When Microsoft unleashed Windows Vista on a surprisingly unsuspecting world three years ago, the software giant delivered on its promise of a major, revolutionary Windows release. But the downsides to such sweeping changes are many, and in the case of Windows Vista, these downsides outweighed the benefits, thanks to narrow-minded and forgetful tech reviewers, screechy Apple advertising, and other factors. And none of those downsides weighed more heavily on users, perhaps, than performance. When it first shipped, Windows Vista simply ran more slowly than its predecessor on the same hardware. You know, just like virtually every other Windows version ever shipped.

The funny thing about Vista performance, however, is that while it improved over time, few people even noticed since Vista-bashing had become a national pastime. Microsoft dramatically overhauled Vista performance, a process that culminated with the release of Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) in early 2008. Disk file copy issues? Fixed. Startup, standby, resume, and shutdown speeds were all dramatically increased. Drivers were made more efficient, improving battery life. According to industry benchmarks, by the time SP1 shipped, real world Vista performance was on par with, in some cases superior to, that of XP.

[ Read my review of Windows Vista Service Pack 1. ]

Of course, performance tuning is an ongoing process. And sure enough, Microsoft didn't stop with Vista SP1. Vista's second service pack also included general performance improvements across the board, and came with Windows Search 4.0, which dramatically improves search and index performance.


Windows 7 performance improvements

For Windows 7, Microsoft has made further improvements to performance, and this system now offers noticeably better performance than its predecessor. This boost is most keenly felt on the low-end PCs that Vista was simply not designed for. Netbooks, for example, almost universally ship with just 1 GB of RAM, about half the realistic minimum for Vista. But Windows 7 runs quite snappily on these systems, thank you very much, and in my tests, I've seen no real world difference between Windows 7 and XP on three different netbooks and one even more challenged Ultra-Mobile PC. Windows 7 is a performance marvel coupled with a smaller, more efficient footprint. It's the first Windows version in, well, forever to dramatically outperform its predecessor on the same hardware right out of the gate.

How did Microsoft achieve such dramatic performance improvements? According to the company, performance is now considered a core capability, akin to security and functionality. Microsoft has dedicated enormous engineering resources to performance in the wake of Vista's poor reception (undeserved as it was). So performance is one of the PC attributes for which Microsoft provides built-in troubleshooters. And you can use a wizard to adjust various settings for the best possible performance, including, interestingly, a way to prevent applications from running at startup. (This capability is incredibly minimal, however, and you really have to know what you're doing.)

Windows 7 Performance
Windows 7 includes a Performance troubleshooter.

Under the hood, Microsoft has made general improvements across the board. (You know, the only thing Apple did with its three-years-in-the-making Snow Leopard service back for Mac OS X.) Windows 7 has fewer background tasks running by default, and it offers much better support for multi-core processors. Microsoft made low-level changes to the kernel to allow applications and services to consume the fewest possible resources, especially on low-end PCs. Services are only started when needed, so that Bluetooth service won't be taking up resources if the radio is turned off or unused. But Windows 7 can also trigger-start services as needed. And of course, memory consumption was reduced across the board. Windows 7 runs as well in 1 GB of RAM as Vista does in 2 GB.

For graphics, Desktop Window Manager (DWM) and the graphics stack were shrunk, resulting in increased responsiveness. And video drivers can perform better in Windows 7 than was possible in Vista. Yes, device makers will need to take advantage of this with Windows 7-specific drivers, but those are already appearing. (Otherwise, Vista drivers will work just fine.)

Faster startup, resume, and shutdown

Continuing the work it did in Vista over the past three years, Microsoft has made startup, resume, and shutdown all faster than with Vista, sometimes dramatically. Best of all, Windows 7 resumes from Standby with a Mac-like snappiness that is surprising if you're not used to it. The PC usually takes just a second or two to come to life. Just like that, you're up and running.

Better battery life

A number of factors help improve battery life under Windows 7. The aforementioned reduction of background tasks and the ability to trigger-start services only when needed are a big help. These both helped Microsoft to increase the idle time for the processor: When the processor is idle, the system uses less power and thus increases battery life.

Windows 7 also includes more sensible power management plans. Now, the Balanced plan is used by default for both desktop and portable computers, reducing energy consumption (and, on portable systems, improving battery life). But Balanced also provides you with the full power of the processor when you really do need it, so there's little real-world need to micro-manage this functionality anymore. And you can choose the Power Saver plan on a plane to dramatically increase battery life on the fly. (Pardon the pun.)

