If you're feeling adventuresome, you can get a jump on the rest of the world by being one of the first to try out Windows 7, the next version of Windows. I've tested out the beta version for the last few months and, so far, my experience has been quite positive.
Microsoft still hasn't announced the date of the final commercial version of the upcoming operating system, though it's widely expected to be out by the end of this year. But Microsoft is allowing anyone to download and install a free copy of the operating system so it can be tested on a wide range of machines. Windows 7 RC, as it's called, was made available for public testing May 4threlease candidate and will be available for free "at least through July" to those willing to go through a few hurdles.
Getting set up
Microsoft is recommending that you install Windows 7 on a dedicated test PC, admonishing users not to test it on your primary home or business PC. I have a confession. I ignored that advice and tested the first beta and the release candidate on the machine I mainly use for work. Having said that, I'm a very experienced PC user, I back up my data daily, and I have other machines I can rely on if there is a problem. Installing any new operating system--especially one that's not officially released or supported--can be risky, so if you do install Windows 7, be sure you have a complete backup of your system; back up your data regularly and have a plan of action should something fail.
First you have to download a 2.36-gigabyte file, which could take a considerable amount of time depending on your Internet speed and how busy the download servers are at the time. What you download is an ISO file that must be burned to a DVD before you can install it on a machine, so be sure your PC has a DVD burner and you have a blank DVD handy. Microsoft says your machine will need a 1 GHz or faster CPU, at least 1 GB of RAM (I recommended at least 2 GB), and at least 16 GB of available disk space (more is better). The 64-bit version has higher requirements.
You can install Windows 7 over Vista but not earlier versions of Windows. For best performance, I recommend a "clean install," which requires that you re-install all your software when you're done. In theory this can be done without destroying the data on your disk, but I would never dream of installing an operating system without first backing up all of my data.
The installation process went very smoothly for me and, when it was done, most of my hardware worked properly thanks to Windows 7's built-in drivers. Most simply installed automatically. I had to manually install my printer drivers, but even they were included with the operating system. It discovered my Brother laser printer on my network and installed it without my having to download any new drivers. It also recognized my keyboard and dual monitors. The built-in Windows driver for the IDT sound adapter on my Intel motherboard installed basic features but didn't give me as much control over settings as Intel's drivers. However, I was able to download and install them from Intel's Web site.
So far, all of the programs I've tested work. There were a few that gave me a bit of trouble at first but right-clicking on a program's icon brings up the Windows 7 "troubleshoot compatibility" tool that usually takes care of things. The one big problem I had was installing the plug-in to watch videos on ABC.com. Before it would let me download the software, it kept telling me that I had to upgrade my operating system to XP or Vista. It saw that I wasn't using an approved operating system and refused to let me try. But I solved that problem by downloading it to another (Vista) PC and copying the file over to my Windows 7 machine where it installed just fine.
My favorite feature in Windows 7 is the taskbar, which not only displays running programs but lets you "pin" frequently used programs so you can run or switch to them with a single click. When you hover your mouse over an icon of a program that's running, you see thumbnails of all the open windows for that program. If you move the mouse into the thumbnail, it grows much larger. Click on that larger window and you're in the program. This feature makes it a lot easier to navigate between documents or Web sites. With Firefox, you only see one tab per window, but Internet Explorer shows all the tabs, which is quite nice. In fact, that feature caused me to start using Internet Explorer 8 (which comes with Windows 7) and I'm starting to like it a lot more. I read the reviews that say Firefox 3 is faster than Explorer 8, but with my cable modem connection I don't see any noticeable difference, and Internet Explorer seems to be a less prone to crashes.
I'm also liking the Libraries feature that you can access from the navigation pane in any folder. Libraries are virtual folders that, by default, provide access to documents, photos, and other media files without having to navigate through a hierarchy of folders. You can use this to add links to additional folders on your machine, a network server, or another machine on the network. For instructions on how to use libraries, see this post on Windows Live.
Although an improvement over previous versions, it still retains some of Windows' annoying attributes. For one thing, it will slow down over time. My brand new RC installation is quite fast but by the time I used the beta for a few months, it was starting to get a bit sluggish (that's called "windows rot"). That's been the case with every version of Windows so far, and Windows 7 doesn't seem to be an exception. Still, it's noticeably faster than Vista which is at least a step in the right direction. Also, as with earlier versions, it sometimes doesn't properly close programs that have crashed. There have been times when I've had to turn off the PC to recover from a program's crash.
For a lot more details on Windows see Ed Bott's excellent write-up on ZDNet.