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.
Consider the new OS's very smart file-management system, called Libraries. These virtual folders corral files with the same characteristics from different places on your hard drive—say, office documents, or photos—into a single index. This way, when you click the Photos library, you see all your pictures in one place, even though the actual files may be all over your machine. This sounds trivial, but it's extremely helpful when you add stuff to your machine. Say you've just downloaded a set of photos, and now you'd like to edit them. Normally you'd have to navigate over to your Downloads folder to open the files in your photo editor; with Libraries, you just click the Photos library and they're all there, regardless of where you downloaded them on your machine.
Windows 7's showstopper feature is its new Taskbar—the menu on the bottom of the screen that lets you launch programs and manage open windows. To be sure, the Taskbar borrows much of its look and feel from the Mac's Dock, but it's better in a few amazing ways. One innovation, called Aero Peek, lets you find the right window even if your screen is drowning in little boxes. Imagine you've got several Firefox windows open and are looking for the one pointed to Yahoo News. Under previous versions of Windows, finding the right one would have taken half a minute. With Aero Peek, all you do is run your mouse over the Firefox icon, and you'll see thumbnail versions of all the open Firefox windows. Even better, if you hold your mouse over the thumbnail, you see that window in full size—and everything else on the screen disappears. Finding that Yahoo page is a breeze. (Here's a video demo of how this works.)
Each item in the Taskbar also comes equipped with a feature Microsoft calls Jump Lists—lists of actions specific to the program you're clicking on. For example, right-click on the Word icon in the Taskbar and you'll see a list of recent documents; click one to open it. Right-click on the Chrome icon and you'll be presented with a list of your most-visited Web sites.
Mac fans will point out that their OS includes many of the features I've talked up here. That's true, but I often found Windows' implementation of such features more intuitive than the Mac OS's take. For example, the Mac's Smart Folders feature lets you create something like Windows 7's Libraries. But the Windows version is more customizable—and thus more useful—than the Mac's. The Mac OS has long included Exposé, a very useful trick that shrinks all the windows on your screen to thumbnails, and Snow Leopard introduced Dock Exposé, a feature that is very similar to Aero Peek. To get Dock Exposé to work, you've got to click and hold the icon, which is slower and less natural than simply holding your cursor over it. Many people like to switch between programs using the Alt + Tab keys in Windows, or the Command + Tab keys in the Mac—but as you switch in Windows, your screen shows you each full-size window by itself on the screen, not just the program's icon that you see on the Mac. And finally, for power users, Windows 7 is chock-full of extremely useful keyboard shortcuts that let you show, hide, and launch apps without ever reaching for the mouse.
To be sure, these are small differences. But that's exactly the point. Over the last few years, while Apple seemed to be adding new innovations to its OS at a record clip, Windows users have been forced to toil on machines far behind the cutting edge. With Windows 7, that's no longer the case. Now the two operating systems are roughly equal, and your choice of platforms should depend less on a comparison of features than on price, taste, and the hardware available on the machine.
While Microsoft deserves kudos for creating such a great program, the company would do well to keep its celebrations short. Whatever monetary successes Windows 7 achieves, the software represents a dying breed. The desktop OS is besieged from all sides: More and more of our applications now run on the Web, and the idea of running huge, complex, and expensive personal systems will, in time, seem strange. Meanwhile, we're moving away from desktop computers altogether—and Microsoft lags behind Apple, Google, RIM, and others in creating a viable platform for mobile phones and other small devices. Windows 7 is a crowning achievement, but the kingdom ain't what it used to be.