Updated: October 25, 2010
Until recently, I used Windows 7 as a test operating system, installed as a virtual machine. Which means that I did not have to cope with driver issues, hardware incompatibility or any other related problem.
But then, I got a new laptop as a birthday present, and it was time to start using the Windows 7 for real. I found the preinstalled image inadequate for my needs, so I cleaned the slate and started fresh. The story of this adventure is written in My new new laptop! article. I did mention encountering problems, but I did not elaborate.
In this article, I will retell the Windows 7 experience in detail, with occasional references to other operating systems. I will pit Windows 7 against competition, against the user and see how well the latest Microsoft operating system coped.
This topic is nothing new. I've discussed Windows ease of use on several occasions. I've shown you how simple (or difficult) it is to obtain multimedia codecs in Windows versus Linux. Then, I've shown you how terribly geeky software really is when we tackled some really obscure messages in Office 2007.
Today's journey is about taking a brand-new HP laptop and making it usable for a high-end user, without relying on preconfigured software. While a part of the test checks how simple and accessible Windows is, it also checks how friendly the platform vendor, HP in this case, really is. It's a combination of the two that really matters and people tend to forget this. Yes, HP laptops work well, when installed in the factory. Yes, Windows 7 works well, it runs flawlessly in a virtual machine. But what about real hardware, no help from the vendor, only the user and his/her understanding of what needs to be done?
I will be repeating some of the things written in the other article, but it should give you a good idea of how my trial and error went.
The machine came preinstalled with a 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium edition. Despite obvious doubts, I let the machine boot. The HP installation assistant asked me if I wanted to configure all kinds of programs, including Norton anti-virus software. Politely declining the torrent of unneeded stuff, I reached a desktop crowded with HP icons.
The disk had only one usable partition, plus a recovery partition. The C drive was crammed with no less than 45GB of data, without a single byte that belonged to me. I could not bear it, so I decided to make my own setup. What more, the existing partition layout prevented me from having a proper dual boot and separate data partitions, as intended.
Now, since laptops normally come preinstalled, you don't get an installation disk. You must live with whatever the recovery partition has to offer. In my case, this meant cashing out money for another Windows 7 license.
To get the machine properly configured, the first thing I did was boot from the Ubuntu live CD, so I could partition the disk with Gparted. At this point, I think it's important to mention that Ubuntu came up and recognized every single bit of hardware installed, but more about that later.
I created a very detailed setup. At first, I manually setup a 200MB system partition for Windows, but Windows installer did not use it. Furthermore, the installer complained about the target partitions being formatted with FAT32, without automatically converting the filesystem. While the second issue was fairly easy to deal with, in the end, I was left with a surplus 200MB primary partition. And so, I was forced to go through the partitioning process once again, meaning the entire installation process, from the start.
This time, I did not create Windows partitions, instead I left a 50GB unallocated free space, created an Extended partition and populated it with logical partitions for both Windows data drives and Linux root, home and swap.
The second attempt was far more successful. End result:
I was hoping that Windows 7 would have drivers for all of the hardware included, save maybe the Nvidia card, which is understandable. I was disappointed to learn that most of the peripherals were unavailable.
The biggest pain was the lack of Wireless drivers. It's not fun having to use your laptop in a wired mode. While I do have lots of spare cabling laying about, I was forced to assume a not so comfortable seating position near one of my desktops, hunting for Wireless drivers.
This was my primary concern - get the network freedom. Once I had the Wireless properly configured, I could go back to my laptop working area and enjoy myself.
It took me several hours browsing the Internet to find the correct drivers. HP has probably the least friendly download center in the world, with generically named executables that do not quite do what the short description field advertises. For instance, the driver for the wired card turned out to be the Wireless driver.
Once the Wireless was going, it was easy. I was also hoping to install the Nvidia driver from the official website, but it turns out that version 256.xx of the driver was only beta and has not been certified for 64-bit versions of Windows back then. Note: Today, the driver is certified, but it wasn't so two months ago.
I installed the HP version instead, which works just fine. Bluetooth was also a bit of pain and the Touchpad required the extra drivers to allow me to disable the touch clicking feature, which makes for very awkward typing.
After setting up the network and the display, I downloaded the other drivers and installed them, except a few that I found really of no value and use for me. The machine is stable and runs well without any errors, warnings or crashes. The configuration is very good.
It wasn't fun, though, especially considering the fact Linux was ready to go from the start. After setting up the hardware, I turned my attention to the system defaults.
HP ended up running a 64-bit version of Windows 7 Ultimate, set up thusly:
Replaced the default wallpaper with a night shot of a skiing resort in Alps somewhere. Disabled the new taskbar thingie and re-created the classic Quicklaunch menu, as intended. Other than that, I did not fiddle too much with the basic cosmetics.
Only built-in firewall plus default UAC for security, as nothing else is needed, System Restore turned off and image state guaranteed by the free version of Paragon Backup Software. Separate partitions for games, data and backups, with scheduled backups to other network locations.
The Disk Management Utility does see the Linux partitions, but for some reason, it sees them as primary partitions rather than logical partitions. This creates an impossible situation where there are five primary partitions on the disk. But no matter.
