The Challenge

Switch from Windows Vista to Windows 7 completely. No going back to work with compatible programs. No jumping ship if a driver keeps you away from your Warhammer Online character. No tears. Windows 7 is your new home for 72 hours, starting from your initial download of the software.

The Spoiler
Microsoft doesn't know how to manage digital downloads. Nor does Microsoft know how to title its own applications--this isn't Windows 7, not by any means. It's Windows Vista SP2.

The Tribulation
Having completed my 72 hours in Windows 7 land, I'm going to adopt the same mindset and cap the writing of this post at one hour's length. Having seen no less than 40 different articles about Windows 7 over the past three days (if not three months), I'm not about to bore you with a list of the 89 most important features Windows 7 brings to the table. What I am going to chat about is what the actual process of jumping to Windows 7 is like. What happens? How do the new features of Windows 7 affect the general usage patterns of an operating system? What's the speed like? Why would I buy this to replace Vista?

I'll start with a cursory note that this article was actually supposed to run Monday morning--the whole concept of "72 hours in Windows 7 Land" being a fun little weekend activity that I would write up and post for all the people who gave up on downloading the beta on its horrible Friday release. About that. Seeing as Microsoft has no idea what "busy servers" entails, and apparently refuses to release its beta clients across a peer-to-peer distribution method a la Blizzard game patches, I waited. And waited. And waited, until I finally acquired a copy of Windows 7 well into Saturday afternoon. Leading the charge into the digital future, that's Microsoft.

Ahem.

I fired up Windows 7 on a drive I had pre-partitioned in preparation for the event. On one half sat a fresh installation of Windows Vista featuring all the latest updates and drivers I could get my hands on. On the other would sit Windows 7, as I wanted to compare the two's initial performance before installing a ton of my typical junk on either. I fired up my Windows 7 ISO and let 'er rip.

The Installation
Installing Windows 7 (x64) brought a tear to my eye, for I do love nostalgia and this installation routine is virtually a carbon-copy of Windows Vista's. Save for the addition of a new setup screen for establishing a Homegroup--Windows 7's answer to network file-sharing--there's nothing dramatic about the installation in the slightest. Compared to Windows XP, both Vista and 7's installation procedure (side note: I hope this never becomes the nickname for the operating system) are a godsend. But I'd love to see a more streamlined installation: Perhaps a way to set all the options you need to set up-front, so you can just sit back and let the 24:01-minute process do it's thing. I love making customized slipstream OS installation discs for this very fact. Convenience, Microsoft. Convenience!

Both installation processes forced two resets on my computer. And for those keeping score at home, the Vista installation took all of three minutes, twenty-six seconds less time than the Windows 7 installation. That's not a lot minute-wise, but it's still 16 percent more time than its predecessor. I'm also running a pretty souped-up PC--a stock-clocked Intel QX9650 running at 3.0GHz, four gigabytes of RAM, a speedy Western Digital terabyte hard drive, and an ATI Radeon HD 4850 video card. I can only imagine how long Windows 7 might take for a machine of less prowess.

Getting Started
A nice touch of Windows 7 is that it installed with more drivers configured than its predecessor. My Windows Vista installation came with five unknown devices attached, requiring me to find and install drivers for the video card and Ethernet drivers for the motherboard in particular. Windows 7 set itself to the highest resolution my monitor supports using what appeared to be Microsoft-friendly ATI drivers. My Internet connection "worked" immediately, allowing me to fetch whatever I needed without having to first find the CD that came with my motherboard. Nice.

(Ethernet woes aside, I like how Windows 7 now gives you a "files processed per second" time instead of a "Megabytes of speed" value.)

Further inspection of the Ethernet drivers revealed that these were less than stable for my system. I had horrific problems trying to make multiple connections to either the Internet or my network devices. The operating system froze up every time I tried to grab more than one batch of files from my NAS, download files from the NAS and Steam at once, or generally do anything but surf the Web. Frustrated, I went back to the my motherboard's CD drivers and that seemed to fix the problem just fine. This now-stable OS was ready to get used!

