Thursday, February 19, 2015

Windows 10 vs Windows 7 Should you upgrade?

Windows 10 vs Windows 7
Windows 10 vs Windows 7

Should you ditch Windows 7 for Windows 10 later this year?

Even at this early stage we’ve established that Windows 10 is a good deal better than Windows 8 for most desktop PC users. But what if you’re still using Windows 7? Microsoft may be offering a free upgrade to Windows 10, but should you take it or should you stick with what you know? That’s what we’re here to find out.

Windows 10 vs Windows 7 – Performance

One of the least talked about improvements of Windows 8, and subsequently Windows 10, is that it does include a raft of performance upgrades.

Chief among these is bootup time, which is markedly quicker, while better hardware acceleration and a host of other tweaks mean general navigation feels nippier, too. Power management has also been improved, so mobile device battery life tends to be a little longer.

Gaming performance is much more evenly matched, but with Windows 10 will come exclusive access to DirectX 12, which promises to unlock more performance from your existing hardware – read our DirectX 12 vs DirectX 11 comparison for more on that.

It may seem like trivial stuff, but if there’s one single thing that's generally at the heart of the upgrades we make to our computers, it’s performance. So the fact that Windows 10 offers that base-level improvement on top of all its other features is definitely something to be happy about.

Windows 10 vs Windows 7 – Design

Windows 8 marked a stark departure from the styling of Windows 7, with flat windows and bold colours taking over from 3D-looking icons and round-edged and transparent windows.

Windows 10 continues this change, with the flat and bold styling now taking over desktop icons and other core system features, though there’s still some way to go, with plenty of features such as the Control Panel using old icons.

Related: How to install Windows 10 Technical Preview

Windows 7 Design
Windows 7's design is cohesive

Overall, we’re still unconvinced that the new styling is actually better than the old. It’s arguably more "modern", as flat seems to be the design theme of choice at the moment – websites are doing it and so is Apple – but we’re not sure it generally looks any more aesthetically pleasing.

Also, Microsoft’s implementation is particularly stark and disjointed, and it clashes with legacy programs.

Windows 10 Design
Windows 10 feels more disjointed and stark

All that said, there are some practical benefits to the new design direction, such as windows being smaller due to the lack of borders. Windows are also more customisable and some elements are clearer, thanks to the lack of translucent backgrounds.

Windows 10 is still in preview, so there's time for Microsoft to make changes for the better, but 'more modern looking' isn't really a powerful argument in its favour.

Windows 10 vs Windows 7 – Search

Windows 7 has a reasonably powerful search function that will quite rapidly look up matching programs and documents as you type. However, Windows 10 ups the ante by adding Windows Store apps and web search, as well as a much more organised results page.

Windows 7 Search
Windows 7 search is effective but simple

Click on the search box and it also shows preview information such as the latest headlines, updates from your favourite sports teams and the weather.

What’s more, it includes Cortana, the digital personal assistant. This adds two key features. Firstly it monitors things like your email, calendar and search to provide useful information, such as when you need to leave for your next appointment.

Windows 10 Search
Windows 10 greatly enhances the features of search

If you have a microphone on your machine, you can also speak your commands to Cortana and it does a fine job of interpreting colloquial language to get you the answer you need. Sadly the interface doesn’t return the answer to you right there in the search bar, but rather opens the web browser. It’s still pretty cool to not have to type anything, though.

Windows 10 vs Windows 7 – File Management

It may seem totally mundane, but the tools used for finding and managing your files are some of the most oft used and fundamental to a good operating system.

Windows 7 has a decent selection and certainly we’re all long used to them. However, they certainly aren’t the most advanced, and in some ways they’re a backwards step from what came before – who remembers the removal of the Up button from the File Explorer?

Windows 7 File Management
Windows 7 File Explorer and copy dialogue are relics

This one little feature summed up all that was wrong about the nonsensical path being trodden by Microsoft at the time. But it wasn’t the only problem with Windows 7 File Explorer. By any standard it was poorly designed, with wasted space and key functions hidden from view.

Well, with Windows 10 the Up button is back! And with it are a host of other improvements to File Explorer – many of which, again, first arrived in Windows 8. The top menu is now arranged in a ribbon, so all the common tools are right where they’re easy to click and, perhaps more importantly, easy for novices to find.

There’s also a new Share ribbon which makes it much easier to move files between different apps such as Outlook, Dropbox or Skype. It’s still not perfect, but it’s a definite step in the right direction.

On top of these improvements to File Explorer there’s also an improved file copying interface. Now copying/moving tasks are grouped into one window for easier management. Transfer speed is also shown in real time and operations can also be paused, where they could only previously be cancelled.

Windows 10 File Management
Windows 10 File Explorer and copy dialogue is much more useful

Another neat new addition is Storage Spaces. This is a way to group multiple hard drives together to form a single logical drive. While hardly revolutionary sounding, what makes it particularly useful is that it supports multiple levels of drive redundancy, to ensure your data is backed up, and unlike a RAID system it's completely hot-swappable and drives can be different sizes.

