In the two weeks or so since I received the Windows 7 Beta, I've been trying to come up with something meaningful to say about the software and hardware compatibility of this new system, since that will be a major concern facing potential upgraders. The problem, however, is that Windows 7 Beta compatibility is hard to describe in a pithy manner, despite the fact that I've completely migrated virtually all of my PCs to this OS. It's all over the map, mostly good, but with some odd lapses.

Here's what I mean. On the several PCs to which I've installed the Beta so far--two desktop PCs and four notebook computers--every PC was usable "out of the box," meaning that I never had to seek out third party drivers before actually getting to work. Put another way, between the driver install that occurs during Setup and then again after first boot, automatically via Windows Update, the Windows 7 Beta did an admirable job of correctly identifying the components in each system and then installing working drivers.

That said, I should point out one scenario I have not tested: Upgrading. For those who wish to upgrade from a running copy of Windows XP or Vista to the Windows 7 Beta, I don't have much to say. I find that such upgrades are inadvisable for finalized Windows versions, and don't recommend doing so while Windows 7 is still in beta. But I will eventually test this configuration for both XP and Vista. I haven't done so yet.

Hardware compatibility

While I tend to stick to a single desktop PC and a single notebook computer for day-to-day use, I've been testing the Windows 7 Beta on most of the PCs in my home. (There are some exceptions, because I need to also test Windows Vista Service Pack 2, SP2, for example.) This isn't unique to the Beta (build 7000), however. I've installed all of the several M3 (build 6801) and post-M3 builds I've received on virtually all of these machines as well. The point here is that Windows 7 has been of really high quality for quite some time now, and has lived up to the promises I received from several Microsofties back in September that people would be surprised by the quality, and in a good way. It's true.

As has long been the case across several Windows versions, you can test out of the box compatibility in Windows 7 by checking Device Manager, now easily accessible with Start Menu Search. The goal is a "clean" Device Manager, with no "bangs," the yellow exclamation points that appear next to unidentified or incorrectly configured hardware devices. A clean Device Manager looks like this:

A clean Device Manager has no banged-out devices.

If you have a clean Device Manager, you're good to go. If you don't, you have some work to do.

If you see any yellow bangs, you will want to try and resolve compatibility issues.

I don't intend for this to be a class on configuring Windows, but then I also assume most readers are at least passingly aware of the tools and methods you can use to clean up the Device Manager and, thus, to properly configure all of the hardware devices in and attached to the PC. It is, however, worth noting that Windows 7 includes additional tools for this purpose. These include a Device Manager replacement called Devices and Printers, and a new Troubleshooting infrastructure that helps people step through hardware configuration issues--and many other problems--using plain English (or your language of choice). I will discuss these tools in detail in future Feature Focus articles.

The Windows 7 troubleshooting tools work nicely but don't catch all issues in this Beta release.

You may be wondering about the hardware I've tested with Windows 7. While I don't think listing every single component in each PC is hugely valuable, here's a mile-high view with notes where appropriate.

Desktop PCs

While the day of the desktop PC is edging every closer to an end, I still use a desktop machine as my primary day-to-day PC, and see the advantages of its storage and expansion capabilities when compared to typical laptop computers. That said, I have fewer desktop PCs kicking around than portable computers, and I expect that trend to continue. My experience with these couple of desktop PCs and Windows 7 has been generally positive.

Dell Optiplex 755. I purchased this PC a few months back to test Hyper-V and other Microsoft server products, but it's proven to be an excellent high-end PC as well. The system I have features a quad-core Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 microprocessor running at 2.40 GHz, 8 GB of RAM, and a comparatively lowly Intel GMA 3100 integrated graphics chipset. Out of the box Windows 7 compatibility was mixed: It didn't configure four devices--PCI Serial Port, PCI Simple Communications Controller, SM Bus Controller, and the graphics card--though I consider only that last device to be serious. By default, I could run the screen at up to 1600 x 1200, but since my screen is 1920 x 1200, that was unacceptable. So I located and installed the Vista graphics driver from Intel's support Web site and, to my surprise, it installed just fine. As for the other three devices, I still haven't gotten those to work properly: My attempts at downloading and installing Vista drivers from Dell's site have been unsuccessful, as have been the automated Windows 7 troubleshooter. But the system runs just fine without them.