Using Windows 7
One of the core problems with Windows 7, which Microsoft will invariably not fix, stems from its utter similarity to Windows Vista. Sure, the taskbar is a little different, Windows Explorer has a newer feel to it, and the desktop looks like it requires a GPU of its own for all the fun little transparent gimmicks and what-have-you. But at its core, this is Windows Vista. Windows Vista (remix), perhaps, but still Windows Vista. I found it difficult to figure out the actual changes to the OS save for the obvious differences in appearance. Sure, browsing through the help file pointed out some, but it was also extremely unexciting to do. The final release of Windows 7 needs some kind of snappy, orchestrated pop-up that tells you when a feature you're accessing has new elements "nearby." For example, you pull up Windows Explorer for the first time. A one-time popup tells you something like, "Hey, did you know that Libraries are totally awesome? Here's how they work." Or you're surfing the control panel and hovering over the various icons when poof!, up pops a tiny, 15-second animation to let you know about the wonders of PC Safeguard.

(Poof! Libraries are a useful way to organize the contents of your computer without having to worry about maintaining a traditional folder architecture)

Would this get annoying, Clippy-style? For the power user, yes. But if there was a way to establish that you were either a new Windows 7 user or a transfer Vista user upon installing the OS for the first time, surely Windows could then give you a bit more of a walk-through than what this beta delivers: A bright blue background of a fish and a pat on the bum for good luck.

The Problem Children
I rip all the applications and games I own to their own mountable .ISO files. I hate scratched discs, but more than that, I hate having to look for that one, mission-critical disc (like, say, Gigabyte motherboard drivers) that's somewhere about the stack of junk in my room. Not only can I install the actual programs faster this way, but I can sleep easy knowing that I'll always be able to access my Planescape: Torment CDs no matter where the physical media might be (Ohio, last I checked). Windows 7 did not like this plan. Specifically, it did not like the various applications I use to mount CDs, like Daemon Tools.

Basically, any application that uses a SPTD layer to access virtual optical devices utterly fails in this Windows 7 beta. I hope this is fixed by either Microsoft or the various application developers for the final launch, as it took me forever to find a suitable replacement for disc mounting. Which brings up an interesting point of its own: What happens when Windows 7 launches? Will developers have to support XP, Vista, and Windows 7 versions of their applications?

(I found no difficulties whatsoever in using a common barrage of applications and games on Windows 7, including Microsoft Office, Steam games, Adobe CS4, Hamachi, UltraVNC, Revo Uninstaller, et cetera)

I venture so, at least for the Windows 7 part of the equation. While I'm still coming to terms with the new icon-based toolbar, it's obvious that some legacy Vista programs just don't cross over very well. Take Steam, for example. When I'm running Valve's games platform, a little icon appears in the taskbar to let me know the program's running. Normally, I'd right-click on this icon to access the context menu for pulling up your friends window, games window, community window, et cetera. Only, that's not how it works. The actual icon for this is now hidden somewhere in the right-hand part of the taskbar near the clock, buried in an arrowed context menu. In a perfect world, one icon would handle all. But here I have two. And I don't like clutter.

Similarly, I look forward to the day when I can make use of the new context-menu-bearing icons in the start menu. For Microsoft apps like Paint and Word, there's a little arrow icon to the right of the icon and name combination you'd normally use to launch the program in the start menu. This gives you added context for the action you want to undertake, be it opening said program's recent items to new documents, et cetera. I long for the day I can launch my Steam games directly out of one of these menus.

I'm not a betting man--at least, not one to make too stupid of bets. This is exactly why I would not have placed money on Apple's iTunes working with Windows 7. But I never expected the installer mechanism to outright die. I began installing iTunes somewhere toward the top of this article. As of this sentence's writing, it's still hung at three-fourths completion. If Apple can release a version of iTunes that's fully-functional, installs perfectly, and doesn't muck up CD burning for both 32-bit and 64-bit Windows 7 installations... well, I might just buy a hat and eat it.

