Early reaction to Windows 7 is that it's a winner. Could the successor to Vista be Microsoft's last gasp, or does open source have a formidable new rival to Linux?

Serdar Yegulalp, Contributor

February 13, 2009

17 Min Read

With the release of Windows 7's first public beta, there's a feeling in the air that Microsoft has finally created the Windows they've been promising for a long time. They've got little choice: the public and professional reaction to Vista, and mounting pressure from low-cost Linux on low-cost computing devices, means they've had to act fast.

There's fierce debate in the air about what 7 means for both Windows and Linux. Microsoft's last gasp? Linux's formidable new enemy? Closer inspection shows us it's not really either of those things. Linux has made strides of its own on the desktop and made it possible to build netbooks at low cost--and while Windows 7 will almost certainly take a bite out of that market and impress existing Windows users all the more, Linux has also become its own animal.

In this article I'm going to look at how Windows 7 and desktop breeds of Linux shape up against each other, mainly in the light of what's come before on both sides. This is not a formal review. In the first place, Windows 7 won't be released until the end of the year. Secondly, the goal here is not to award either Windows 7 or Linux top ranking. This is an exercise in which the two are compared side by side, to see what each one does in particular categories and why.

First Foot Forward

Since most people typically buy Windows with a computer as a preload, they don't have to deal with the process of installing the OS. The same now goes for machines that come with Linux preinstalled. However, those trying out the Win 7 beta -- and those installing Linux on an existing system -- have to dive into the installation process in some form.

The Windows 7 installation process ought to be familiar to anyone who's installed Vista: it's significantly faster than installing XP, and requires fewer setup choices along the way. Windows 7 still very much insists on being the first OS on the system, though. If you want to create a dual-boot, you're still more or less required to install some variety of Windows first, then Linux. Otherwise you're looking at having to repair one or the other OS to get them to boot.

One thing which Windows has added incrementally over time is better pre-boot environment support. You can boot the installation DVD and bring up a command console to perform a small subset of admin functions, including performing a full system image recovery (provided you made one to begin with).

Installing Linux used to be half the struggle right there, but the process has become a great deal easier. Ubuntu even gives you the option of running straight from an existing Windows partition (the "Wubi" feature) with only a minor performance hit. Another positive change is how the "hit rate" for hardware detection has gone up with each successive release. I'm now at the point, as described later in this piece, where one of my notebooks has all of its various components detected natively in Linux and requires no tinkering to work.

The other major thing Linux continues to offer in this regard -- and which Windows still seems unable to provide due to its own architectural limitations -- is the live CD, or live USB drive. Boot it and you're in a full-blown copy of the OS, with the biggest hindrance being the transfer speed of the boot media. (Running from a live CD is not something you can do for daily work.) This sort of thing is only possible in Windows with a great deal of acrobatics; in Linux, it's as natural as walking.

Netbooks, Etc.

The word that has had Microsoft most worried over this past year was not "Linux," but "netbook," Or, rather, it's the rise of the netbook that has forced Microsoft to a) extend XP's lifespan and b) make future editions of Windows run that much leaner to avoid losing present and future market share to Linux.

One of the advantages of insuring that Windows 7 runs well on netbooks is that it guarantees much more performance on less-than-state-of-the-art computing hardware. I have a desktop machine, a hand-me-down from the family, which sports an AMD Duron processor and 1GB of RAM; next to it, a Sony VAIO notebook, a single-core Centrino also with 1GB of RAM. Windows 7 (Beta) runs quite decently on both, although for the best possible performance I turned off most of the visual effects. (The AMD machine, but not the VAIO, supported Aero Glass.)

Linux has, in a sense, always existed in something akin to a "netbook edition," thanks to the presence of any number of versions designed to run well on less powerful computers: Xubuntu (or Ubuntu Netbook Remix Edition), Puppy Linux, DSL, and so on. But even with what constitutes the "low end" of computing these days -- like the machines I mentioned above -- the more conventional distributions also work splendidly.

Xubuntu on a netbook. Note the smaller visual elements.

The most recent Ubuntu and Fedora incarnations run without a hitch on those two machines; the VAIO even lets me use desktop effects (although, again, it makes more sense to turn them off). So while both Linux and Windows now work better on more modest hardware, it's easy to forget that the definition of "modest hardware" has moved up incrementally even since the first netbooks appeared.

To be scrupulously precise, though, the best definition of a netbook edition of any OS would mean something that's not only been tuned to run well on minimal hardware, but also has its interface and visual styles set up to support a smaller display (and perhaps also a smaller keyboard and less accurate pointing device).

As of Beta 1, Windows 7 doesn't really have an out-of-the-box theme for a smaller display -- if anything, most of the effort in recent releases of Windows has been on making larger displays more useful. Desktop gadgets also do not appear to be freely resizable, which makes them somewhat less useful on a smaller display. But there's nothing to say that a netbook-friendly theme won't be available with Windows 7 eventually, and it's not all that difficult to create one from scratch.

Linux, on the other hand, has both entire distributions and desktop environments designed for modest hardware including lower-resolution displays. Work in this field is ongoing, such as this post which instructs how to make Android run on an Asus Eee netbook -- since, as it turns out, the way Android handles displays is a pretty good match for the smaller display habitually found on netbooks.

The tradeoff for all this flexibility is that much less visual consistency between incarnations. Although, the same could be said (incrementally) of XP vs. Vista vs. 7 -- and, in all cases, once you figure out where things are it's one less thing to worry about.

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.

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.

Most every current desktop-oriented Linux distribution has at least some form of support for multiple virtual desktops. The default seems to be two desktops, which seems to be about the limit of what people can handle -- more than that and you run the risk of forgetting what's open where. But if you like being able to put windows entirely out of sight and don't also tend to put them out of mind in the process, multiple desktops will probably work fine for you.

