Windows 7 Impressions

I won’t pretend there was any urgent reason to upgrade from XP to Win 7. My XP installation was getting slower and slower, and that was only just reinstalled in July. My new Mac Pro (64 bit Snow Leopard) greatly increased my dissatisfaction with the PC side: if I’m going to live with Windows, and I am, I needed to do something!

A new motherboard and chip was financially out of the question. I’m running an ASUS M2N-SLI Deluxe with AMD 64 6000+ CPU. It’s not that old. By the time you add all the other stuff you always find you need, a slight upgrade turns into a major investment. I decided to go full bore with 8GB RAM, Windows 7 Pro (64-bit), and a better graphics card that would support “Windows Aero”.

The graphics card arrived DOA and is all packed up with RMA and prepaid UPS shipping label to send back to NewEgg tomorrow. The old card actually seems to work fine.

Windows 7 does not support a direct “upgrade” from XP to any flavor of Windows 7. Just as well. I wanted a clean install anyway, which MS calls a “custom install” to take some of the sting out of it.

You can dual boot multiple OS’s in Windows. I wanted to keep XP as a fallback during a transition period, and I intend to take my time. If you’re interested in dual-boot, by all means Google the topic before commencing. Essentially, you can only have one OS in a partition. You can either partition the existing C drive (if you have enough free space), or simply install a new HD (this is a big desktop box). I bought a cheap new 1TB HD, and ran the new OS install into a partition on that.

The Win7-64 install was the fastest and cleanest of any Windows install I’ve ever done. Windows asked for a name, password and OS serial number. It figured out everything else, including discovery of the Mac Pro and other PC’s on the network. The Windows annoyance factor has dropped 90%.

I like it so much I hate to boot back into XP, but that still works, too.

The Win7 interface is sleek, logical, clean and beautiful. I enjoy it very much. It strikes me as a cross between Mac Snow Leopard and Vista, with none of the ugly bad habits of Vista. I won’t say Microsoft “copied” the slick Snow Leopard look and feel, but I’m grateful that I can find my way around so quickly because of my Mac experience.

I had a couple of solvable glitches. This IS 64-bit Windows. I got my Microsoft bluetooth mouse working quite easily. Never being one to leave well enough alone, I had to go and install the iogear bluetooth software. All hell broke loose. Three iterations of driver updates later, I was getting blue screens and still no mouse.

I turned off the mouse, unplugged the bluetooth USB dongle, and uninstalled all the bluetooth software I’d installed. I then plugged the dongle back in, and turned on the mouse. It was discovered instantly, and not a problem since. I’ll worry about finding out how to let it discover my cellphone later.

The other glitch was one-time: I had an iTunes crash while I was trying to reconfigure my bluetooth mouse with the bad software. After uninstalling all the non-native bluetooth software (described above), iTunes worked perfectly again.

There are some differences where I miss the old ways. Right-clicking the Start menu doesn’t bring you a context menu, and I’d heavily customized my registry shell commands. Importing those changes into the new registry displays nothing. Instead of trying to make Windows 7 look like my old Windows 98, I’m going to take the time to learn the new ways of doing things.

I recommend Windows 7, and in particular, the 64-bit version. Without a hardware upgrade, I’m noticing about double the speed on most apps even if they’re not 64-bit: even Office is fast.  Boot time and shut-down time are less than 60 seconds – very close to the Mac. Agonizing 15-minute boots are a thing of the past.

I have the security of being able to say this because I have a Mac and a (Vista) laptop to keep me going, and, heck, I can still boot into my old XP installation. If your only machine is a notebook, and the hard drive’s nearly full, and you can’t afford to be offline for a while whilst getting your new environment up and running with the right drivers: just wait until it’s time to buy a new Notebook. Too many devices (touchpad, fingerprint, built-in webcam, etc) may or may not work until you get the required driver support.

The good news on drivers: in my own experience so far, I didn’t have to install any drivers. As noted above, I uninstalled the ones I put on the new OS. I didn’t even have to install nVidia and ASUS drivers for support at the motherboard level. Microsoft seems to have actually figured it out. So far, everything I need is installed and working correctly.

I will say that Mac has a better audio chip. The same WAV song played on  iTunes sounds distinctly crisper, clearer, and more “natural” on the Mac. I reported in an earlier post that I couldn’t distinguish between the great iTunes Windows and the original CD – but that A/B comparison was run through the same audio chip, so on reflection it was a silly test of audio reproduction.

Not to hijack the OS conversation, but the best solution is to buy an external USB DAC  – digital to analog converter. Art Dudley of Stereophile praises the $99 HRT Music Streamer USB D/A Converter to the skies, and the lab test charts back up his claim. (There is also a $299 version with a slightly better chip). These things are not toys for the iPod crowd, but a serious power tool for any audiophile who pumps WAV libraries of a PC or Mac music server through a serious home entertainment or audio system. Turns out, the digital audio really is a part of the USB bus stream.  DAC devices like this allow interception and processing before our relatively weak motherboard audio processors convert it to analog for your headsets, PC speakers, or stereo line-in cable.

Don’t get me wrong.  The onboard chips are certainly more than adequate for iPod, MP3 and AAW compressed sound. I was certainly impressed with my RealTek and SoundMAX sound chips. For WAV reproduction, better digital to analog conversion makes a difference you can hear at once. Thanks to Mac for demonstrating that.

Even the new Snow Leopard 10.6.2 is still working through a few refinements (the buggy Skype once crashed it, so I uninstalled Skype). So far, I would say Microsoft has done a remarkable job of simplifying the installation and presenting a clean OS we can look forward to using.

I do like my Mac better, and I’m not one of those “Mac vs. PC” snobs. I use the tools that do the job.

It’s a real pleasure to use Windows now, one I look forward to.

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