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With the arrival of the release candidate of Microsoft Windows 7, Microsoft has confirmed that they intend to go full speed ahead with a campaign to win the hearts and minds of PC users. Of course, the hype has been building behind Windows 7 already – but the question remains, can Windows 7 undo the failed practices of the last eight years of Windows 2000, Windows XP and Windows Vista?

While “failed practices” may be an unfair criticism leveled upon Windows 7’s predecessors, the term does highlight the perceived security flaws, slow performance and usability concerns that plagued the collective conscious of the IT world. While XP was seen as a vast improvement over Windows 2000, XP still had its critics. Interestingly, XP did not come into full favor until the Vista debacle took hold and forced users to backtrack to Vista’s predecessor.

Most of the failings of Microsoft’s operating systems fall under the umbrella of perception. But the truth of the matter was that none of those OSes were all that bad — including Vista. The problem is perception is what sells products, not actual capabilities. Naturally, Windows 7 is seen as the heir apparent to the Microsoft Operating Systems kingdom and the product does have its work cut out for it. Much like the Obama administration, Windows 7 will have to hit the ground running and rapidly correct the failings of the past.

Windows 7 does help to undo the legacy of its predecessors. Build 7100 of the Release Candidate shows that Microsoft has listened to the criticism leveled upon Vista and incorporated significant changes into Windows 7. Enough so that many XP stalwarts may be attracted to the promises offered by Windows 7, skipping Vista altogether.

Here at Channel Insider, we installed Build 7100 of Windows 7 onto several systems for testing, and the results indicate that Microsoft is on the right track and that Windows 7 is very close to becoming a shipping product. We encountered few, if any, issues with the operating system, and we were pleasantly surprised at how well Windows 7 installed on our test systems. For the most part, all of the hardware was correctly identified and the appropriate drives were automatically installed.

In an attempt to confound Windows 7, we installed the product on a Fujitsu T5010  Tablet PC, which incorporates a significant amount of proprietary hardware. Windows 7 was able to identify all of the major components and install correctly. Drivers were automatically loaded for the Wacom enabled tablet screen, built-in Intel Turbo Memory, wireless (WiFi & Bluetooth), integrated web cam and even the biometric fingerprint sensor. All of those components worked as expected and there was a perceivable improvement in performance; the system booted and shutdown much quicker, and applications launched faster. We tested the performance of the system using the 64 bit version of PassMark Performance test, and the system garnered a PassMark rating of 750.4, a significant improvement over the 630 score achieved using Windows Vista Business Edition.

While performance is an important consideration, Windows 7 improves upon the user experience in several other areas. Windows 7 behaves like Vista in many ways – it has a similar look and feel, yet a number of annoyances are greatly reduced.

Those looking for major differences between Windows Vista and Windows 7 will be disappointed, Windows 7 shares many of Vista’s features and capabilities, but has enhanced those elements significantly. For example, the Start Menu is almost identical between the two operating systems, as is the control panel applet and the system properties applet – except that those elements all have a cleaner, more organized feel to them.

Digging down through the various settings menus and tabs also shows an improvement in design – The system properties applet uses a more logical approach for system settings and offers better descriptions for critical elements, as well as more comprehensive help.

Many of the changes in Windows 7 were created to address user complaints about Windows Vista, the biggest complaint being User Account Controls. Here, Microsoft has made it easier to adjust the level of warnings and notifications. Those changes allow users to “quiet down” security warnings, but at the expense of not warning the user of potential security problems. A trade off that individual user will have to consider, before minimizing security warnings.

There are other minor changes and enhancements throughout Windows 7, many of which are subtle, while others were sorely needed – such as the enhanced backup functions and system repair updates. If one were to summarize what Windows 7 is all about, it would most likely come down to “it is what Vista Should have been “.