Walt Mossberg

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Even in Test Form, Windows 7 Leaves Vista in the Dust

This will be a big year for new operating systems. Apple (AAPL) plans a new version of its Macintosh operating system, to be called Snow Leopard. Palm (PALM) plans an all-new smart phone operating system called Palm WebOS. But the new release that will affect more users than any other will be Windows 7, the latest major edition of Microsoft‘s dominant platform.

Microsoft (MSFT) hasn’t announced an official release date for Windows 7, but I would be surprised if it wasn’t available to consumers by this fall. The company has just released the first public beta, or test, version of the software, and I’ve been trying it out on two laptops. One is a Lenovo ThinkPad lent me by Microsoft with Windows 7 already installed, and the other is my own Sony Vaio, which I upgraded to Windows 7 from Windows Vista.

I won’t be doing a full, detailed review of Windows 7 until it is released in final form, but here’s a preview of some of the main features of this new operating system and some of my initial impressions.

In general, I have found Windows 7 a pleasure to use. There are a few drawbacks, but my preliminary verdict on Windows 7 is positive.

Even in beta form, with some features incomplete or imperfect, Windows 7 is, in my view, much better than Vista, whose sluggishness, annoying nag screens, and incompatibilities have caused many users to shun it. It’s also a serious competitor, in features and ease of use, for Apple’s current Leopard operating system. (I can’t say yet how it will compare with Apple’s planned new release, as I haven’t tried the latter.)

In many respects, Windows 7 isn’t a radical shift from Vista, but is more of an attempt to fix Vista’s main flaws. It shares the same underlying architecture, and retains graphical touches like translucent Window borders. But it introduces some key new navigation and ease-of-use features, plus scores of small usability and performance improvements — too many to list here.

The flashiest departure in Windows 7, and one that may eventually redefine how people use computers, is its multitouch screen navigation. Best known on Apple’s iPhone, this system allows you to use your fingers to directly reposition, resize, and flip through objects on a screen, such as windows and photos. It is smart enough to distinguish between various gestures and combinations of fingers. I haven’t been able to test this feature extensively yet, because it requires a new kind of touch-sensitive screen that my laptops lack.

But even if your current or future PC lacks a touch screen, Windows 7 will have plenty of other benefits. The most important may be speed. In my tests, even the beta version of Windows 7 was dramatically faster than Vista at such tasks as starting up the computer, waking it from sleep and launching programs.

And this speed boost wasn’t only apparent in the preconfigured machine from Microsoft, but on my own Sony (SNE), which had been a dog using Vista, even after I tried to streamline its software. Of course, these speed gains may be compromised by the computer makers, if they add lots of junky software to the machines. Windows 7 is also likely to run well on much more modest hardware configurations than Vista needed.

The familiar Windows taskbar is more customizable and useful in Windows 7. The program icons are larger, and can be “pinned” anywhere along the taskbar for easy, repeated use. There are also “jump lists” that pop out from the icons in the taskbar and start menu, showing frequently used or recent actions.

A screenshot shows several application windows on the desktop of the Beta version of the Microsoft Windows 7 software.
A screenshot shows several application windows on the desktop of the Beta version of the Microsoft Windows 7 software.

Windows 7 also cuts down on annoying warnings and nag screens. Microsoft notifications have been consolidated in a single icon at the right of the taskbar, and you can now decide under what circumstances Windows will warn you before taking certain actions.

Compatibility with hardware and software, which was a problem in Vista, seems far better in Windows 7 — even in the beta. I tried a wide variety of hardware, including printers, Web cams, external hard disks and cameras, and nearly all worked fine.

I also successfully installed and used popular programs from Microsoft’s rivals, such as Mozilla Firefox, Adobe Reader, Apple’s iTunes, and Google’s (GOOG) Picasa. All worked properly, even though none was designed for Windows 7.

But there are some downsides to Windows 7. First, you will only be able to directly upgrade Vista computers to the new version. People still using Windows XP will need to perform a more cumbersome multistep process. Microsoft is working on a method to help XP owners preserve all their data during this process.

Second, Windows 7 will eliminate some familiar bundled programs from Windows. Vista’s Mail, Calendar, Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, and Address Book programs are being removed. To get similar basic, free, programs, you’ll have to download them from Microsoft’s Windows Live service, or use alternatives from other companies. Microsoft defends this move as supporting consumer choice and better coordination with Web services, but it does remove out-of-the-box functionality from Windows.

Still, even in its preliminary form, Windows 7 looks very promising, and could well help expunge the bad reputation of Vista.