Microsoft bets on Windows 7 heaven

October 21, 2009

Matthew Bath

-Matthew Bath is technology editor at Which? The opinions expressed are his own.-

Microsoft’s Windows operating system has been frustrating and delighting computer users in almost equal measure since it was first debuted by the software giant first in 1985. Fast forward through nearly a quarter of a century of powering the majority of the world’s personal computers, and Windows is about to hit another milestone.

Windows 7 launches on October 22, worldwide, and it’s safe to say that, as a firm, Microsoft will be collectively crossing fingers and toes that shoppers flock to the new version.

The successor to its Windows Vista operating system, Windows 7 promises to be faster, more reliable and make computing simpler than ever – so much so that like a proud parent, Microsoft hosting worldwide coming-of-age parties to help launch Windows 7 onto PC desktops worldwide.

Yet the key question is whether consumers, already stung by what many found a problematic Windows Vista, are as willing to take a punt on this latest version.

Certainly, it’s chalking up record sales – and Windows 7 has overtaken Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to become the biggest grossing pre-order on Amazon.co.uk of all time, and the online store says demand for the new operating system remains strong.

So why are shoppers pre-ordering in droves? Partly, it’s because Microsoft fumbled the ball with Windows Vista, leaving some users frustrated and fed-up with an operating system that felt sluggish and crash prone. A chance to jump to a shinier ship is welcomed. Partly, last time lots of people stayed away from the Windows Vista party following negative reports, remaining with the perfectly functional Windows XP instead.

The surge in sales tells only part of the story, however. Which? has talked with shoppers who tell us they are confused by Microsoft’s different versions (with six different prices at the last count), and there are lots of questions around whether the upgrade really is worth the hassle.

Certainly, a lot of the features seem fairly cosmetic on the surface, and some will appeal to only a handful of users. If you’re one of the chosen few to own a touchscreen PC and monitor, then the new multi-touch features in Windows 7 will have you clapping (and pinching and swiping) your hands with glee as your monitor turns into the equivalent of an outsized Apple iPhone.

Other features – such as easier home networking and interface tweaks to make navigation simplier are all good, but seem slight. Rather, Microsoft has been significantly reworking the technology that happens under the hood of Windows, making it less crash prone, faster, and hopefully a better experience.

If you’re happily using Windows Vista, though, then there really isn’t a compelling reason to upgrade as the new features are hardly lengthy.

And if you’re using Windows XP, then Microsoft has a different message for you: your PC is unlikely to run Windows 7 well, and you’ll have to fork out for a new computer. That’s an expense in these economic times that many consumers might find a little tough to swallow.

And, finally, amidst all Windows shopping it’s easy to forget that most new operating system launches are hit with bugs, glitches and incompatible software. That’s normal, but not any less frustrating.

So, if you are looking longingly through the Microsoft-shaped window, our advice is clear. Resist the temptation to upgrade straight off the starting blocks and wait for Microsoft and other software makers to find and fix the niggles and bugs, then feel free to jump in to Windows 7.

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