Living with Windows 7

Keith’s review of Windows 7 after living with it for almost a month.

So, I’ve been living with my new computer for almost a month now, and that’s given me plenty of time to become familiar with the changes that came with Windows 7.

Previously, I’d only played around with Windows 7 through the betas and release candidates in a virtual machine – which, by its very nature, lacked the power to really let Windows 7 shine.

My new computer, on the other hand, has enough “oomph” to let me turn on all the bells & whistles so I can see how they work and which ones I like. This has allowed me to really get a “feel” for Windows 7 – arguably in an even better way than I did with Vista on my old computer.

So far, I have to say that I am very pleased.

If you’ve read any other Windows 7 reviews, you’ve probably read a lot of praise on how Windows 7 is a great leap forward, it’s so nice, etc.

Well, those people weren’t lying.

Windows 7 is incredibly polished. I’m sort of a details person, so these little details, the “fit & finish” of Windows 7 really impress me.

In any case, let’s get down to the details – in a nice, convenient list format:

  • Multitasking: you need a true multi-core CPU to get the benefits of this, but Windows 7 does a superb job of running lots and lots of programs all at once without any sort of trouble between them. And if one program goes down, you can just kill it and keep on truckin’ – no reboot required.
  • Stability: Windows 7  has so far been incredibly stable for me – and I tend to push my computers hard, so I’m one to know. Of course, part of this is due to the fact that I’m running the 64-bit version, and the 64-bit versions of Windows don’t allow “unsigned” drivers. And since device drivers are often the biggest contributor to instability in Windows, the fact that only “signed” drivers are allowed means that (overall) the quality of drivers is much higher – which means, in turn, that Windows is more stable.
  • UAC: My biggest gripe in Windows Vista was the UAC prompts that would pop up in various places – most annoying to me, personally, was when I tried to drag & drop to re-arrange folders in my start menu (I like to have my start menu nice & neat). If the folder or icon I was dragging & dropping was in the “All users” branch of the start menu, I’d get a UAC prompt when moving it. It was just incredibly annoying. In Windows 7 these prompts come up less often, which makes me very happy!
  • New Task bar: This is one place where I found myself unhappy with the default Windows 7 behavior, which is to show programs in the task bar by icon only (even when the program is open). I like being able to read the title of a window at a glance, without having to mouse over it, so I turned that functionality off. Plus, having the task bar buttons be full-sized with titles helps visually distinguish (even more) between running programs and programs that are just “pinned” to the task bar.
  • Glass Effects: speaking of the task bar, if you hover your mouse over open programs, you’ll see that the sort of glowing colored highlight follows your mouse pointer – as if your mouse pointer were a light shining on the button. On top of that, the color of the highlight is based on the color of the program’s icon… Niiiiiice. It’s little details like this that really impress me.
  • Aero Peek: Though I think the name is a bit pretentious, it is a handy feature. Basically the evolution of the “show desktop” button in that you can just hover over it, and it will make all open Windows 100% transparent so you can see your desktop (any windows that are not full-screen will show a faint outline so you know where they are). Other than that, the button acts just like the old “show desktop” button – click it once to show the desktop, click it again to restore all windows. Simple and easy, but it’s nice to have it permanently attached to the task bar, so you don’t lose it.
  • Libraries: I’m not exaggerating here – I love libraries. I’d been wishing for some sort of functionality like this for years, without even realizing it – or even being able to describe what I wanted. But libraries deliver. Got a folder with some pictures in it, in some strange location on your computer? Just add it to your “Pictures” library and now it’ll show up as if you had copied it into your “My Pictures” folder – but without actually having to copy it there! And since things like Windows Media Center and so on use libraries (rather than specific folders), it makes managing a music & movie collection so much easier!
  • Windows Media Center: The new UI for Windows Media Center is nice, but I didn’t really mind the UI in Vista either, so this doesn’t really impress me that much. It’s nicer, sure, but not enough for me to sing its praises.
  • Windows Media Center Extender Support: OK, so maybe I will sing the praises of the new Media Center UI – at least, as it applies to Windows Media Center Extenders. Because the new UI applies to these little, under-appreciated, under-powered devices. My Media Center Extender (MCE) hasn’t gotten any faster, but it looks nicer and it works more smoothly than it did when it was connected to a Vista computer. So there’s a bonus there.
  • Media Sharing & “Play To”: In addition to having a Media Center Extender, my new TV also supports the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) standard, which means it can connect to my computer and stream media (pictures, videos, music) from my computer. Under Vista, the only way to get this media was to browse for it from the TV – and the UI was a bit clunky and sometimes crashed! With Windows 7 however, the game has changed. Although the UI for browsing media directly from the TV is still clunky and slow, it is much more stable. And if that’s not your cup of tea, you can play media directly from the PC to the TV by right-clicking a file and choosing “Play To” and then selecting the TV (Windows detects any DLNA devices on the network automatically – though they do have to be turned on first!). There is just something deeply, geekily cool about selecting a video on your computer and then hearing it start to play in the other room!
  • Videos link on the Start Menu: It’s a little thing, but it was always very annoying to me that in Vista there was no “Videos” link option on the Start Menu. You had links to Documents, Pictures, and Music – but no Videos! Thankfully, this little oversight has been corrected in Windows 7. Again, it’s the little things that really add up and make Windows 7 such a pleasure to use.
  • Drag and Drop re-arrange of Task bar buttons: I’m not talking about pinned items, but actual task bar buttons for open programs – you can now drag & drop to re-arrange them as you see fit. Previously, you needed a 3rd party program to enable this feature. It’s not a big deal, but it’s nice if you’ve got a lot of windows open and you want them arranged in a certain order.
  • Volume control for multiple audio devices: Although Windows Vista handled volume control pretty well (you could adjust volume on a per-program basis), Windows 7 takes this even further. Now, most people will only ever have 1 audio device – their main sound card – in their computer, but increasingly you find people with secondary sound cards – maybe a USB headset, like I have (for Skype, etc.). When you click the “Volume” icon in the taskbar, it shows the “main” volume control, same as always. But, if you are using a secondary audio device (like, say, you have Skype open and are using your headset), when you click the “Volume” icon you get two volume sliders – one for the main volume, and one for the secondary device. Nice! You can control the volume for each individually – very handy!