Windows 7 Performance
More logical power management plans helps Windows 7 achieve better battery life.

Windows 7 provides far more aggressive automatic display dimming. No, it's not as aggressive as what Apple provides in Mac OS X, but we're getting there. Best of all, the display dimming is adaptive: By default, the screen will dim after 30 seconds, but if you immediately move the mouse to brighten the display, Windows 7 will wait 60 seconds before dimming the display the next time.

Windows 7 also provides more power-efficient DVD playback in Windows Media Player than was possible with Vista. DVDs start right up when inserted and the player goes immediately into full screen mode, so there's no need to click a Play button or fumble with full screen controls. You also have more time to watch the movie while unplugged, thanks to low level improvements to DVD playback.

Finally, while Vista provided a Wake on LAN capability that allowed remote users to activate a sleeping PC connected to a wired network, this has been improved in Windows 7 to include wireless networks. So it's now possible to wakes a sleeping Windows 7-based PC when accessed over the network, or for remote control purposes. If that PC is disconnected from power, it can save battery life by going to sleep but still be accessible remotely.

ReadyBoost

ReadyBoost debuted in Windows Vista, providing a way to cache frequently-used data to USB-based memory devices, such as USB memory keys, Secure Digital (SD) cards, and internal flash memory, like Intel's Turbo Memory. It was the one major concession to performance-constrained, low-end PCs in Vista, and it worked pretty well. (ReadyBoost is especially good for low-end notebooks where it is impossible or difficult to upgrade the RAM.)

ReadyBoost carries over in Windows 7, but with several improvements since Vista. It now supports devices larger than 4 GB, for example. And unlike with Vista, the Windows 7 version of ReadyBoost supports multiple devices, so you could plug in two or more USB memory devices to receive even more benefit. Additionally, the Windows 7 version of ReadyBoost now supports exFAT, FAT32, and NTFS file systems.

Internet Explorer 8

While Internet Explorer 8 (IE 8) performance was a big issue during the browser's beta process, Microsoft reined in the problems and delivered a final version of IE 8 that performs better than its predecessor. In Windows 7, IE 8 starts faster, creates new tabs faster, and generally performs better than IE 7. Microsoft says that the IE 8 JavaScript engine is much faster and more responsive and that virtually every component of the browser--including the Address bar, Search box, tabs, Favorites Bar, and so on--has been optimized for performance.

I'm not positive that raw performance is the number one criteria users need to worry about with web browsers, but there's little doubt that IE 8 lags behind competing browsers like Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome. One performance aspect of IE 8 that infuriates me is that if you try to prevent the browser by loading the default home page on startup by frantically tapping the ESC key, it will simply ignore you and (often slowly) just load it anyway. And if you make the mistake of actually trying to type a different URL into its Address bar while IE 8 is loading that default home page, you'll be rewarded with its overwriting your typing with the home page's URL. Grrr...

I wouldn't go so far as to say that IE 8 performance is an embarrassment. But it is definitely the browser's least compelling feature, and it certainly is a detriment when compared to competing browsers.

Windows Search

Like Windows Vista with Service Pack 2 (SP2), Windows 7 includes Windows Search 4.0, which provides faster search and indexing than was possible with the initial shipping version of Windows Vista. Sorting and grouping of search results are faster, Microsoft says. I just wish Windows Search was easier to find. You can perform location-specific searches easily enough from any Explorer window courtesy of the built-in search box. But you can no longer trigger Windows Search from the Start Menu, thanks to complaints from Google. And that makes the process of instantiating Windows Search more cumbersome. Which, when you think about it, pretty much blows away the benefits of a faster search and index engine. That said, touch-typists should remember that F3 triggers a Windows Search window whenever Explorer is selected. You can also tap the Windows key and then F at any time to quickly start a system-wide (or even enterprise-wide) search.

Windows 7 Performance
They've tried to hide it, but Windows Search is still there, and it's faster than ever.

Final thoughts

Quibbles with individual features aside, Windows 7 offers dramatic and noticeable performance improvements over Windows Vista. In fact, the performance is so good that I feel Windows 7 will finally provide the final nail in the coffin for Windows XP, which has outlived its usefulness to an almost comical degree. With Windows 7, there is no compromise: It runs faster than Windows Vista, offers better functionality, and is prettier to boot. But the raw performance improvement is arguably the most remarkable change in Windows 7 and the one that all users will notice and celebrate.

Continue to Part 7: Internet Features...