I also created a skeleton of my user data folder in the Data drive, to keep the C: drive from being crammed with totally personal stuff, like pictures or downloads.
The software repertoire is fairly simple and lightweight, as it should be for a gaming machine, with Firefox, Notepad++, 7-zip, VLC, IrfanView, InfraRecorder, and a few other useful, mostly open-source and cross-platform freeware utilities. Steam client was setup in the Games partition. I also setup FRAPS for in-game screenshot and movie recording.
With pagefile set to a static value of 8GB and 10% recycle bin allocation, plus all of the installations, C drive data takes about 30GB. When imaged, the data is neatly compressed into a file slightly smaller than a single DVD, which is quite convenient.
At the end of the day, HP boots with 42 processes and 700MB memory consumed. It takes about thirty seconds to reach the login screen and another 2-3 seconds to fully functional desktop. Performance is excellent. The system is snappy. Programs load in about 1-2 seconds at most. Suspend & resume take no more than 2 seconds either way.
Not bad, and I'm extremely satisfied. My mark for the laptop is 10/10.
If you want more info and cool screenshots, take a look at my original article.
I don't think an average user would have know how to setup partitions and configure Windows 7, especially considering the very non-intuitive System Reserved thingie. But the installation is the least of our worries.
Finding the correct drivers for the disabled Wireless card would probably bring down the majority of users. Nvidia setup is not simple, either. Then, there's a dozen other drivers you may need or want to install, with little to no help about what you should do.
Is there any particular order to driver installations? Do you need to logout or reboot after each one? Is there anything else to pay attention to? Can security software interfere with these installations? All of these are killer questions for the common user.
Even I had to reinstall the system twice to get it right and then spent 3-4 hours working on configurations and customization. This is not a negligible amount of time and effort. An average user would probably have wasted twice as long working on getting the system tamed, without having my insight for some of the less obvious questions.
Furthermore, system updates are still restricted to Microsoft components only. This means you will have to rely on your own patience and discipline to make sure your third-party software is up to date, including bug fixes and security patches. On a gaming laptop with just a few programs, some of which have an internal self-update mechanism, this is not that much of a hassle, but it could be.
At the end of the day, once the pain and anger and confusion of the initial setup are forgotten, Windows 7 on HP hardware works fine. But do not be deluded. It's not easy.
If I pit Windows 7 against the veteran XP, the installation is a little easier, but it's not a revolution, especially considering the fact Windows 7 had almost a decade to get better.
Windows 7 has its ergonomic and technical merits, but it also introduces a few new features that have taken a turn for the worse compared to its predecessor. Performance gains are minimal in average daily use, if any. In short, choose whatever you need.
Linux is not a single entity, so saying Linux is easier (or not) would be a gross generalization. However, taking the leading Linux distributions as an example, Linux is far simpler to install, configure and use. But this is Utopia. Naturally, if you've never used Linux before, you will find the concepts, the desktop layout, the choice of programs, and the modus operandi alien, weird and frustrating. So there's no escaping the curse of familiarity and habit.
It's also the question of what you need your machine for, how you intend to use it, how much time you're willing to spend fiddling with problems, and how easy it's going to be to find solutions. The answer is, the average user has no chance. But we've just seen that the same holds true for Windows, so you have nothing to lose.
Modern, leading Linux distributions will allow you to start using the system far more quickly and effectively than Windows 7. The efficiency curves probably cross or align somewhere down the road, but it depends on the user. Again, choose whatever you need or want. Ok, let's wrap this up.
Recommendation, part 1
My warmest recommendation for people with average computing skills and interests is to let someone geeky do all the hard work for you. Furthermore, if you can live with the preinstalled setup, go for it. Done.
Recommendation, part 2
If you have the patience for experimenting, try Linux, you will be surprised how simple and painless it is. For all practical purposes, and this is not an advertisement or fanboyism, the Ubuntu setup took considerably less time and effort. You get a far more robust, complete system in a fraction of time required to configure the Microsoft system.
Don't get me wrong, Windows 7 is an excellent choice, especially if you need the 64-bit juice and want to game. But it takes effort to get configured properly. It's not a walk in a park. It's more like a jog on a sandy beach, with a broken ankle, a dog nipping at your heels, and a sniper observing your every move.
This article can be interpreted any which way. You can call it an ego-trip. Why would you care what some obscure, yet infinitely wise and handsome dude called Dedoimedo, had to say about his laptop? How does his personal example refer to you?
You can call it a decent, real-life roadtest, which shows that ALL operating systems remain the domain of geeks, no matter the label used. Windows, Linux, it really makes no difference. Setting up a new machine from scratch using a proprietary operating system is definitely harder and takes longer than free, open-source alternatives. The long-term advantage and benefits have yet to be seen, and they are rather personal.
Windows 7 is a good choice, but it's not a miracle. Be sure you understand the challenges facing you. Study the hardware vendor well and make sure you have the drivers and software you might need ready at hand. And if you're not skilled enough for a solo adventure, you are probably better of with the corporate shoe size.
I guess that would be all.