Windows 7 has come a long way since its sensational introduction at the October 2008 PDC (see my extensive PDC 2008 coverage including my Windows 7 M3 overview). At that show, Microsoft unveiled its plans for Windows 7 but released a version of the OS that had more in common with its predecessor, Windows Vista, than with the product that was to come. In January 2009, Microsoft released its "API complete" Windows 7 Beta (see my review), which fulfilled most of the promises the company had made a few months earlier. But there was more to be done: In the intervening months, Microsoft pored over the enormous amounts of feedback it received from the Windows 7 Beta and from numerous interim builds, and the result is this month's Windows 7 release candidate (RC), a near-final look at Microsoft's next desktop OS.

To understand how much has changed over the past four months, the Windows 7 RC is most logically compared to the previous pre-release milestone, the Beta release, of course. Looking more long term, Windows 7 in general should also be held up against its contemporary (and shipping) sibling, Windows Vista. I'll do both, in stages. For this release candidate review, I will focus on the surprising number of changes Microsoft has made since the Beta. Then, in my review of the final shipping version of Windows 7, I will of course compare the OS to its predecessor, Windows Vista.

Windows 7 release candidate
Crisp, clean, speedy, and highly-usable: It's the Windows 7 release candidate!

In general terms, we can already see major improvements. Looked at across the span of these two preceding releases, the Windows 7 RC is a shining star of performance, usability, stability, and maturity. Yes, there are teething pains, bits of inconsistency that will drive purists nuts (for example, Microsoft can't seem to settle on a single spelling or capitalization scheme for the HomeGroup feature).

But Windows 7, in release candidate guise, is already a towering achievement that casts Windows Vista immediately in its shadow. I've often opined that the true measure of any OS is how painful it renders using its predecessor. And now, several long months after moving to Windows 7 full time, I can honestly state that Windows 7 makes Windows Vista look like a bad dream by comparison. Among many other things, Vista is sluggish compared to 7, and it doesn't remember window sizes and customization styles. (Windows XP, which lacks so many Vista/7-era features that it's painful to even discuss, fares even worse by comparison, except in the performance category.)

[ Discover the Windows 7 release candidate Interactive Setup experience! ]

So here we are on the cusp of a new Windows. A Windows that is faster than its predecessor and runs just fine on low-end netbook hardware. It's more compatible with both hardware and software, especially when you factor in the exciting new XP Mode feature. It's more secure and reliable. And, most important from an end user perspective, it's more usable. Now, more than ever, it seems like Microsoft has examined every single nhook and cranny in this OS and has tweaked and gussied up virtually all of it. Some of the user experience changes, like the new taskbar, are immediately obvious on first boot, while other more minor changes simply become apparent over time in the using. There's a happy change around every corner, it seems.

[ Learn more about the Windows 7 release candidate in my screenshot galleries! ]

This, then, is the Windows 7 release candidate. And while Microsoft continues to promise only that it will ship Windows 7 sometime by early 2010, I'm here to tell you that Microsoft's public schedule is almost comically conservative. The Windows 7 RC could literally ship as the final version of the product. There are mitigating factors that will prevent that from happening--persistent rumors of a new UI skin among them--but make no mistake. When Microsoft says "release candidate," this time they really mean it. I expect the company to finalize this product with mind-numbing efficiency and speed. The end is in sight. It's that close.

OK, let's examine what's changed since the Windows 7 Beta.

Continue to Part 2: What's new in the Release Candidate...