All told, there's a lot that Windows 10 adds to day-to-day file management and very little that's been taken away.

Windows 10 vs Windows 7 – Gaming and DirectX 12

We touched earlier on how gaming performance hasn’t changed much on Windows 10, but it’s worth elaborating.

In fact there's a slight drop in performance on average, with Windows 10 tending to be about 0.5% slower than Windows 7, particularly with older games – Crysis 3, for instance – although there are some instances where the roles are reversed. Of course 0.5% is a ridiculously small amount either way, so much so that it’s not worth worrying about.

Elsewhere Windows 7 has proven to be a robust and reliable gaming platform, though not one entirely stacked with innovation – it’s a solid base on which a host of gaming tools are built.

Windows 10, though, adds a load of new features. Most will, in all likelihood, be of limited interest to most PC gamers – the ability to access your Xbox Live account, stream games from your Xbox to your PC and have multiplayer games work with both PC and Xbox players – though they are, of course, mostly welcome.

Windows 10 Gaming
Windows 10 brings access to lots of Xbox features

Probably the neatest feature is built-in game capture. This will constantly record your gaming sessions, allowing you to grab a snapshot of the last 30 seconds of gameplay to share with your friends. It may not be new technology, but having it baked into the OS is very useful. Also it will work with every game ever – at least so Microsoft says – so if you fancy capturing a video of your Monkey Island adventures, it will happily do so.

Also, Windows 10 will have exclusive access to DirectX 12, which promises to unlock performance on existing hardware thanks to it allowing programmers to better access the features of specific hardware. The performance gains are likely to be fairly small, and very much dependent on exact circumstances, but it’ll likely be enough to tip the balance of performance back in Windows 10’s favour.

DirectX 12 will also likely bring some new features – new graphics effects and such like – but Microsoft hasn’t yet disclosed what these will be.

Windows 10 vs Windows 7 – Notifications

Windows has long had a notifications area of sorts, in the shape of the System Tray. Here you’ll find popup messages from the likes of Outlook, Dropbox and Spotify – anything that actively runs in the background.

However, it’s never really been a proper unified place where messages from other apps can reside, and where you can see a history of updates.

Windows 10 Notifications
Windows 10 has a useful single place for all notifications

Enter the new notifications area of Windows 10. This simple addition brings together system messages and app notifications into one place, with alerts ordered chronologically. It’s a small addition, but one that’s immensely useful.

The notifications area also contains some useful system functions, such as being able to switch to tablet mode or access the settings screen.

Winner: Windows 10

Windows 10 vs Windows 7 – Workspace Management

Getting and keeping your workspace tidy is of key importance to certain users. While those with a laptop may be content with just making everything fullscreen, if you’re a desktop user you may have multiple large monitors and need good tools for managing all the windows and desktops that make up the total working area.

Windows 7 has multi-monitor support, though it’s somewhat limited with just access to either a mirroring mode or one that stretches the whole desktop across all the monitors, but with only one taskbar on one monitor. It also has an early version of Snap – the tool that automatically resizes windows when you drag them to the left or right. But that’s it – it’s a fairly limited set of tools.

Windows 10 Virtual Desktop
Windows 10 adds virtual desktops and better multi-monitor support

With Windows 10 both these features have been enhanced. Different monitors can now have different backgrounds, with different slideshows, too. Pictures can also now be set to span across all your monitors.

On a more practical note, the taskbar can now appear on multiple monitors or both your primary monitor and whichever monitor you’re currently active in. Snap has also been improved to support snapping to four corners, not just side to side.

Perhaps the biggest addition, though, is virtual desktop support. Although Windows 7 has had support for virtual desktops via third-party software, now it's built right in. The implementation isn’t super slick, but it's a big bonus, particularly for laptop users.

Windows 10 vs Windows 7 – Price

Of course, right now we don’t know how much a standalone copy of Windows 10 will cost, but the big news is that it will be free to upgrade from either Windows 7 or 8 for the first year of Windows 10’s life.

As such, if you’ve got a copy of Windows 7 you’d almost be foolish not to upgrade. After all, although we’re yet to find out exactly how the upgrade process will work – whether you’ll lose your Windows 7 license if you upgrade – the chances are you’ll be able to just reinstall your old version of Windows if you find the upgrade isn’t for you.

If you're buying a fresh new copy and the upgrade period has run out then there’s a chance Windows 7 will be cheaper than Windows 10, but that’s rather dependent on whether you can still get hold of it.

The verdict so far...

It’s clear Windows 10 has a lot of genuinely useful new features, as well as key improvements to old features, compared to Windows 7. None is enough on its own to make an upgrade necessary, but when combined they do make a compelling case.

You’ve got better search, window management, file management, gaming tools and more. Indeed it’s only really the styling that we’re less keen on, which in the grand scheme of things is a minor point.

As such, with Windows 10 being a free upgrade it would almost be silly not to at least try it. Windows 10 may not be perfect, but it most definitely looks like an upgrade worth having when it's available later this year.

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