Windows 7 RC1 Impressions: The Laptop

by Rafael Hernandez on May 7, 2009 · 1 comment

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Microsoft’s Windows 7 has been analyzed from every angle imaginable, given the free reign the developers have had in order to keep end-users in the loop, with all of their blogging and whatnot, it’s not surprising that you’ll know more about the operating system than you know about yourself.

To the uninitiated it’d seem like it’s all spit-polish on a less than optimal predecessor but there are genuine improvements and usability changes that bring its power as on OS to the forefront.

Here’s our look at how Windows 7 Release Candidate 1 handles itself on the mobile workhorse: the laptop.


dv6768se.jpgIf you’ve purchased one within the past two to three years you’ll probably know the sort of notebook we’re describing. It comes with a dual-core CPU, 2GB or so of DDR2 memory, and your choice of low-power integrated or discrete graphics chip. If that sounds familiar you’ll probably keep your machine in service for another few years and you’re probably going to consider Windows 7 as an upgrade.

Our test system fits the mold nicely. HP’s Pavilion dv6768se has served as this author’s faithful companion on overseas flights and plenty of car, train, and subway trips over the last year. Despite its prissy looks it’s held up quite well and I envision it sticking around at least a few more years. Given my attachment to the machine and the headaches getting XP to play nicely with it a Windows 7 installation isn’t something to be taken lightly.

You won’t be able to pry it from my hands.

The Specs:

AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-60 @ 2.0 GHz
2GB Dual Channel DDR2 Memory @ 667MHz
NVIDIA GeForce 8400M GS 256MB
250GB 5400RPM Hard Drive
Conexant HD Audio SmartAudio 221

Atheros AR5007 802.11B/G Wireless Adapter
All standard fare for a machine made around a year and a half ago.

Some Background

Windows Vista Home Premium is a nice enough operating system. It’s flashier than XP and supports DirectX 10 and all manner of audio stack changes that are sure to make your computer play insanely awesome gaming titles with amazing graphics and sound…on a full-blown desktop or purpose built gaming laptop. There’s no real need to have most of the Media Center options on a notebook and, while DX10 is great, gaming isn’t exactly a strong suit on laptops outside of those high-end monsters of gaming. Sure you can get your World of Warcraft and Sims 2 gaming on but not much else.

So the downgrade to a copy of XP began…

There’s something to be said about companies that don’t supply drivers to end-users, words that aren’t especially polite or repeatable. It’ll save you support costs, and allow you to deflect blame to whatever poor sap OEM decided to use your chips, but it’ll send customers in search of hardware with something other than your products in them.

That’s the story with Conexant’s audio chip. Under XP it’s a nightmare in order to find drivers that will properly support it. The ones you can find either don’t work at all or play audio through your system’s speakers even though you have headphones plugged in. Days will pass and you’ll eventually find ones that work correctly, maybe.

The same gripe could extend to NVIDIA’s support for the graphics chip and system chipset in this notebook, not that they hide drivers from end-users but they can’t seem to support certain manufacturer’s systems under XP (contract obligations? oversight?), but it’s easy enough to find work-arounds as a PC enthusiast. A novice user will run into issues but, hey, they’ll get a grand learning experience in dealing with frustrating driver hunts.

Drivers Beware

One of Vista’s early setbacks was driver support. The quality and quantity of which was so abysmal that it no doubt gave the OS its bad rap. Can’t blame a user for feeling the way they do if something so basic and important just isn’t there for them.

This time around Microsoft twisted arms and got hardware manufacturers on the ball when it comes to driver support, or at least that’s how it appears to be. The fresh Windows 7 install had my trusty notebook running with all of its major components supported, even audio (take that Conexant!). There was no running back to another PC to download wireless drivers, and a quick trip to Windows Update had a number of newer drivers and drivers for the last few bits of unsupported hardware waiting for me.

Audio was now being handled by Microsoft’s default HD Audio supporting driver, headphone jack sensing and all, and while there is a Conexant driver available for download given the previous driver nightmares* I chose to ignore it for now. *Also spite.

Of course there is one minor problem, namely with my laptop’s media control bar, which requires a driver to tell it when the speaker mute light should blue or red. That’s all really. So the probability of getting your notebook up and running with a new install is a pretty good bet with Windows 7.

The Windows 7 Experiment

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Trippy backgrounds are now included

We’ll skip right over the installation process, you don’t really care for that sort of stuff now do you?

First impressions are a funny thing. Sure the operating system looks clean and sleek after a fresh install, and it’s a fair sight prettier than XP’s simplified UI, but does it still feel new and fresh the next day?

Yes it does. Seriously.

It’s all of the OS’s elements fitting together nicely, a feeling of integration that XP and even Vista never had. It’s not that the applications it ships with are specifically tied to each other but they do look, act, and feel like they belong there.

There’s plenty of evidence that they’ve worked hard on the user interface and improving on application response time. Even if a program is running just as slow or slower than it is on XP there’s no lack of visual cues telling you that yes the OS is working on it and that you should hold your horses. There’s less of that feeling of impatience while using Windows 7 than would be with XP or Vista.

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Clarkson is dumbfounded at how quickly you’re up and running.

Windows 7′s media support is impressive, for a Microsoft release. DivX/XviD support is in as is DVD playback but some of the more exotic file containers and codecs will still require a quick trip to their respective download pages. Yes this means Apple Quicktime.

Of note is some of the applications that are usually bundled with Windows seemingly missing from Windows 7. Messenger, Outlook Express, Windows Movie Maker are no longer included but they can easily be downloaded from Microsoft’s Windows Live Essentials webpage (http://download.live.com/). A better way to handle things given just how outdated pre-loaded apps tend to get over the years.

As for the learning curve, there’s none to speak of really. If you’re jumping from XP some of the configuration dialogs have changed a bit but, for the most part, it’s all very easy to figure out.

In general use Windows 7 on the notebook has been performing very well. The system itself seems to run quite a bit cooler than it did under XP. That could be related to better power saving profiles or smoothed out CPU and GPU processing requirements allowing them to stay at lower clock speeds for longer periods of time.

It does feel like a brand new laptop, all of the driver hassles have been long forgotten since most everything is working straight out of a fresh install. The feeling that its a well put together piece of software can’t be understated. The OS gives this system that new gadget vibe which is a big deal knowing the usage this workhorse has seen.

The Rub

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Gloriousness in IE8….not that we’d use it, but it’s nice to look at.

It performs very well for a modern operating system on “older hardware”, its features are compelling, driver support is certainly there, and with no real learning curve you can jump right in. The question is: Will it be worth it?

Absolutely. Sure the initial purchase will be somewhat pricey, it may even be a better option to put that money towards a notebook purchase that comes preinstalled with it in the future, but given how much you use a Windows operating system its price divided by years of usage will show it’s a cheap proposition.

If you plan on sticking with your machine you’ll be bypassing eight years of XP patches and service packs in one fell swoop while benefitting from tons of optimization and usability enhancements. You’ll also be getting built-in support for technology that your notebook may have shipped with that XP has only been piece-meal extended to work with.

On the Vista side of the equation, well Windows 7 is “more responsive” on this test system. In all likelyhood Vista may just be a few percentage points slower or faster than Windows 7 in computing tasks but 7 tends to better mask hitching and loading so the psychological advantage goes to Windows 7. Perception is reality after all so I’d go for the upgrade as well in this instance.

This was just a short look at my trial with the Release Candidate. Things may change once the OS ships but, in its current state, it’s an excelent and well organized operating system without all of the frustrations you’d normally expect from a Windows OS.

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