Starting Oct. 22, PC users can get their hands on the official release of Microsoft's newest operating system, Windows 7.
I've been beta testing various pre-release versions of Windows 7 for several months, and I was given a copy of the final "release to manufacturer" (RTM) code, which, barring any unforeseen changes, should be identical to what customers can purchase in October.
Based on what I've experienced up to this final version, I have to say that this is a worthwhile upgrade - whether you are using Windows XP or Windows Vista.
Windows Vista has gotten - justified or not - plenty of bad press, but I don't expect that to happen with Windows 7. For one thing, when Vista came out, a lot of the hardware out there wasn't powerful enough to run it well. Another issue is compatibility. Microsoft fielded many complaints about programs and devices not working well with Vista. Based on what I've seen, Windows 7 should have a lot fewer hardware and compatibility issues.
Vista users will be able to upgrade their machines to Windows 7 without having to re-install their applications. XP users can also upgrade but will have to re-install all their programs. In both cases, Windows 7 will preserve their data files. However, it's strongly recommended to back up data, since there's a significant risk of losing data during the new OS installation. Microsoft is offering a free "Upgrade Advisor" that you can use to see if your computer can run Windows 7.
My favorite Windows 7 feature is the new taskbar at the bottom of the screen which lets you "pin" programs to it for easy access. If a program isn't running, single clicking on its taskbar icon starts it. Once running, you can hover over its icon to see thumbnails of all open windows. If you hover over a thumbnail, you see a full-screen preview of the window and if you click on it, it jumps to the foreground. You can right click on any taskbar icon to see a list of files recently used by that program and click on any you wish to open.
If you're using the Internet Explorer 8 browser, you can click on its icon to preview all open tabs. I like this feature so much that I've switched to Internet Explorer from Firefox.
Windows 7 makes it easier to install and manage devices such as printers, scanners and remote drives. I actually forgot about installing my printer but Windows did it for me automatically.
Windows 7 also has features for touch-screen PCs, including tablet PCs. The feature makes Windows 7 machines feel like an iPod. For example, you'll be able to pinch your fingers to zoom images or windows in or out.
The most confusing aspect of Windows 7 is the number of versions out there. Microsoft is releasing a Starter version, Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate - as well as versions for PC makers (OEM) and large enterprises. There are both 32-bit and 64-bit versions.
Most machines you buy with Vista now can be upgraded to Windows 7 for free. Amazon is now taking pre-orders for various flavors of Windows 7 starting at $120 for the Home Premium upgrade edition. However, I recommend shopping around closer to the Oct. 22 release date.