Beating Back The Bloat: How Do They Do It?
The level of bloat in Windows has been the subject of great debate, with some taking the tack that the bloat is relative and not anywhere nearly as bad as it might seem. That said, the perception of bloat was bad enough that Microsoft knew it had to do something about it, and any reduction in disk space was apt to translate into a performance improvement on any machine.
Seeing is believing. A fresh install of Windows 7 takes up far less space than its predecessors.
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To that end, Microsoft engineers attacked disk space usage on several fronts: the size of the driver repository loaded during setup, the WinSxS directory (used to solve the ".DLL Hell" problem), the size of the System Restore repository, the hibernation file, and so on. The results of all this work are pretty clear: on a 75GB drive, a Windows 7 install only used about 8.5 GB for starters. The gains are an ongoing process, so it's entirely possible we may see even more improvements once service packs for Windows 7 start coming along.
With Linux, the space savings are mainly achieved by a high level of modularization. Each distribution's collection of components varies depending on the general aim of the distribution. A general-purpose desktop distro will have a little more installed by default than, say, a rescue distribution. The economically designed Ubuntu, for instance, uses maybe 4 GB out of a 20 GB partition when installed.
One strategy which seems common to both Windows and Linux is the emphasis on being able to obtain hardware drivers through a network connection. Both OSes still keep generous driver repositories on immediate hand, but with network connectivity all the easier to come by (and all the better), it makes that much more sense to bundle the most immediate and relevant subset of drivers -- i.e., storage, network, display, human interface devices -- with the OS and make the rest available as on-demand downloads.
Easy On The Eyes
Window's 7's biggest visual innovations are also designed to be productivity enhancers, and not just "eye candy." One ongoing criticism of Windows's interface is that there's been no native support for multiple desktops, something that most every Linux window manager has had for quite a while now. Microsoft's rationale for this seems to stem from several things. More people use multiple monitors than desktops now. Adding multiple desktops to Windows isn't difficult (there are any number of applications that do this, typically for free); and there may be other ways to boost user productivity other than the multiple-desktop metaphor.
This last conceit seems to have driven a great deal of the changes made to Windows 7, especially the "superbar" (the new Taskbar). Most of the best new features require Aero Glass to be running, such as the "peek" functions, where you can see selectable thumbnails for items in the superbar by hovering the mouse over them.
That said, most of the best functionality of the superbar works without Aero Glass, and it's very elegantly put together. Apps can also have recent document histories available through their icons in the superbar. The window-management hotkeys are also a welcome addition -- they're something that, again, was easy enough to add to Windows through a third-party application, but it's immensely useful to have them there by default.