In computing terms, I live a double life. At work, I use our corporate IT system which runs on Windows XP; at home, I’m a Mac user and have grown accustomed to the Apple environment. But for the last week, I’ve been living in a Windows world, preparing for the launch of Microsoft’s latest operating system.
I borrowed a small, very expensive Sony Vaio X running Windows 7 – the lightest laptop I’ve ever used – and tried to do as much of my work as possible using the unfamiliar operating system. I didn’t carry out the kind of tests you might find in a grown-up review but then most of us don’t do that – we just try to get on with new software and only really notice it when it goes wrong.
If you’re used to one operating system, trying another is like moving into a strange house – it may all look very nice, but it’s a pain trying to find out how to turn up the central heating or where the glasses are stored. But Windows 7 did at least boot up reasonably fast – Microsoft says it’s reduced the “footprint” of the system by 50%, and that’s made it more efficient.
The first thing I want to do when I switch on is connect to the internet. I’m used to searching out a wireless signal at the top of a Mac screen but I found, without too much trouble, a similar connection area to the right of the Windows taskbar and was quickly online.
The Start button in the bottom left-hand corner still provides the route to the applications, though the taskbar has become a little like Apple’s dock, so you can simply drag frequently-used applications onto it.
I set about opening a browser, e-mail and word processing applications, and tried to work out where I would keep my photos and music. That process somehow feels more integrated on a Mac because of the iLife suite that comes with it. But having dragged a few tracks and pictures off my home network into the Vaio, it was reasonably easy to start playing.
But what’s really different about using this operating system? The two things that stood out for me were the ability to hover over open items in the taskbar and see what was happening at a glance – and a function which allows you to snap two open windows alongside each other so that you can compare or maybe transfer information between them.
But here’s a funny thing. By the end of the week, I looked at what I was doing on the tiny screen – and found that just about everything involved software not made by Microsoft. So I’d installed the Firefox browser in preference to Internet Explorer, and started writing documents using Google Docs rather than Microsoft Word, and checking my e-mail via Gmail. As for music, I’d installed iTunes, and to feed my social networking needs, I placed Tweetdeck on the taskbar.
I had ended up furnishing my new Windows 7 home with some familiar items from elsewhere – so perhaps the operating system matters less than it once did.
Of course, what is really important to Microsoft is not winning over the minority who use Mac OS X or Linux variants, but reconnecting with the many previously loyal customers who were deeply unimpressed by Vista.
This week at the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, I met Tony Sale, who has spent 15 years working to rebuild Colossus, the world’s first programmable computer used to crack German codes in World War II. At home, Tony has used every version of Windows since 3.1*, but he’s stopped at XP. What was wrong with Vista?
“It tried to tell me how to organise my files all the time, I didn’t like that.” By contrast, Tony says he finds XP very stable and very usable – and he’s going to have to be sure that Windows 7 does a similar, or better, job before upgrading.
Computing has come a long way since Colossus, but Microsoft’s customers will be asking the same question about its new operating system as the code-breakers did about their new-fangled toy. Does it do the same job better and faster than what we use now?
* As some commenters have pointed out, what Tony Sale must have started with was Windows 3.1, not 3.2 as I had previously written.
My favourite part of this review by Rory Cellan-Jones is this:
I didn’t carry out the kind of tests you might find in a grown-up review but then most of us don’t do that – we just try to get on with new software and only really notice it when it goes wrong.
He is so right. Most people use a fraction of the potential of a software service. A much more realistic way to review a service.