"Teh Awesome"
I'm running out of time on my self-imposed limit, so I'll make this quick. There are indeed some unique elements of Windows 7 that make it appear rather dashing when compared to Windows Vista. Gone is the hideous network lag that makes me wait 30 seconds every time I try to connect to my NAS. Windows 7 pulls it up as if it was just another folder: A++, I say to that. I'm a geek for good looks in an operating system, and I really dig the fun new features of Windows 7 in that regard. I love the slide-show background option, even though some of its choices for scenery are downright laughable:

(Yep.)

Seriously. A buffalo? Anyway, I also enjoy the fact that you can now drag maximized windows around to your leisure. They're no longer locked to all four corners of your screen, and re-maximizing them is as easy as dragging them to the very top of your monitor. I'm not sure why you'd ever use it, but you can now invert the picture to your display completely upside-down. I can now hang my 30-inch display from the ceiling with joyful confidence, I suppose.

Everyone's talking about it, so here's my five seconds: UAC is back. You can turn it to different levels of annoyance with a slider, and that's that. Windows Firewall has received a substantial upgrade in its capabilities, so much so that I actually considered--for the briefest of moments--fiddling around with its extensive new inbound and outbound limits before promptly switching it off. But still, I considered. This will be a fantastic upgrade for those of you who don't surf the Internet via hardware firewalls.

I don't have friends who use my desktop, but the new ability to completely wipe out a user's changes via PC Safeguard is a must-have for anyone who wants their computer to remain crap-free when significant others, younger siblings, or drunk friends are around.

Other than that, there are plenty more articles that go over the extensive, feature-by-feature differences found in Windows 7. Those are just a few of the major ones I noticed offhand and felt the need to comment on. Remember, I'm flying blind into Windows 7 (no press previews, no articles read, nothing. Just a plain ol' user), and didn't really have a way to find a ton of new features throughout the course of my normal weekend's worth of work.

The Verdict
I phrase that last paragraph as I do, because it relates to my ultimate point. As it stands, Windows 7 is not a new operating system. It's SP2. Rightly, it's what Vista should have been, but I'm willing to compromise on this just existing as a significant, service-pack-worthy upgrade to the core Vista OS. A mainstay of the new experiences you will actually encounter are cosmetic in design or function: the new desktop functions are pretty, Windows gadgets are an exploded version of the Vista sidebar, Homegroup is just a rebranded way to set up network sharing, the Taskbar uses icons instead of icons and words, et cetera.

Truly novel innovations: an extensive Firewall system, a brand-new Backup and Restore tool that would actually keep me from buying an off-the-shelf solution, PC Safeguard... these are all neat applications. At its core, I really like the direction Microsoft has gone with Windows 7. There's no question in my mind about that.

But as a paying customer, I have to ask myself: when this OS hits the market, is there enough packed in there to warrant its $125 price (or thereabouts)? From XP to Vista, I definitely pulled the trigger and didn't look back. I don't believe that, at this stage in the game, the pretty functionality and intriguing applications are worth the eventual cost. I can mimic a lot of Windows 7's new functionality with common freeware applications. And while the graphics are pretty, I'm not about to shell out a ton of cash just so I can shift around my desktop windows and giggle.

(To be fair, the new graphical elements like full Window transparency just by hovering your mouse over "Show Desktop" make up some awesome features.)

Had Microsoft the gall, it would release Windows 7 as a free upgrade for Windows Vista users. It's not going to, nor can I see the software giant doing anything but slapping a standard pricing model on this "brand-new" OS. It'll be curious to see what this does to Vista support, given the inherent similarity between the two platforms. I wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft officially killed Vista development and made Windows 7 its default, go-to operating system. Sounds crazy? Eh. So is the hype around this operating system.

As for me? I think I'll go back to Vista for now...

This story originally appeared on PCWorld