So those are the big new things I’m very happy about with Windows 7. Suffice it to say, if you have the opportunity, I highly recommend you upgrade. Believe me – it is well worth it!

New Year, New Computer

I finally upgraded to a new computer running Windows 7!

Well, I finally made the jump to a new computer.

I’d talked about getting a new computer before (and why I had to get a new computer instead of upgrading, as well as the troubles I’d had trying to use the release candidate), and I’d also been looking forward to using Windows 7 – and now, at long last, I have a new, modern, fast computer with Windows 7 (64-bit, even!)

The system properties window from "Yotsuba," my new computer!

Over the last week I had been slowly installing all of my programs on the new computer, so it would be ready for me to use Windows Easy Transfer to bring my user profile over. (The list of programs I had to re-install filled 2 pages!)

This would be my first time using Windows Easy Transfer, and I was a little bit unsure – after all, my user profile was directory junctioned onto a 2nd hard drive. I had serious doubts as to whether it would pick up everything, or if I’d end up re-creating my profile from scratch (which, by the way, would not be the first time I’d had to do that).

Still, the potential benefits of Windows Easy Transfer (i.e., not having to re-create my profile from scratch) meant that I was willing to give it a shot. So just last night I set up the new computer on a temporary table next to my router (so that both computers could be on and connected to the network at the same time) and fired up Windows Easy Transfer.

Truth be told, it couldn’t be easier. It really did detect everything important. The only downside? A 5+ hour transfer time. But that’s really my fault, since I had 212+ GB of data to transfer!!

Still, that’s why I started it in the evening. I just let it run overnight, and sure enough, when I woke up this morning, my new computer was ready to go, with no errors.

Let’s just say, I am really, really happy!

Here’s the details on what I finally ended up with:

  • Intel Core 2 Quad (Q9400) 2.66 GHz CPU
  • 6 GB RAM
  • 500 GB HDD
  • ATI Radeon 4350 video card
  • Windows 7 (64-bit) Home Premium

Suffice to say, the new computer is quite a bit faster than my old one, even though technically the new computer is running at a slower clock speed!

The hard drive is still the slowest piece of the equation (as it often is in almost all computers these days, unless they utilize one of the new – and very expensive – solid state drives), but other than that, everything else is faster. The graphics card has more muscle, the CPU to RAM bus speed is faster, and of course the CPU is a true multi-core processor – 4 cores, to be exact.

