a peek at the new features we had heard so much about. As this was a base operating system install, the desktop looked sparse with only Recycle Bin and Send feedback icons present. Looking at the system window we saw that the laptop had been given a Windows Experience Index of 2.0 based on the lowest score which happened to be Disk Data Transfer Rate.  This had to be a mistake as in previous testing the Hitachi drive in this system had given healthier benchmark numbers. After a bit of searching we realized this was a common issue and the fix was to disable write caching on the hard disk as follows:

  1. Go to Control Panel > hardware & sound > device manager
  2. Locate disk drives, expand and find your main drive
  3. Right click it and select properties
  4. Click the policies tab, uncheck "enable write caching on this device", click ok
  5. Run the Windows Experience Index again

Now we have a 3.5 WEI with a Disk Data Transfer Rate score of 5.3 up from 2.0.

 Windows Experience Index before fix
Windows Experience Index after fix

Let's poke around this new OS from Microsoft and explore some of its new features, next.
Exploring New Features
Venturing into Windows 7 we've taken notice of some of the improvements and new features...

The taskbar now shows larger preview thumbnails for minimized windows, and sliding your mouse over the preview thumbnails also reveals the minimized window's previous location and size on the desktop.  If you have multiple instances of an application like Internet Explorer minimized the preview will show thumbnails of all of them. A nice touch is the inclusion of a "show desktop" feature that makes all windows transparent when you slide your cursor to the lower right of the screen beside the clock in the notification area. If you click the thin bar there, all windows are minimized.

Windows 7 Taskbar With Larger Preview Panes

The inclusion of Internet Explorer 8 brings "Accelerators" to Windows 7 Beta. Accelerators allow you to highlight text in a web page then click the Accelerator Icon (Blue icon with double arrows)  and select an action to perform with the selected text. Your Accelerator options can be pre-configured and default ones enabled or disabled as you like for your purposes. We have seen this used previously in Voice Over IP applications, like Skype, that allow you to dial phone numbers from web pages.  

In the following video, a Microsoft rep demonstrates Accelerators and the improved taskbar previews, live for us at CES 2009.

"Jump Lists" are a new feature on the start menu. A jump list appears to the right of an application in the start menu showing you the files you have worked with most or recently in that program.
Windows 7 has a new way of organizing documents, pictures, music, videos, and whatever category of items you may decide to group via the new libraries feature, which is accessible from any explorer window left side navigator pane.

The end user now has an Action Center from which security settings can be adjusted and troubleshooting and recovery tasks may be performed.  If you look to the left of the Action Center, in the task pane there is a link that opens the User Account Control Settings. Here you will find a rather large slider that allows you to set the level of notification or prompts that Windows gives you as you perform tasks. This is where you can turn off the annoying "are you sure you want to do this" feature of Windows 7 that is such a nuisance in Vista. Just slide the control all the way to the bottom and you can go about your tasks, including accessing administrative functions, without being prompted for permission.


Action Center
User Account Control Settings

Microsoft has added a couple of features to make tasks easier as well. The new HomeGroup networking feature allows Windows 7 computers to easily connect to each others' shared devices and libraries. An easy to follow wizard guides you though the process of creating a group with a unique password to give others that want to join. Alternatively you can click join now and enter the password necessary to access an existing HomeGroup. Additionally, one of the goals of Windows 7 is to provide better device management and this is accomplished via a new Devices and Printers screen where you can connect, add, and manage printers,USB devices, etc.


Devices and Printers

Test Platform Specifications
The test platform we used for this article was a Lenovo Y530 Ideapad notebook, based on Intel Centrino 2 technology along with a discrete NVIDIA mobile GPU. This laptop is positioned as an all around family multimedia laptop and will be featured in an upcoming in-depth review.

      Lenovo Ideapad Y530 Specifications
 Intel Core 2 Duo Processor P7350 (2GHz 3MB Cache)
Installed OS
 Windows Vista Home Premium
Monitor  15.4 WXGA TFT with integrated camera LCD Glossy 1280x800
 NVIDIA GeForce 9300M 256MB
Memory  2 GB PC2-5300 DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz
Hard Drive
 250GB 5400RPM
 DVD Recordable (Dual Layer) 24X Max
Wireless  Intel Wireless Wi-Fi Link 5100
Battery  6 Cell Lithium-Ion

Lenovo's IdeaPad Y530 Notebook - Full Evaluation Coming Soon...

Futuremark PCMark Vantage

For our first round of caparisons we used Futuremark's PCMark Vantage Testing Suite. Windows Vista SP1 is used as the baseline of 100% to compare Windows 7 Beta 1 results, since specific benchmark datapoints will violate the Windows 7 beta EULA.  

Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Memories, Gaming, and Hard Disk Drive Tests

Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'Memories' Test Description:
Memories 1 . Two simultaneous tasks. CPU image manipulation and HDD – importing pictures to Windows Photo Gallery
Memories 2 - Two simultaneous tasks. GPU image manipulation and HDD – video editing using Windows Movie Maker
Memories 3 - Video transcoding – DV to WMV9 - Transcoding from DV (720x480p 35.38Mbps) to a portable player (SD WMV9 320x240p 1.0 Mbps). Uses two coresif available.
Memories 4 - Video transcoding – VC-1 to WMV9 -Transcoding from media server archive (HD VC-1 1280x720p 11 Mbps) to aportable player (SD WMV9 320x240p 1.0 Mbps).

Here we see a noticeable gain in performance with Windows 7 Beta. This could be attributed to the inclusion of new codecs in Windows 7 that are better optimized for multi-core processors.

Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'Gaming' Test Description:
Gaming 1 -GPU gaming - Performing basic GPU (graphics processing unit) tasksutilizing PS (pixel shader) 2.0 and VS (vertex shader) 2.0 operationsfound in most 3D games using DX (DirectX) 9. This test utilizes SM(shader model) 3.0 (if available) performance optimizations which doaffect visual quality.
Gaming 2 - HDD gaming
Gaming 3 - Two simultaneous tasks. Data decompression - Loading compressed levelfrom hard drive and decompressing it into system memory. CPU gaming -Executing heavy AI path finding algorithms. Uses all available cores upto 16 cores.
Gaming 4 - Three simultaneous tasks. GPU gaming- Performing basic GPU (graphics processing unit) tasks utilizing PS(pixel shader) 2.0 and VS (vertex shader) 2.0 operations found in most3D games using DX (DirectX) 9. This test utilizes SM (shader model) 3.0(if available) performance optimizations which do affect visualquality. CPU gaming - Executing heavy AI path finding algorithms. Usesall available cores up to 16 cores and HDD – gaming

The gaming test does not reveal a significant gain in performance over Windows Vista SP1 with Windows 7 prevailing by a mere 1% margin. 

Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'Hard Disk Drive' Test Description:
HDD 1 - Windows Defender
HDD 2 - Gaming
HDD 3 - Importing pictures to Windows Photo Gallery
HDD 4 - Windows start up
HDD 5 - video editing using Windows Movie Maker
HDD 6 - Windows Media Center
HDD 7 - Adding music to Windows Media Player
HDD 8 - Application loading

In the Hard Disk Drive test Windows 7 Beta shows a 2% improvement over Vista SP1, which frankly is within this specific test's margin of error.
Futuremark PCMark Vantage (cont'd)

Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Music, Communications, and Overall Tests

Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'Music' Test Description:
Music 1 - Three simultaneous tasks.Web page rendering – music shop - Opens music shop kind of content.Audio transcoding – WAV to WMA lossless. HDD – adding music to WindowsMedia Player
Music 2 - Audio transcoding – WAV to WMA lossless
Music 3 - Audio transcoding – MP3 to WMA
Music 4 - Two simultaneous tasks. Audio transcoding – WMA to WMA. HDD – adding music to Windows Media Player

Windows 7 Beta 1 really flexes its muscle here by showing a significant 27% increase over Vista SP1. Once again this reveals the improvements Microsoft has made to multimedia and transcode components of the new OS.

Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'Communications' Test Description:
Communications 1 - Three simultaneous tasks. Data encryption – CNG AES CBC. Data compression. Web page rendering – pictures - Opens a web page with many large pictures.
Communications 2 - Three simultaneous tasks. Web page rendering – favorites group parallel - Opens various news pages from IE Favorites in separate tabs and closes them one by one. Data decryption – CNG AES CBC. HDD – Windows Defender
Communications 3 - Windows Mail – searching - Searches mails for words in the message body, subject and sender.
Communications 4 - Two simultaneous tasks. Data encryption – CNG AES CBC. Audio transcoding – WMA to WMA - Measures audio transcoding performance in VOIP usage.

Windows 7 Beta 1 again shows significant gains over Vista SP1 in the Communications test. The new version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 browser is sure to be a factor here.

Futuremark PCMark Vantage Overall Score Test Description:
The PCMark Suite is a collection of various single- and multi-threaded CPU, Graphics and HDD tests with the focus on Windows Vista application tests. Tests have been selected to represent a subset of the individual Windows Consumer Scenarios. The PCMark Suite includes a subset of Consumer Suite tests.

Overall Windows 7 Beta 1 has a very significant 20% gain in performance as compared to Windows Vista SP1. Once again this is quite an impressive showing on the part of the new OS, especially since it is still in the beta phase.
Gaming Performance
For gaming performance comparisons we used pre-recorded demos and ran them at the different resolutions noted below on Windows Vista SP1 and Windows 7 Beta 1. All test results were computed from actual Frames Per Second results achieved with each operating system at the specified resolutions. 1280x800 represents the native resolution for the notebook test system.

Gaming Performance
Half Life 2 Episode 2, Enemy Territory Quake Wars tests

Here we see that Windows 7 Beta 1 shows a slight performance gain of 1% over Windows Vista SP1 when tested at both 1280x800 and 800x600 resolutions.

Within Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, test results show a 2% gain at 1280x800 resolution for Windows 7 Beta 1 and a decrease of 4% less than Vista SP1 at 800x600 resolution.
Final Thoughts

As our preliminary tests indicate, Windows Beta 1 does show a noticeable performance improvement over Windows Vista SP1 especially in areas related to multimedia. The gaming tests did not yield noticeable gains, but since our testing platform was meant for general use and not gaming this is really not a factor considered heavily in this first look preview.

Using Windows 7 Beta 1 for normal everyday tasks you do notice that windows seem to open quicker and the experience seems to be more fluid. And even though this a beta release we did not have any technical issues or lockups whatsoever. This is especially remarkable due to the fact that it is a beta version and will most likely improve considerably before being released to manufacturing. Microsoft has said that Windows 7 would require a three year development cycle and the company has not even hinted at a solid release date as of yet.  Although, considering the quality of the beta, we expect it to arrive sooner rather than later.

All factors considered, Microsoft has the beginnings of a solid, streamlined, higher performing operating system that is sure to receive a warmer reception than Vista initially did. The public has spoken and Microsoft must be listening and applying this valuable input into the development of Windows 7. As the development cycle continues, additional features and improvements will likely be rolled in.  We look forward to trying out future beta versions and release candidates of Windows 7, so stay tuned for continuing coverage here at HotHardware.

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