As the family ‘professional-geek’, I get all the tech support phone calls.

One of my family members (we’ll call him ‘R’) called me the other day somewhat put out and frustrated with his latest computer purchase. The new computer he was setting up for someone else had Windows 7 installed on it.

“I just got used to the XP interface and they had to go and change it all. Why’d they do that?!?” he gasped in exasperation.

Windows 7 Desktop

The Windows 7 Desktop

I share R’s frustration.  I am one of those individuals who can walk you through configuring nearly anything in Windows XP without a computer in front of me. I have the entire Windows XP interface memorized.   That knowledge gets in my way when I try to configure something in Windows 7.  I have a Microsoft TechNet subscription and I am evaluating Windows 7 on one of my lab computers at home.  The transition from XP to Windows 7 was not comfortable and a little alienating.   The control panels changed, the personal folders for users had moved and there were dozens of other changes.  I had fewer challenges getting used to XP when I transitioned from Windows 98.

While I feel R’s pain, Windows XP is getting a little long in the tooth.  Windows XP was released in 2001, Vista was released in 2007 and Windows 7 was released in 2009.  Windows XP is nearly 10 years old. During that time, computers and computer technology have advanced considerably and the software that runs on them has to keep up.

Windows XP

Windows XP was built for single core, single processor, 32-bit systems with mgabytes of RAM and perhaps a few gigabytes of disk space. Windows XP was designed to be backwards compatible with the 16-bit computers through a mechanism Microsoft called “thunking”.  Today, we have true 64-bit processors with up to 8 processing cores on home desktop systems and systems with two processors with four cores each.  That’s a shift from single threaded systems to multithreaded and multiprocessor hardware architectures and Windows XP just wasn’t designed for it, nor was it designed to handle the amount of RAM you can get today.  Desktop computers built in 2010 can have up to 192 GB of RAM and 7.5 TB of disk space on RAID5 arrays.  Central Processing Units (CPU’s) today are multi-core, have new virtualization and security functions they never possessed before and are fully 64-bit internally and externally.  We now have DVD and Blu-ray devices, huge USB flash drives of 64GB or more, touch-sensitive flat panel displays, and that’s just a few of the changes.

The Windows operating system had to change to accommodate the new processors and hardware options.  Every new version of Windows has also had to accommodate these changes, but not much effort was spent on optimizing code or keeping the code base small and tight.  Every new version of Windows has been larger than the previous version by as much as an order of magnitude.

Windows 7

It has been fifteen years since Windows 95 and the Windows Desktop was introduced to computer users. That interface has gone largely unchanged and while it took a while for most of us to get used to in 1995, we had learned where everything was. Then Microsoft changed everything. Software manufacturers know that when they change the user interface, they can expect a lot of support phone calls and headaches. Microsoft apparently didn’t believe that changing a 15-year defacto standard interface billions of people had learned to use and support could possibly cause problems. Let me give you a few examples of where you’re going to have a couple of headaches with Windows 7. Things still work, just not the way you’re used to..

Window 7 Control Panels, Category View

Window 7 Control Panels, Category View

First Example: Category grouping of control panels. While the control panels had the category grouping in Windows XP, that grouping has changed yet again in Vista and Windows 7. To see the actual control panels, you have to pull down the invisible drop-down in the top right corner of the window. The drop-down menu is indicated by the blue down-pointing triangle after the word Category.

Windows 7 Control Panel View option

Windows 7 Control Panel View option

The Category dropdown doesn’t look anything like old drop-downs in previous versions of Windows, which could be a bit confusing for some people. If you click that blue triangle, you will see the options for small icons or large icons. Once you select either the Large Icons or Small Icons option, the list of actual control panels appears. To me, it seems counter-intuitive that a selector that says “small icons” actually executes the command “show all controls”.

Another example: the old Add/Remove Programs control panel is replaced by the Programs and Features control panel.  The Programs and Features control panel offers hyperlinks instead of icons to add or remove applications or Windows ‘features’ which used to be called ‘components’ in Windows XP. So the functions are still there, they just look different and a lot of the buttons which were fairly obvious, are now gone, replaced by hyperlinks, which are not so obvious.

Improvements in Windows 7

Don’t get me wrong, while there is a lot of stumbling around in the new interface to put up with, there’s also lot of good improvements in Windows 7.

Faster

Windows 7 boots faster and provides a better computing experience overall in terms of apparent speed, but your mileage may vary based on the applications you load at startup.  Windows 7 uses less system resources on a basic no-frills install than a fully patched version of Windows XP with SP3 and all hotfixes installed. There’s also lot  more fine-grained control over the system itself.   There are a lot more control panels to choose from and some other interesting new features, like the ability to use a touch-sensitive display, or to grab the title bar of a window, shake it, and watch all the other windows minimize.

Better Security

Windows 7 comes with the Windows Defender anti-mailware tool, a backup and restore control panel, a recovery control panel, drive encryption control panel and more.  Most of the old control panels were broken into smaller, simpler control panels.  Where once there was the Display control panel with all the options including appearance, font sizes, wallpaper, screensaver and themes, now you have Desktop Gadgets and Personalization as separate controls.  Most of the old control panels are still there, buried under new names and layer of new interfaces, some of which are actually helpful.

Prettier

Some people really believe that a prettier computer interface means a faster, more powerful computer–that’s why they buy Macs.  Yes, the visual themes are gorgeous, and Microsoft finally did an update to the screensavers, but this isn’t why I buy operating systems.  Those themes come at a cost in performance, almost 100MB of active RAM is sucked up by the visual elements and functions in the new interface.  It’s still possible to roll the interface back to the old gray Windows NT interface, if you are seriously concerned about performance.

Conclusion

Change is inevitable.  Change in a user interface can be disastrous. Fortunately, Microsoft didn’t change enough to make their system unusable. Yes, the user interface looks less like a Playschool toy and more like a modern operating system. Yes, some things were moved or renamed. Yes, it’s damned annoying at times. Yes, in the short term it will take me more time to get things done in Windows, not less, until I re-learn a new interface.

But..

I’ll be using Windows 7 from now on, mostly because it runs faster and more efficiently, and I have more security options, even though I’m still having trouble from time to time finding a setting I used to be able to find blindfolded in XP.

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