Over the next few weeks, you might hear a few wild-eyed fans claim that Windows 7 is perfect. Don't listen to them—they're just a bit giddy. The new Windows operating system, which goes on sale today, may be a terrific product, but it's not perfect. You'll still find a few of the niggling quirks found in Windows versions past. For instance, the OS still requires "activation" by a 25-character code, an anti-piracy measure that annoys legitimate users while doing little to crush actual pirates. And if you buy a new Windows 7 PC, you might find it clogged with crapware—useless pre-loaded software installed by computer makers in exchange for money, a practice that isn't technically a flaw in the OS but that nevertheless ruins what Microsoft likes to call the "Windows experience."
These are only quibbles, however, inconsequential defects in what's otherwise a nearly flawless system. Indeed, the new Windows is not only the best operating system that Microsoft has ever produced. It is arguably the fastest, most intuitive, and most useful consumer desktop OS on the market today. Windows 7 edges out Snow Leopard—Apple's latest Mac operating system—in several important ways and will leave any computers running an older version of the Mac OS in the dust.
That Microsoft has produced such an impressive OS is a real kick in the pants. The company's last operating system, Windows Vista, was a lead balloon; though Microsoft did move quickly to fix its multitude of flaws, Vista remains dogged by a perception that it sucks. More than two years after its release, Vista has been installed on only about one-fifth of the world's PCs—which would be impressive for any company except Microsoft, whose entire business is predicated upon the idea of global market domination.
So when Microsoft first began talking up Windows 7 about a year and a half ago, you would have been forgiven for expecting a marketing gimmick, a quick fix to save a crashing brand. Indeed, as detractors have pointed out, Windows 7 shares much of Vista's codebase and could be thought of as just a service pack—a fix-up—for the unpopular OS. Yet that's like saying Rachel Weisz has pretty much the same DNA as Washoe the chimp—the technical differences may be small, but the way things are arranged matters a great deal. The new OS so thoroughly outshines the old that after using it for a few weeks, you'll remember what it was like to be in love with your PC.
What's so great about Windows 7? For starters, it offers everything you want in an OS: Programs load and run quickly, your computer pretty much never crashes, and the system mostly stays out of your way. This last point represents a major improvement over Vista, which used to interrupt your work repeatedly to ask whether you really, truly wanted to do that thing you just asked it to do. Windows 7 also gets along well with a wide range of third-party peripherals, offering quick, easy connectivity to printers, music players, and other gadgets of all sorts—another big plus over Vista. The OS has a fast and accurate built-in search engine that easily finds all of your documents and programs. Plus, it's visually arresting—in many small, beautiful ways, Microsoft's engineers have polished up the Vista design, creating an interface that feels fresh even after you've been at it for eight hours straight.
But my favorite thing about Windows 7 is the way it helps you navigate an overcrowded screen. Using a computer often feels like a slog; work at a PC long enough during the day, and it's bound to get slow and annoyingly messy. You'll have countless open windows strewn all over your desktop, important files scattered across your hard drive, and beeping, flashing balloons trying to get your attention every few minutes. Over the years, Apple has been the leader in offering ways to deal with a cluttered machine. But in Windows 7, Microsoft pulls ahead.