Windows 7 first look: A big fix for Vista

Pre-beta Windows 7 addresses many Vista complaints -- and introduces a slew of changes

Paint app now uses ribbon

Paint app now uses ribbon

Performance Enhancements

Some of the biggest criticisms of Vista relate to performance, and Microsoft appears to have made addressing these a priority. In our brief experience with the early-beta code, boot time seemed fast. Of course, we won't be able to make a fair comparison until we can test identical machines with the same bare-bones installations in Vista and W7, but Microsoft did identify a couple of steps it has taken to speed things up. First, Windows 7 initializes many services in parallel; and second, it has fewer services to initialize.

Microsoft engineers are working on several areas to improve general PC performance. One focus is to change the way the OS allocates memory to new windows. In Vista, the amount of memory allocated per window goes up as you add windows, to the point where the system often shuts down Aero because application windows are soaking up too much system memory. In Windows 7, each new window will be allocated the same amount of memory, and as a result adding new windows won't impose a prohibitive burden on system resources.

Other changes are designed to make the OS less crash-prone. Fault-tolerant heaps, for example, are designed to address memory management problems without crashing the problem application; at the same time, process reflection reduces crashes by allowing Windows to diagnose and (maybe) repair process problems without crashing the application involved. Microsoft says that its new OS "sandboxes" printer drivers so that problems stemming from poorly written drivers won't create problems for other drivers or for the system as a whole.

Microsoft is also working on ways to prolong notebook battery life by reducing power consumption. Examples of this endeavor include enabling notebooks to cut back on background activities, to perform intelligent display dimming (similar to technologies used with cell phone displays), and to play back DVDs more efficiently.

Devices and Hardware

Since Windows 7 is more of a major refresh than a departure from Vista, it doesn't require new drivers for peripherals: If something works with Vista, it should work with Windows 7. Nevertheless, Microsoft has instituted some changes to help people use connected devices such as cameras, cell phones, media players, and printers with their PCs.

Instead of the Auto-play window that appears in Vista and XP when you hook up one of these peripherals, you'll now get--if vendors play along--a more useful Device Stage window that shows not only a photorealistic rendering of the device but also a list of associated services and tasks. For example, with a multifunction printer you might see an icon for launching the scanning software--and you'll almost certainly see a link to the vendor's site for toner or ink supplies.

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