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Windows 7: first look – quite impressed

August 11, 2009

I have steered well clear of Windows Vista. I managed to buy one of the last PCs with Windows XP MCE installed – in fact that’s what I’m using now. I’ve advised friends, colleagues, clients and even people in pubs I’ve never met before to stick with XP and not move to Vista. It has a reputation as a memory and processor hog, and Microsoft continued to indulge their corporate passion for moving menu items around just when everyone had worked out where to find them!

So it’ll come as a shock to those of my friends who had put me down as a luddite who was going to stick with XP until hell froze over to find that I’ve downloaded and installed the Windows 7 release candidate (RC). Admittedly not onto my main machine, but onto the spare PC in my office.

This is my old desktop machine, vintage about 2004. It started life as an XP Home Edition Fujitsu-Siemens (F-S) Scaleo with 256Mb of memory in which there was a Radeon 9000 graphics card I used to drive twin monitors. Over the years things have broken or been replaced. First the power supply failed, then the graphics card, then the DVD-ROM drive, each of which I duly replaced, and I’ve added 1Gb of memory. Then the hard drive failed so I replaced and rebuilt it. So actually I have a case and a motherboard that was supplied by F-S. Anyway I thought I’d use this machine to try Windows 7.

How have I got on?

Well first I ran the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor. Useful. It did point out where I might hit problems, but its overall conclusion was that I could actually install it. This was a bit of a surprise since F-S wouldn’t support Vista on this machine. But Microsoft said I was on my own with the RC, and clearly I was on my own as far as F-S was concerned, so I pressed ahead.

First I ran Casper (a fine utility… don’t know what I’d do without it) to make a complete image of my 80Gb drive onto a spare drive – if all else fails I can boot Casper from CD and put the old image back.

Then I downloaded the Windows 7 RC DVD ISO file and burned it onto a disc. Fortunately my copy of NTI Media Maker burns discs from ISO files (although W7 Upgrade Advisor reports it as incompatible with W7, so ironically it’s allowing me to burn a DVD which will make the software obselete). I booted the machine from the W7 DVD only to discover that you can’t upgrade directly from XP to W7: you have to run a migration tool that saves a bunch of settings to an external drive (CD, USB disk or memory stick) which you can then reinstall later. This involves booting the machine from its own hard drive, navigating to the appropriate file on the DVD, and starting the utility. Once it’s run you can then run the setup which wipes the selected partition and starts the installation of W7.

The installation is reasonably straightforward. It’s actually easier than the XP install because it requires fewer manual inputs as it goes along so you can largely leave it to its own devices.

Now you’ve installed Windows 7, what next?

Well much to my surprise it booted. I then put the migration file back so it looked a bit like my old environment, and then it started whingeing about some of the hardware. There were three major things that didn’t work: the graphics card was running as a standard VGA (admittedly it would happily run at 1280×1024) but my second monitor appeared only as a copy of the first and there was no way I could extend the desktop onto it. My Advent USB webcam would simply not work, and although the sound card (on the motherboard) said it was working properly, no sound emerged from the speakers. Perversely my USB phone handset leapt straight into life and W7 set it as the default device, so at least I could hear something.

I’ve given up on the Advent USB camera. I can’t find any sort of Vista driver for it. It wasn’t expensive and it’ll work with my laptop (XP Pro) so I unplugged that one.

Graphics card hell

Then I set about the graphics card. It’s a Gigabyte Radeon 9200. It’s obselete and doesn’t even have Vista drivers, so there’s no hope of it working properly under W7. But I like my dual monitors and would like to get them working again. The real problem is that the 2004-vintage motherboard has a 4x AGP graphics card slot. The world has now moved to PCI-Express without my noticing. I wasn’t expecting that finding a suitable graphics card with W7 or Vista drivers would be so hard. AGP’s almost vanished. Those cards that do exist are 8x with no firm guarantee that they’re designed to drop to 4x in a venerable motherboard such as mine.

In the short term I’ve unplugged the Radeon 9200 at which point the onboard VGA driver leapt into life and works slightly better at the same resolution using the default drivers. I have ordered, from some bloke on Amazon Marketplace, a PowerColor X1650PRO AGP card which seems, based on other reports, to work correctly under W7 with the latest driver. It hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s clear from messages on both the Radeon and PowerColor websites that the W7 driver for this card is its last, and that it’s effectively obselete after that.

Update: PowerColor card arrived and I eagerly installed it. I’m not disappointed – Windows 7 found the driver straight away, installed both primary and secondary and after a reboot I have full functionality on both screens. Great. Now to try and get Aero working…

And how did graphics cards get so expensive? I’m not a gamer, so I can only presume that the graphics card after-market is entirely dominated by cash rich teenagers living with Mum and Dad, for whom spending as much on a graphics card as my entire system cost isn’t a problem. Perhaps the credit crunch explains why the graphics card shelf at my local PC World is mostly shelf and not much card…

The soft stuff

So I installed some software. Kaspersky antivirus. 2009 is reported as being “compatible” on the Microsoft website. But it’s not, ’cause when you install it W7 acknowledges that it’s there but says that since it doesn’t use the new way of talking to the operating system the OS can’t know whether it’s up to date. So just to be sure it complains that it isn’t even when it is. Upgrading to 2010 solved that.

Microsoft Office 2003 installed perfectly and authenticated itself online. Much to my surprise a very old copy of Adobe Photoshop Elements also installed perfectly. Browsers galore – IE8 comes with the W7 installation, then I added FireFox and Chrome. No problem. Configuring remote access, changing workgroups and user privileges was a breeze. Easy to use, nice interface, great graphics. I’m beginning to like this.

And then there was sound

More to the point no there wasn’t. W7 said I had an Intel 81801 AC’97 sound card and that it had installed the best drivers for it. But still no sound emerged from the speakers. I spent hours trying to find an alternative driver but without any success at all. Every attempt ended up with W7 saying I already had the best driver.

In the end I resorted to the F-S website. I know they don’t support Vista, but I was clutching at straws here. I downloaded the latest XP sound card driver and tried installing it – I could always rollback to the existing non-working driver if all else failed. The F-S driver was for a SoundMax audio. Anyway much to my surprise it installed (all previous attempts at installing XP drivers for anything had failed) and then, lo, there was a mighty noise from the speakers and it worked. Blimey. Only slight problem is that the microphone muting isn’t retained after a reboot, and the noise/feedback’s a bit irritating until the system has loaded sufficiently for me to mute the microphone.

So?

Well it works, mostly. And because it’s the Ultimate Edition I can now Remote Desktop into it, which I could never do with XP Home. I like it. I think it’s quicker than XP Home, although I haven’t done any scientific benchmarks to prove it. Now it drives both monitors I like it even better. And I’ve yet to try to install Adobe Acrobat 6, which the upgrade advisor says will be a problem. But overall I think it’s a vast improvement on Vista, both graphically and on the use of machine resources. Microsoft have a lot riding on this operating system – they need a winner, and I think they may just have pulled it off.

2 comments

  1. Windows 7: first look – quite impressed .Thanks for nice post.I added to my twitter.


  2. […] But the computer’s more than four years old, and now the spectre of Windows Vista is no longer stalking the land, I decided it was time for another upgrade. I bought myself a decent spec, quad-core, 64-bit Windows 7 PC for a fraction under £400. But that’s another story, and as those few who follow my rants will know, I’m already familiar with Windows 7. […]



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