Windows PC users can hold their heads up high again—after the Vista fiasco, Microsoft needed a big win, and Windows 7 might just be the ticket. In fact, you could say that this is the Windows operating system we’ve been waiting for.
Is Windows 7 Right for Your Business?
There may be a lot of reasons to switch to Windows 7 at home, but what about at work? Naturally, businesses big and small have been thinking about whether to upgrade to the new operating system. Some analysts say it’s inevitable for businesses that skipped Windows Vista and stuck with XP—if they want to keep up, they’ll have to consider Windows 7 as computers continue to age.
So does Windows 7 make it worth giving up that well-known-if-not-loved XP? What are the benefits and drawbacks specific to SMBs? Take a look at our reasons for and against the upgrade. The points that follow may help you make a decision that impacts your workday for the better. First the reason for an upgrade.
Yes, You Should Upgrade to Win 7:
You can still use XP apps. If you need Windows 7 speeds but have applications that only run on eight-year-old Windows XP, XP Mode can save you. This free, downloadable add-on for the Pro, Enterprise, and Ultimate versions of Windows 7 lets your old programs run as if native to Windows 7. XP Mode does not require a separate, licensed copy of XP. Sure, you can accomplish the same thing with third-party software, but that’ll cost you.
Better search. If you’re an organizational pro, you never need to search your hard drive. But the chance that all your employees are equally gifted is about as likely as Steve Ballmer using an iPhone. Search is the killer app on the Web, and Windows 7 might finally have made it so in the OS. Vista integrated a search box throughout the interface; you’ll find one in the Start menu, the control panel, and Windows Explorer. In Windows 7, it’s the results that count. You can narrow the returns on the fly when you get too many. The search bar retains a history of what you’ve looked for, so you can quickly find things again. There’s a better preview available for search results, as well. Finally, you don’t have to worry about employees being organized when it comes to digital data.
Your driver is here. Older systems had a hard time with Vista upgrades due to lack of driver support for the hardware. Heck, so did some newer systems. That’s unlikely to be the case with Windows 7. It has more in common with Vista than not, and Vista’s had lots of time to get all the hardware support it needs. Better yet, Windows 7 is designed to go directly to the driver download pages of major vendors if a compatible driver isn’t found.
DirectAccess may be the best access. DirectAccess is just that: direct access to your business network from anywhere, via secured tunneling using IPsec and IPv6—without the use of a trusted virtual private network (VPN). Don’t worry about IPv6 costs—Windows 7 comes with IPv6-to-IPv4 transition technology that integrates with current networks. It’s a whole new way for connecting securely. The catch: Your network has to run Windows Server 2008 R2, so this solution won’t work for offices without dedicated IT staff. If you do have Windows Server, it’ll only take you a few clicks to connect clients via the Web. It’s significantly easier than setting up a VPN server. Users can be authenticated with Active Directory, so the Windows 7 solution not only provides network permissions, but can push software updates to users as if they’re connected to the business intranet.
Better enterprise features. There’s a lot of good stuff in Windows 7 Enterprise (which is essentially Windows 7 Ultimate bundled on corporate OEM systems) besides DirectAccess, specifically for security and management. That includes BitLocker, which encrypts entire hard drives, and BitLocker to Go, which does the same on removable USB flash drives. AppLocker lets IT pros specify exactly what programs are run on Windows 7 systems, so users can’t bring in games from home. And more languages are supported. None of these features need Windows Server 2008 R2 to function, but it is necessary to have Server 2008 if you want to use the Windows 7 Advance Group Policy Management 4.0 tools to control them from afar.
Less user annoyance This might be subjective, but anyone who used Vista at all to install a program knows the heart-stopping fear that hit when a screen went blank for a split second. But instead of a crash, it was a feature, not a bug, part of the User Account Control (UAC) that forced you to approve installation of programs (among other things). UAC is still in Windows 7, but it’s far less intrusive. Plus the control panel for it got infinitely simpler, with just a slider-bar to indicated just how much control it should have.