Which leads me to the name of this new computer. Previously, I had named my computers after fictional/mythical places:

  • Home One (the flagship of the rebel fleet in Star Wars)
  • Sanctuary
  • Mobius (the fictional homeworld of Sonic the Hedgehog)
  • Elysion (the roman afterlife)

I had thought long and hard about a name for the new computer that fit with the existing “theme” of my computer names – and perhaps had some relation to the number “4” (for the quad-core CPU). But I couldn’t come up with anything.

However, just as I was getting into bed the night before I transferred all my data over to the new computer, I had an idea for the new computer’s name. After sleeping on it, I decided it was the best name I was going to find, and I liked the way it was a subtle nod to the new computer’s 4 CPU cores.

So, my new computer is named (as you probably saw in the screenshot above): Yotsuba, after the manga character of the same name.

I guess the new name for this computer isn’t that odd – after all, I did name my netbook Ryo-Ohki (after a small, cute little rabbit/cat creature that also just happens to be able to transform into a super-powerful spaceship!).

Now all that’s left to do is just change a few little things here and there – things like organizing folders on my start menu, making sure absolutely everything works, re-configuring Windows Media Center (and my Windows Media Center Extender) and so on.

So far though, so good!

New Computer Time, Again

It’s time for me to upgrade my computer (again) – and the decision on what to get hasn’t gotten any easier!

Once again, it’s time for me to upgrade my computer. Which, thanks to the (unfortunately unique) design of my computer (see my post on “CPU Upgrades – Not As Easy As They Used To Be”) basically means I have to go out and buy a whole new computer.

This is because I need a new motherboard in order to support a newer CPU (i.e., Core 2). But I can’t just upgrade the motherboard in my computer, because the the case is set up for the BTX form factor, and almost all new motherboards are ATX form factor.

So, in order to upgrade my CPU, I need to upgrade my motherboard. In order to upgrade my motherboard, I need a new case (and power supply).

Now, while that might not sound that bad, there’s a few other things to concern myself with. For example, a new motherboard and new CPU should probably be paired with new RAM that runs at the right speed, and a new hard drive would probably be a good idea, since they’re so cheap these days (and given that my old hard drives – as I’ve written about before – have a few glitches).

So, when you factor in a new CPU, motherboard, case, power supply, RAM, and hard drive, you’re basically looking at a whole new computer. But wait, there’s more!

You see, I’d also like to keep my old computer more-or-less intact, because I don’t want to end up with half a computer that I just have to throw away. I’d much rather have an intact old computer that can still do work – like maybe be handed down to someone who needs a new computer (i.e., family).

So a new computer seems to be the way to go. But, how to get that new computer? Buy a pre-built one, or build it myself?

Well, years ago I would have scoffed at anything but the “build it myself” option. But these days, I’m too much out of touch with the technology to trust myself to get it right – especially when I depend on my computer for so much.

Also, the pricing is an issue as well. Although I could build a decent computer (assuming I could figure out which CPU goes with which socket, and which motherboard has the best performance, the right expansion slots, supports the maximum amount of memory I’d like, etc.), when you factor in buying all the parts (and the shipping costs), it comes very, very, very close to the cost of a similarly-equipped pre-built computer.

So once again, I’m going to buy a pre-built computer. From Dell.

Since I work from home, and I’m a software developer, I have slightly different requirements for my computer than the “average” user might. Specifically, I need:

  • Multiple CPU cores (for multi-tasking, compiling, running virtual machines, etc.)
  • High speed components (high clock speed, large CPU cache, high front-side bus speed, fast memory, fast hard drive)
  • Absolutely MUST be 64-bit
  • As much memory as I can afford (6 GB +)
  • A decent sized hard drive (no less than 500 GB)
  • CPU extensions (whether they be Intel’s or AMD’s) for supporting virtualization (because I run virtual machines quite often for testing/development)

I wasn’t stuck specifically on Intel or AMD – in fact, AMD looked quite appealing due to lower thermal output and a competitive price – but in the end, I went with Intel and a Core 2 Quad CPU.