Update: Thanks to some help from Jesse F. via email, I've gotten two of those three devices installed properly. Turns out they are all related to the system's vPro and ICH9/Q35 chipset devices.

Hewlett-Packard m7690y Media Center. This PC is over two years old now and was my day-to-day PC until very recently. It has a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 processor, 4 GB of RAM, and an ATI Radeon X3850 with 2 GB of RAM. Windows 7 correctly identified and configured virtually all of the hardware in this system automatically; the lone exception is something called "unknown device" that doesn't appear to impact the performance or use of the PC at all.

Notebook PCs

My experience with Windows 7 on portable computers is notably excellent. I will add two more computers to the mix soon (a Lenovo portable workstation and an ultra-mobile PC, or UMPC), but for now, I've tested the M3 build, each post-M3 build, and the Beta build on the following notebook computers.

Apple MacBook (mid-2008). Using Boot Camp, you can install Windows 7 on Apple's hardware as if it were Windows Vista, and it works just fine for the most part. There are a few niggling issues by default, however. The notebook's iSight camera is the sole device not configured automatically, but you also lose some Apple niceties (like right-click on the mono-button trackpad) unless you install the company's Boot Camp drivers and utilities. And go figure, when you do so--via the Mac OS X Leopard install disc--it works just fine, even though the system is Windows 7 and not Windows Vista. Once that's done, you have a clean Device Manager and everything works as with Vista.

Update: One mistake here: Once you install Apple's drivers from the Leopard disk, sound stops working. You can fix this by installing the Realtek HD Audio driver, which you can find at this Web site.

Hewlett-Packard Pavilion dv6700. A workhorse of a laptop, HP must have sold millions of these things, and this machine is, quite possibly, the most successful Windows 7 install I have: Every single hardware device is correctly configured automatically, and there's no work to do at all. The version I have utilizes a 1.83 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo microprocessor, 3 GB of RAM, and a 15-inch glossy widescreen display driven by an NVIDIA GeForce 8400 GS graphics chipset. Windows 7 runs like a charm.

Lenovo ThinkPad SL500. Lenovo's new small business oriented ThinkPads work wonderfully with Windows 7. This model includes a 15-inch widescreen SL500 with a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 microprocessor, 2 GB of RAM, and an NVIDIA 9300M GS graphics chipset. This system runs fantastically but is paradoxically the "worst" of my PCs in term of Device Manager cleanliness. It's missing drivers for its Ericsson WAN card, fingerprint sensor, modem, PCI memory controller, and two unknown devices. The troubleshooting tools don't provide many answers, aside from the finger print reader, which is common to the ThinkPad X300 (see below for details). What's oddest about all this is that the system mostly just works: The only issue I've noticed is that the hardware volume buttons don't function. Not a huge deal at all, and I can't say that I've killed myself trying to rectify any of it.

Lenovo ThinkPad X300. The Microsoft laptop that was loaned to reviewers back at PDC 2008 continues to hold up well with recent Windows 7 builds. The only device that's not configured automatically is the fingerprint reader (which it sees as "Biometric processor"), and when you run the troubleshooter from Devices and Printers, Windows 7 correctly tells you that a driver (and entire application suite) is available from the hardware maker. This software is designed specifically for Windows 7 and is in beta, and my experience with it isn't entirely positive: It does enable you to logon to the PC with a fingerprint swipe, but it also appears to destroy the system's ability to sleep properly, which is more important in my opinion. Leaving the device unconfigured is acceptable, and the systems works well without the fingerprint reader.