64 whole bits. Not that you couldn’t get a 64-bit version of Vista, but every box with Windows 7 comes with both the 32- and the 64-bit version inside. You’ll want the latter if your hardware can support it. 64-bit will work, for example, with more than 4GB of RAM; if you’ve got an older CPU and less RAM than that, don’t bother. You only get one activation key, however, even if it looks like there are two versions of the OS in the box. (Use the free SecurAble utility to determine if your system can even handle a 64-bit OS. Microsoft also offers an Upgrade Advisor.)
Less useless bloatware. Say good-bye to unused extras like Windows Mail or Movie Maker. You’ll have to get them from Window Live’s Web site in the future—if you even want them. That won’t stop system vendors from shoving some shovelware onto your company computers if you get them at retail; for that, use The PC Decrapifier for a pre-use cleanup.
More work time. Windows 7 boots up several seconds faster than Vista on identical hardware. That’s precious time during which your employees can be productive! Okay, that’ll last only a while, until installing new software and everyday use slow down start time, but with the right hardware, Windows 7 should zing along plenty fast in all uses.
No, Keep Your Biz With XP:
No learning curve. There’s a hidden cost when you upgrade users to an OS with as many significant interface changes as Windows 7: training. Windows 7 is a looker and features big improvements, especially over XP. But, after almost a decade, users know XP backwards and forwards and getting them up to speed on Windows 7 might take time your company can’t afford. Even programs like WordPad and MSPaint have a new interface (the Ribbon from Microsoft Office 2007), which could make some users apoplectic.
XP updates until 2014. You might feel you have to upgrade to Windows 7 because eventually Microsoft will stop patching XP for security and other issues. And it will. But do you consider five years from now soon? If you’re happy with XP (and can live without the tech support from Microsoft, which ended earlier this year), why change?
No direct XP upgrades. Think you can just pop a Windows 7 disc into a system and upgrade the OS but leave your software and data intact? Think again. Microsoft is only allowing “in-place” upgrades from Vista—XP users have to format their drives and do a clean install. LapLink has an elegant solution, iYogi, for one, is offering “migration assistance” to help move data (but not programs), but either will cost you money and time to use. If you’re okay with the nuke-and-boot-and-reinstall scenario, do it; why upgrade and wonder if XP is responsible for new Windows 7 problems?
New hardware needed. You’ve been running XP for years just fine on computers that were the top of the line in 2001. The chances of them supporting Windows 7 are slim. We’re not talking just upgrading a couple of components—it’s going to be time to get all-new systems, which can be costly, even if computers are cheaper today. Remember, at the very least, you need 1GB of RAM and 16GB of disk space just to install the 32-bit version of Windows 7. You need even more RAM and disk space to go 64-bit or to run XP Mode. Furthermore, installation from disc requires a DVD drive. You can get around that requirement, however, by copying the files to a bootable USB flash drive; instructions are available online in various places, including here. Slipstreaming the install on to a USB drive has the added bonus of giving you the same Windows 7 image to put on all the company computers.
The advances coming out of Windows 7 may be more evolution than revolution, but that doesn’t mean they’re not great for your company if you’ve got the right equipment, and the money to buy it, and users capable of handling the change. If so, take the plunge. You’ll likely find the upgraded OS has an interface, security, search, and more to like. But if you don’t like it, be sure to let us know.
Windows 7 Tops Vista in Performance
There have been some media reports, much of them instigated by utility developer Iolo, that claim Windows 7 boots up more slowly than Vista. After testing, however, the new OS starts up significantly faster than Vista on the same machine. And it’s not just faster in boot time, but on a number of other benchmarks. Most users will experience noticeable performance improvement if they upgrade from Vista.
In the past, Microsoft operated under the assumption that PCs will continually get faster and more powerful, so it was less concerned about growing and slowing the code. Windows 7 is different. Despite the abundance of new user interface, convenience, and networking features added in Windows 7, performance has actually been improved.
Installing Windows 7 on your old hardware
The majority of desktop PCs bought since 2006 should be able to run Windows 7 fine, particularly if you bought with future-proofing in mind. If your PC is older than 2004, then you should run the Upgrade Advisor to test your system. Microsoft’s tool will let you know if you need a minor upgrade (more hard drive space, more memory, discrete graphics), or if it’s a lost cause (too slow processor, older integrated graphics with no upgrade slot). Remember, there’s no shame if you keep XP running or maybe try out Linux to freshen up that old system.