So, starting a few weeks ago, I restructured my desktop computer to my new hard-drive scheme and “upgraded” my primary OS from Windows XP to Windows 7. Since I’ve gone through this scary transition, I’ll let you know my thoughts after two-ish weeks of use:

“Huh, it’s really not that bad.”

I know I’m fairly late to this game, but I also know that many, many people still use Windows XP and it’s become a gold standard of sorts for the newer Miscrosoft OS comparisons. In fact I still highly recommend XP for anyone who has less than 4 gigabytes of ram (that is for anyone who is using a Windows OS).

The whole package is way better than Vista, which I found to be clunky and lacking in useful user customization, especially from the administration point of things. The only irksome thing it shares with Vista is the overabundance of nag windows. A few security tweaks are enough to push these to the side, since they don’t actually add any security, just like to nag you about legitimate programs trying to use other programs and if a malware programmer is worth his salt it’s easy enough a thing to get around. Windows 7 somewhat reminiscent of XP, though they tweaked many parts of the base directory structure so that it does operate much differently under the hood. The icons and taskbar in Windows 7 are also ginormous by default, which takes some time to get used to. In fact, many of these tweaks seem to have been done purely for the sake of making tweaks rather than for any improvement it gave to functionality. Indeed the reasoning for their changes to the user folder layout escapes me entirely. Maybe they liked all their various personal folders stacked a few levels deep for that exercise the extra clicking gives. The path bar is also not as clean as it could be, as they swapped in a more personable look for a distinct lack of directory precision. As somebody who used a lot of DOS/Linux command line in my day (Thursday) it annoys me quite a bit when an OS obfuscates the directory structure, especially when working on the Admin account. You can disable this look with a few tweaks, but it’s not as straight forward to change as it should be.

Windows 7 is pretty easy to tweak; indeed there are an array of administration tools that can help you get things tuned nearly to comparable perfection. The snag here is that there are two very key absences from Windows 7 that I’ve found thus far:

1) There is no easy way to change the default program install directory. This was an issue for me because I am using a secondary drive as my program drive and keeping the system drive primarily for the OS and OS related software. I was able to get around this with a few tricks and a handful of registry tweaks, but really, this is basic modern computing theory. Windows 7 SHOULD have the ability to define the default program directory as a built-in feature. Hell, it should ask if you want to designate a separate drive for programs when you first load the damn thing.

2) There is no easy way to set Windows 7 up so that the user folders are on a separate drive. This is almost a game killer here, except that XP was really bad with this too. The only useful way to get the user folders to reside anywhere other than the system drive is to go in with the Windows 7 command line rescue tool and move the user folders to where you want them then create a symbolic link folder where the users directory used to be. But there is a real danger here of totally screwing your install up if you typo something, so it’s not for the faint of heart. This is also pretty basic computing theory: you don’t want useful data files on the same drive as the OS so user files should, if possible, reside on a different physical drive. The fact that Windows 7 isn’t set up to do this without some pretty invasive noddling speaks volumes of ineptitude about Microsoft’s design team.

The compatibility of Windows 7 is rather good. To date I’ve only had one compatibility issue, and that was with a camera driver for my Canon digital SLR (they have not produced any Windows 7 drivers for their older DSLR cameras and the Vista drivers don’t work). Not a big deal since I don’t use the Canon software anyway. I can just pull the SD card and read it directly rather than hooking up the camera. If I really want to use the camera, I could always set up a Windows XP virtual machine and do it that way, but again, I hate the Canon software so why bother?

The ability to use the “run as admin” to do upper-level things when using a user or super-user account is pretty good, but at certain times it’s frustratingly impotent. Hell, when I was trying to do one specific tweak, it wouldn’t let me do it even when logged in directly as an admin. I kept getting “you need admin rights to proceed.” I ended up having to go in with the command line utility running with specifically set admin privileges (inside the admin account, *eyeroll*) in order to actually complete the operation. Security is one thing, security to the point of stupidity is quite another. Microsoft has apparently become so paranoid about their OSs security that you have to beat it over the head the damn admin password to do any damn thing. While the “run as administrator” is useful for your run-of-the-mill needs, I recommend logging in as an admin when installing programs, especially those that require significant unpacking.

On the plus side, the Windows 7 restore system actually works like it’s supposed to! Holy crap! On my first try attempting to get the users folder moved over to a different drive I totally screwed everything up and couldn’t get the system to boot up properly. I loaded in the last restore point and I was back in business! In XP you have about a 10% chance of a restore point being worth anything when you run into a problem, so having a restore point work was heartening. Indeed if you fish around online you’ll see that the one big improvement to Windows 7 was in how it handles and uses restore points.

The converse of this is that the backup utility in Windows 7 is still garbage, like it has been in just about every non-server release of Windows. You’re better off looking for third party backup solutions than relying on Microsoft to eventually get it right. EaseUS ToDo Backup is one of the better ones here, and it’s free (it works better than a lot of the commercial products I’ve used, like Norton or Acronis). I’ll hit that in a Freeware Friday at some point.

After some more time we’ll see what shakes out, but at this moment my feelings about Windows 7 are mostly positive when compared to XP, and my gripes are mostly ones that I already had with XP that are born out of the fact that Linux distributions often do things by default that Windows OSs have never been able to do without significant coaxing/registry hacking. Seriously, Microsoft, allow the user to easily configure the data flow of their friggin’ computer. It’s not that hard a thing to allow.

Is Windows 7 a big step up from XP? No, I don’t think so. At best it’s a baby step, but really it feels more of a lateral move. It is certainly a bit different, but, other than the system restore, not obviously better or worse than XP. Granted, I’ve only just started poking around under the hood so more features and challenges may come out of the works as I start getting deeper.

And hey, it multi-boots from Grub just fine, so that’s something, right?

-Confusion is a state of mind, or is it?