Update: Since I wrote this, UPEK has released new beta fingerprint reader drivers, and they work much better than the pre-beta versions I had used previously: In fact, power management works just fine now. You can find these drivers in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions.

Other hardware

In addition to this core group of PCs, I've also tested a number of other hardware peripherals and network-attached devices. As is the case with integrated PC hardware, my experience here has been overwhelmingly positive, with a few exceptions. A few that are worth calling out include...

Apple iPod, iPhone, Apple TV. Apple's digital media ecosystem appears to be alive and well in the new OS. Apple iTunes works fine as a standalone digital media application, and it properly detects a wirelessly-connected Apple TV without any issues. The iPhone 3G and various iPods have all worked as expected as well.

Dell 1700n. This network-attached laser printer is correctly identified by the Add Printer wizard, but when you arrive at the "Install the printer driver" stage, Dell isn't among the listed manufacturers. (This problem, not coincidentally, appears in the Windows Vista Service Pack 2 beta release as well.) Now, I happen to know that the Dell printer is really just a Lexmark e234n in disguise, so I can install that driver and be on my way. But I'm guessing most people aren't that lucky. Hopefully, the Add Printer wizard will be repopulated with the full manufacturer list by the time Windows 7 (and Vista SP2) is finalized.

Epson Stylus Photo 1400. This USB-based photo printer suffers from an even more insidious problem than the Dell: When you first attach it to the PC, Windows 7 correctly detects it and then installs a driver. So you think you're good to go. But you're not: The driver that Windows 7 installs is bare bones and includes none of the necessary and excellent printing options that are available with the Epson Vista driver. I did some comparison prints and was shocked by how bad the default Windows 7 drivers are. But, to my relief, the Vista drivers install fine and work as they should, giving back such niceties as print quality options, paper type, PhotoEnhance, and edge-to-edge printing, not to mention the ink monitor.

Before: Windows 7 installs bare-bones drivers for the photo printer.

After: The Epson drivers, however, provide much more functionality.

Media Center Extenders. All of the Vista-compatible Media Center Extenders I've tested, including the Xbox 360, work just fine with the Windows 7 Beta.

Networked media devices. Various digital media devices, including the Sony PlayStation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360, and Popcorn Hour player, all work properly with Windows 7 and its media sharing capabilities.

Other hardware. The scanners, mice, keyboards, and other hardware I've used with Windows 7 have all worked as expected.

Software compatibility

With very rare exceptions, Windows 7 appears to be quite compatible with software designed for previous versions of Windows. I've tested dozens of applications on the Beta and have seen only a few anomalies.

My "always install" applications

Anti-Virus. I've tested both Grisoft AVG-Free (which, as its name suggests, is completely free) and ESET NOD32 on the Windows 7 Beta and both work perfectly. I do not recommend security suites in general, but will test products like Norton Internet Security 2009 in the future as well.

Update: One thing I haven't done is tested ESET NOD32 on the x64 version of Windows 7 Beta. I will do this soon.

Windows Live Essentials and Windows Live Sync. After install AV, the next install is always Windows Live Essentials. As expected, this suite works wonderfully on Windows 7 Beta--and heck, it's practically a requirement given the fact that many of its apps were stripped out of Windows. One weirdism and it appears to be by design: Windows Live Messenger no longer runs out of the tray (because those icons are hidden by default now, I'd imagine) but instead occupies valuable taskbar real estate with a standard taskbar button. I would like to see "run from tray" appear as an option as I don't like this behavior, personally.

Update: You can "trick" Windows Live Messenger to run as it did in previous Windows versions (in the tray): Find the executable (C:\Program Files\Windows Live\Messenger\msnmsgr.exe by default) and change its Compatibility mode to "Windows Vista" (right-click, Properties, Compatibility).

Microsoft Office 2007 (several different product editions). This works fine as you'd expect. I haven't tested Office 2003, but I expect that to run properly as well. I will test that before the final version of Windows 7 ships.

