User Account Control

As noted in our look at the earlier beta, Microsoft has tweaked User Account Control in some important ways that should go a long way toward addressing many Vista haters' complaints. It now offers four levels of protection: always notify, notify only when programs try to make changes (this is the default), notify when programs try to make changes but don't dim the screen (my preference), and never notify. I won't win many allies by saying this, but the setting I was hoping to see added to this list is an option to require a password when programs try to make changes, which would add a level of actual security to UAC: Any fool with access to your computer can click Continue, but requiring an admin password would add a meaningful level of security. This missing feature is standard on more-secure operating systems such as Linux, and it would be a worthwhile (though admittedly unpopular) addition.

In any case, having four options built in is a major step up from the old Vista UAC workarounds.

Networking Improvements

Windows 7 adds a few networking improvements that Vista and XP lacked. One of the most significant of these is HomeGroups, which give structure to the process of sharing devices and media files over a home network. Setting up a HomeGroup between two or more Windows 7 PCs automates the sharing of Libraries (collections of pictures, music files, movies, or documents), printers, and storage devices. Windows 7 also increases the number of SMB network connections that you can have in a single network.

Setting up a HomeGroup needn't put all of your systems at risk, it seems. When you create one, Windows generates a secure passkey that you must enter on every system that you add to the HomeGroup, which should help keep interlopers from reaching your shared files and devices, even if they manage to get onto your wireless network.

Easy Upgrade

In our last trial of Windows 7, we had no opportunity to perform a full upgrade from Vista -- an experience that will be important to many people who want to try out the 7 beta or to upgrade their own systems to 7 from XP or Vista. If no news is good news, I'm pleased to report that my own upgrade went off without a hitch. The actual install time was roughly 40 minutes, and the system rebooted more times than seemed necessary for a simple OS upgrade, but the final result was a fully functional installation. Even my AVG antivirus continued to function normally, which came as a welcome surprise.

Of course, I'm running the new OS on a test machine that I use primarily for trying out things like this, and it isn't exactly laden with media files and applications. In coming weeks, we'll try the beta out on additional systems with a range of installed apps and files to see how the upgrade goes on machines with more-complicated software loads.

Performance

The biggest question on everyone's mind is whether Windows 7 introduces much-needed performance improvements over Vista. I can't answer that question based on one day of subjective use, but I can say that it seems a little faster. Throughout the OS, windows open faster, apps seem to launch more quickly, and the interface seems a little snappier than it was with my Vista installation on the same machine a few hours ago. Startup is a bit quicker, too, getting me from power-on to fully booted in about 74 seconds, versus 87 seconds prior to the upgrade. This comparison is totally unscientific, mind you, and we'll do more extensive testing in the PC World Test Center soon. But my first impression was that Windows 7 generally outperformed Vista on the hardware I used.

Try It For Yourself

So that's my take on my first day with Windows 7. But you don't have to rely on my opinion alone. If you're curious, have lots of free time, and want to conduct your own research and reach your own conclusions about the upcoming Windows OS, try the Windows 7 beta for yourself. The DVD images are large and will generally take a few hours to download and install, but there's nothing quite like taking an advance look at the next generation of your OS. If you decide to check it out, let us know what you think of it by dropping a note in our comments section below. Ultimately, it's you, the end users, not us the critics, who will decide whether Windows 7 is the bomb or a dud.