Here’s a handy comparison chart from my old computer to the new one:

Old Computer New Computer
CPU Name: Pentium 4 w/HT Core 2 Quad Q9400
CPU Architecture: “Prescott” “Yorkfield-6M”
CPU Cores: 1 (2 logical) 4
L2 Cache: 1 MB 2 x 6 MB
Clock Speed: 3.2 GHz 2.66 GHz
Front-side bus: 800 MHz 1333 MHz
Thermal Draw: 82W 95W
RAM: 1 GB DDR2 PC4300 + 2 GB DDR2 PC5300 6 GB DDR2 PC6400
HDD: 160 GB + 500 GB 500 GB
Video: ATI Radeon X300 Radeon HD 4350
Video Memory: 32 MB 512 MB

As you can see, the new computer is far from “state of the art” (that would be, as of the time of this writing, a Core i7 based system) but it’s no slouch, either. It’s also the best I can do within the budget I’ve set for myself.

In all the ways that matter, the new computer is faster – faster bus speed, faster memory transfer, faster graphics – and it has more cores, so it can do more at once (which is becoming increasingly important to me as I do things like encoding videos or compling code while running a virtual machine).

Of course, it also goes without saying that the new computer will have Windows 7 – which I was looking forward to as well.

All in all I think I’ll be quite happy with the new computer – although perhaps I’ll change my tune once I’ve gone through the agonizing process of moving my digital life from one computer to another – that is, transferring hundreds of gigabytes of data & user settings, re-installing programs, etc. So, we’ll see how that goes once the computer actually gets here.

Once the computer is here and up & running, I’ll be sure to post again!

Keith’s Logon Screen

My rather… unusual… choice for a Windows logon screen background image.

Everyone loves to customize their computer a little bit, right? And one of the simpler things (well, sort of) that you can do is to replace the Windows Log-On Screen background image.

Like this, for instance:

keith's logon screen

Yes, that’s right – I have put a close-up picture of myself as my Windows log-on screen background image. I am, to use the industry jargon, a huge geek.

I don’t know why I find this image of myself staring (rather intently!) back out at me so amusing, but I do. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that when you log on to my computer, it says “hello” in that creepy voice that the turrets from the game Portal use?

Or maybe I just like the reaction people have when they sit down to use my computer and are faced with… well, me!

Ah well, whatever the reason, it’s not like I see this screen very often – maybe once or twice a month, max.

I Love Living in the Future

We are living in the future, and it is awesome!

Sometimes I have to just stop and be amazed at the things we can do these days – things that would have seemed like futuristic science fiction when I was a kid (or even when I was in college).

For example, just this weekend I was doing some cleaning around the house (cleaning up the bunnies area) and I wanted to have some relaxing, chillout music on while I worked.

For me, the easiest way to accomplish this was to boot up my netbook, hook it into my livingroom stereo (via the same cable I use to hook up my iPod), and just play some streaming music from Shoutcast (the Digitally Imported Chillout Dreams stream, to be exact).

So that is exactly what I did.

netbook + wifi + streaming radio + home stereo = awesome

Simple, easy, and straightforward – and it doesn’t take a whole bunch of complicated steps to get going, nor does it take very long (just long enough for my netbook to boot up – which is pretty fast – and to load the radio stream).

It is just amazing to me that this little computer can sit there, pulling music literally from thin air. And of course, the fact that streaming Internet radio gives me an almost unlimited library of music to pull from doesn’t hurt, either.

Now, while this was pretty darned cool, it did make me think of something that was… not so cool.

I have a Windows Media Center Extender right there, just to the right of the Wii in the picture. And the whole point of the Media Center Extender is to do exactly this sort of thing. So why wasn’t I using it?

Well, the short answer is because it’s too slow, too hard, and it doesn’t work with the streaming radio stations I like. The Media Center Extender takes a long time to boot up (longer than my netbook), the interface is slow and clunky, the remote control is awful, trying to enter text is an exercise in frustration, and getting streaming radio to work on it is… well let’s just say “not easy” and leave it at that. You need to add special add-ins to the Media Center PC (not the Extender), which of course must be downloaded, installed, set up in advance, etc. In the end, it’s just not worth the effort.

(In it’s defense, I don’t think the Media Center Extender was ever meant to work with streaming radio from the Internet – it was meant to stream music from a local Media Center PC instead… but really, if it can do that, it should be able to do both. But I digress…)

Anyway, despite the failings of the Windows Media Center Extender, listening to streaming music in my home while I clean is pretty darned neat.

The future is pretty awesome. I love living in the future!