The current Linux desktops also have some sort of meta-organization feature akin to Windows's Flip view or the Mac's Expos. The most common example is GNOME's Beryl, which also includes window effects like glass, fade in / out and zooming in / out to see thumbnail versions of all windows. The best part is that these effects work well even on not-so-recent hardware.

My own Sony VAIO notebook, with a non-Aero Glass compatible Intel 915GM video chipset, runs many of the Beryl 3D effects without hesitation. None of the advanced video effects in Vista or Windows 7 is available on the 915 chipset-- and at this rate, never will be.

The Single Best Thing

With each successive revision of both Windows and the various Linux distributions, there's less to tinker with. A blessing, to be sure, but the details of what's been improved in both Windows 7 and the most recent distros is worth talking about.

Windows 7's contextual search returns a broad range of task-based functions as well.

The single biggest leap forward Windows 7 has taken in this regard is sharing of files, via the new homegroups function. Put the files you want to share in a given folder or add them to a library of folders, provide everyone with a specially generated password to access them, and you're done. On my own mini-network of three Windows 7 computers, it just worked.

This is one of the few things that when Microsoft gets right, they get it exactly right: they understand how to bring computing to people who otherwise don't ever think about it. Linux, for all of its flexibility, doesn't yet have the same level of dedication to making this sort of thing happen -- if only because up until extremely recently it wasn't a requirement. To be fair, sharing files and folders in Ubuntu actually isn't that complicated -- see the official tutorial for yourself--but Microsoft deserves credit for automating as much of the process as possible in a way that most people will find useful.

Another deeply useful thing Windows 7 has introduced -- a refinement of a feature in Vista -- is the way searching and contextual help have been made it easier to figure out how to do things. Type "networking" in the Start button's search panel, and you'll see a bevy of options specifically related to networking features. Do the same thing in KDE (which also has a search function in its main menu), and all you get is a generic "Search the web" link. (Just "network" will take you to the network control panel, but the range of results in 7 is far more detailed and task-specific.)

The obvious line about what's best about Linux is that it's free, but there are other things above and beyond that at this point. With Linux, I'm finding the single best thing about it is the way more and more of what's needed to run what hardware I have is right there, and runs with less tinkering. Example: Under Ubuntu, my VAIO notebook had support for everything from its memory card slot to its display brightness and A/V action buttons -- all out of the box.

With Windows 7 (and Vista before it), I had to go to Sony's site and manually download approximately a dozen and a half separate software packages to add all of that "native" functionality. It's something of a toss-up as to whether this is a Microsoft or a Sony issue -- I'm thinking it's more of a Sony thing, since many of the same things work as-is in Windows on other notebooks and don't require third-party drivers.

In Linux, my notebook's display brightness controls needed no extra software to work correctly, as it did in Windows.

The Single Worst Thing

"The single worst thing about Windows (or Linux) is" That sounds like the start of a setup for a punchline -- or maybe any number of punchlines. Jokes aside, there are legitimate criticisms all around.

The biggest problem I continue to have with all of Windows -- 7 included -- is how certain things have to be done Microsoft's way or not at all. It is not meant to be malleable except in the grossest sense of the term. This leads to situations like having Windows's boot loader overwrite and not migrate setting from any previous non-Windows boot loader.

Yes, it's possible to use a third-party boot manager to get around this issue, but it's still irritating. The aforementioned inability to run Windows from live media is another example. It's simply not possible without all kinds of ugly hackery not intended by the manufacturers. It would benefit Windows in the long run to embrace the idea of greater malleability and componentization -- something they've started to do, but which deserves a whole lot more investigation and effort.

Linux's biggest problem is its diversity -- or rather, the fact that it has no choice but to be diverse across a whole range of implementations. While there's one Linux kernel that is regarded as the source from which all other kernels spring, there's no one distribution with the same pedigree -- one distro from which all the variants could take their inspiration, but which would serve as a totally solid baseline for cross-distribution compatibility. This would make possible such conveniences as universal Linux binaries instead of separate builds of an app for each distro.

Many people point out that having an app repository for a given distribution solves this problem, but it doesn't really -- it just insulates most people from the immediate consequences. The best long-term solution for such a problem is to have Linux become at its core a generic unified brand -- both the kernel and the distribution -- and have changes derive universally from that.


People have called Windows 7 a "Linux killer", or called this or that incarnation of Linux proof that "the year of the Linux desktop" is finally upon us. Both summations are wide of the mark. Windows 7 will certainly make existing Windows users happy and might also draw a few previously disgruntled folks back into the fold, but it won't make Linux irrelevant. It will make previous versions of Windows, Vista included, look old hat, and that's more than achievement enough.

Likewise, Linux isn't going to displace Windows from the desktop -- but that's not required to be a sign of its merit, and I doubt it ever has been. It doesn't exist solely to provide an alternative to Windows on the desktop, but for many other things. Its latest desktop incarnations do have all the more to offer, though, and those not exclusively dependent on Microsoft technologies (or those who don't want to be!) deserve to take a closer look.

If users don't absolutely require Windows to get by -- and their numbers are growing -- it's not likely that Windows 7 will lure them back on the basis of reputation alone. But seeing is believing, and Windows 7 is a solid enough step forward that those who previously winced at Vista may now wince no longer. Its reputation even in beta is that of a winner, and it deserves to be one.

For Further Reading:

Ubuntu Linux Vs. Windows Vista: The Battle For Your Desktop;

Windows 7 Revealed: 24 Screen Shots Of Microsoft's Next Operating System;

Linux Shootout: 7 Desktop Distros Compared;

Wolfe's Den: Making Book On Windows 7.

About the Author(s)

Serdar Yegulalp


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