Update: I should note that I use Microsoft Office heavily and have, in fact, seen some Microsoft Word crashes. Given this, I recommend configuring Word to auto-save recovery information on a more aggressive schedule than the default. I use 3 minutes.

Adobe Photoshop Elements 6 and 7. The two most recent versions of Adobe Photoshop Elements work well with Windows 7, though version 7 has a bug/issue with the "Save for Web" feature in which the dialog forgets the previous format setting and defaults to GIF all the time; I find this annoying but I'm not sure if it's a problem with Elements or Windows 7. It's probably Adobe's fault.

Slysoft applications. I use and recommend SlySoft AnyDVD, CloneDVD, and CloneDVD Mobile, and these applications all work just fine in Windows 7.

Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006. I can't seem to shake Microsoft's aging digital image editor, but it still works great in Windows 7.

Firefox 3. No issues at all. Note that downloads are placed in the Downloads folder by default, which I find annoying, but I think that's true in Windows Vista as well.

SnagIt 8 and 9. I am a user and proponent of Techsmith's excellent screen capture utility, though I tend to prefer older versions and always use it in Classic mode. It works just fine.

Visual Studio 2008 and Visual Web Developer Express 2008 with SP1. Microsoft's Web development tools work just fine in Windows 7.

Microsoft Zune 3.1. The latest version of Microsoft's digital music and video tool works great in Windows 7 and I prefer it to Windows Media Player.

Twhirl and Adobe AIR. My favorite Twitter client works well in Windows 7.

Adobe Reader 9. Adobe's ubiquitous PDF reader works properly in Windows 7.

WinRAR 3.80. My favorite archiving application works well in Windows 7, and is much nicer than the built-in Compressed Folder silliness. It's worth paying for. (I have.)

Handbrake 0.9.3. The world's best H.264-based DVD ripper picks up video conversion functionality in the latest version and works well in Windows 7.

Other applications I've installed in the Windows 7 Beta

The list of applications I've tested in Windows 7 is long and most work properly. These include such things as Virtual PC 2007 with SP1 and VMWare 6.x (virtual machines), Roboform (Web password management), Apple AirPort, CDBurnerXP (ISO burning, largely unnecessary now in Windows 7), Google Chrome and Apple Safari (Web browsers), FileZilla (FTP), Apple MobileMe (online services and sync management), Adobe Flash, Apple iTunes and Apple QuickTime (digital media playback and management), Microsoft PC Advisor, uTorrent (BitTorrent client), Wakoopa (applications tracker), Windows Home Server Connector (which detects Windows 7 as Windows Vista), and many others.

Perhaps more interesting are those applications that don't work properly. There aren't many.

Skype 3 and 4. I use Skype to record the Windows Weekly podcast with Leo Laporte and this application throws up a Program Compatibility Assistant dialog I haven't seen since the early days of Windows Vista. That said, you can simply ignore the dialog and Skype appears to work just fine, for both audio and video. I am curious, however, what causes this dialog to appear.

Skype isn't happy with Windows 7 for some reason but it appears to work fine.

Windows Live OneCare. Microsoft's soon-to-be-obsolete complete PC care package refuses to install in Windows 7. Since the company has halted development of this product and will replace it late next year with a new free offering, this is hardly a big deal.

Final thoughts

I suspect that most people will have an overwhelmingly positive experience with the Windows 7 Beta, assuming that they're technical enough to be interested in such a thing of course. This release is not ready for primetime, and certainly not something I'd recommend to John Q. Public (i.e. my parents, brother, or other non-technical people). Your own compatibility experience will vary according to the hardware and software you use, of course. But while it's possible that some will have a far more negative experience than I have, I feel pretty comfortable in guessing that most will come away impressed. Even those systems with non-perfect Device Managers are usable, and the software compatibility issues in the Windows 7 Beta are almost nonexistent. I think you really are going to be surprised. And not in a bad way.