Windows 7 Beta 1 Shines

Build 7000 of Microsoft's latest OS proves surprisingly stable and robust in our hands-on tests.

The first public beta of the Windows 7 operating system shipped in January, marking an important milestone in Microsoft's next-generation client OS. Expected to ship in Q3 or Q4 of 2009, Windows 7 addresses many of the issues that have plagued its predecessor Windows Vista, while delivering impressive new features and capabilities.

Our hands-on tests of the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows 7 beta 1 reveal an impressively mature, stable and robust operating system that seems poised to emerge as an attractive target for corporate development. Out of the box, the 32-bit OS automatically recognized and supported all the devices and components in our 3GHz Celeron-based test PC with 1GB of RAM, an ATI Radeon x1550 DirectX 9 (DX9) GPU and a Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-Fi soundcard.

Performance was outstanding. We stress-tested the OS under a variety of applications-including anti-virus, compression and decompression, media software, audio recording and multiple Internet browsers-and found the beta to be consistently responsive.

Application compatibility has also improved over the previous M3 build 6801 community technology preview (CTP), distributed at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference in October. Software tuned for Vista installed and worked beautifully, without exception. Some applications developed for Windows XP produced issues, though, including unwanted User Account Control (UAC) prompts when vying for permission.

Improving Compatibility
With Windows 7, developers will find that UAC provides four levels of reporting, instead of Vista's limited on/off option. The granularity can help reduce intrusions by the security module. Every application we installed produced only a single UAC pop-up at the beginning of the installation, and our experience indicates that apps tuned for Vista's UAC environment should fare quite well under Windows 7.

The Data Execution Prevention (DEP) feature in Windows 7 has also been improved to eliminate headaches that users experienced under Vista. Still, developers should keep DEP in mind when coding applications, as the feature is so important to securing application code against common exploits.

Some compatibility wrinkles still remain. Windows 7 beta 1 build 7000 in our tests exhibited a bug in Windows Media Player 12, which can result in the corruption of certain variable bit rate (VBR) MP3 files. Users working with the beta should also be careful to obtain a valid key for the new build, as keys obtained for build 6801 will expire.

The 64-bit version of Windows 7 produced only one issue, failing to recognize the chipset on our 64-bit test bed with a 2.6GHz dual core CPU and 4GB of RAM. Once the driver was installed, the OS produced performance and stability on par with its 32-bit sibling. For shops anxious to move to 64-bit development, Windows 7 seems on track to be a viable platform.

Taken to Taskbar
Windows 7 is not a game-changing OS upgrade; it succeeds based on its incremental improvements to Vista. A case in point is the Windows 7 Taskbar. There is real potential for developers who want to provide exciting new functionality for users, and it's incredibly simple to integrate with.

Developers can win over end users with "jump lists," intuitive information displays associated with Taskbar-bound apps that can expose, directly on the desktop, common functions and tasks. Additionally, developers of, say, multimedia apps can create thumbnail previews containing interactive controls-something Microsoft has already done with Windows Media Player out of the box.

There's plenty more for developers to wrap their minds around, including touch computing, Windows Biometric Framework, Windows Sensor and Location Platform, .NET Framework 4.0 (coming with Visual Studio 2010 and not yet baked into Windows 7) and Direct3D WARP 10. WARP 10 allows developers to build DX10-based 3-D games that can run without a DX10 GPU. Game and software designers can also integrate new inputs: for example, integrating a biometric scanner to restrict access to specific data or capabilities.

The touch interfaces offer significant promise. Touch-aware interfaces can let users zoom in on content, select an object, flip it 180 degrees, resize it, then move it somewhere else on the screen-all without touching a mouse or a keyboard. Sensor support allows applications to respond to environmental cues-for instance, changing display behaviors based on ambient light or the absence of a user.

Under Windows 7, UAC now offers four levels of reporting.
[click image for larger view]
Under Windows 7, UAC now offers four levels of reporting.

Look and Feel
Microsoft has added some nice touches, including a beautiful boot animation and a slew of new wallpaper choices that weren't present in build 6801. Perhaps one of the best additions to come through in beta 1 is the default enablement of previously optional interface features like desktop snapping, desktop preview, Aero Peek and Aero Shake.

Gadgets in Windows 7 have been given free rein to live outside of the Windows Sidebar. In our tests, gadgets played nicely on the desktop at various opacity levels.

From a performance standpoint, apps in beta 1 build 7000 produced consistent responsiveness across the various Aero interface settings-Aero enabled, Aero-basic enabled and Windows classic-though resource consumption varied. It's worth noting that IE8 seems to perform much better than it did in build 6801, though IE still lags behind Opera in responsiveness.

Windows 7 beta 1 displayed excellent stability, running consistently through all our tests. Efforts to stress the interface and Taskbar (by repeatedly moving elements and accessing features) failed to produce issues.

Based on our hands-on experience, Windows 7 beta 1 build 7000 is quite impressive, providing ample stability and performance at the beta stage on relatively modest client hardware. For developers anxiously waiting on the fence, Windows 7 beta 1 has the look of an outstanding target for client applications.

About the Author

Stephen Chapman is an investigative blogger who writes for ZDNet and authors the Microsoft enthusiast blog Microsoft Kitchen. He was recently named by Redmond magazine as one of the top 10 influential Microsoft pundits. His coverage of emerging Microsoft technologies affords him a unique perspective and sound insight into the future of products such as Windows, Office, Windows Phone and more.

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