Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Power users rejoice as Apple, Microsoft release leaner, faster systems

windows-7-box-artLeft to their own devices, developers will inevitably focus on things that don’t matter to end users. Filling your office desktop with moving widgets and transparent windows may look cool, but it doesn’t necessarily improve the experience for the average user.

The past 20 years of software development have been all about adding more functionality to the desktop – more features, prettier interfaces and dubious “enhancements” that eat up memory and hard drive space while adding little to the user experience.

Consider the applications that you use every day. Has writing a letter really changed that much since they released Microsoft Word 95?

What percentage of Windows users are using Active Desktop widgets today? What percentage of users even know what they are?

Windows Vista is a perfect example of this principle in action – a bloated, restrictive operating system – bogged down by graphical eye candy and features that most people don’t need.

As a rough guide, compare the system requirements of Windows XP, Windows Vista and the upcoming Windows 7.

An install of Windows XP required 1.5 gigs of hard drive space. Windows Vista Business required 40 gigs. Windows 7 requires 16 gigs. Optional features will increase that amount, but that’s the important point. In Windows 7 these features are optional so the core install is actually smaller and faster.

Windows Vista was universally despised but Windows 7 looks like an apology. This reveals an odd pattern of self-correction for Microsoft, as if the end result reveals the ultimate winner of battles in the boardroom. Remember Windows Me? Microsoft released a good operating system, Windows 95, upgraded it politely to Windows 98 and proceeded to ruin everything with Windows Me.

Then the suits and engineers got their collective act together and released Windows XP – a solid, reliable operating system that has kept PC users (more or less) happy since 2001.

XP was so reliable, in fact, most home and corporate users skipped Vista entirely.

The marketplace was offered a big, bloated piece of pretty software and chose to stay with something practical instead. It’s not a trend yet, but software makers are listening and the results are just about to hit the street.

Apple has just released Snow Leopard – a sleek, streamlined version of Mac OS X.

Wired Magazine summarized the improvements in a Feb. 24 preview:

“Apple’s suite of stock applications seem to have also gone on a strict diet and exercise regime, with nearly all the included apps radically reduced in size. For example, iChat in Leopard weighs in at 114MB while the Snow Leopard version drops to 22 MB, Dashboard goes from 184 KB to 111 KB and Mail goes from 289 MB to 36 MB. Overall, Snow Leopard’s applications appear to save around a gig of drive space compared to Leopard.”

Apple has even reduced the size of the operating system kernel, making the whole system run better on less code. And if you think the August release date is a coincidence, consider the street date for Windows 7 is Oct. 22.

For the first time in computing history, Apple and Microsoft are releasing operating systems that are actually faster, smaller and simpler than previous versions. Windows 7 will still be a big jump from Windows XP, but early tests indicate that if your PC can run XP, it can probably run Windows 7.

Most of us don’t upgrade operating systems until we buy new computers, but Windows 7 will give users a powerful incentive to buy a 64-bit machine.

What’s the advantage to 64-bit processor? Most of the software you’re using now is written for 32-bit machines. They’ll run a little faster but you won’t notice a big improvement right away. The big benefits will come later, as more and more software is written to take advantage of 64-bit architecture.

In layman’s terms, a 64-bit processor can accept information in bigger bites allowing it to do twice as much in one cycle. These machines also allow dramatic increases in RAM capacity. The 64-bit version of Windows 7 can support up to 192 gigabytes of RAM.

This amount will sound absurd to users running one or two gigs of memory today, but it opens up a whole new world for file servers and high-end gaming platforms.

Taken together, these releases from Apple and Microsoft reflect a change in the way developers are approaching the marketplace – a long-overdue step away from feature bloat and sloppy code. Snow Leopard and Windows 7 don’t just run better, they offer feature improvements that matter to ordinary people. Even if you just use a PC at work, the time you waste on design annoyances and extra clicks can really add up.

These releases reflect a “back to basics” approach that rises above the requirements of boardrooms and marketing departments to put the user first.

Software development still has a long way to go but at least our operating systems are headed in the right direction.

UPDATE 9-4: J.P. Acreman on Facebook (where most of my feedback is coming from these days) pointed out that it was unfair to use that 40 gig figure for Windows Vista Business (which I called “Vista Professional” in my first draft) because that 40 gigs was only required during the install the recommended hard drive size and most versions settled down to only required about 15 gigs thereafter.

Turns out the real advantage to Windows 7 is not in space saved on the hard drive but in space saved in memory once programs are running.

Written by Michael B. Duff

September 4, 2009 at 17:08

Posted in Apple, Columns, Microsoft

9 Responses

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  1. Here’s my original FB comment, as you requested: “I’m no fan of Vista, but you have that all wrong. MS recommends a 40 GB HDD for installation, but they recommend 15 GB for install and swap/hibernation files. The actual size of the C:\Windows folder ends up being something like 10 GB.
    Also, there is no such thing as Vista Professional. It comes in Business and Enterprise flavors, and comparing these against the stock edition of 7 (presumably Home Premium) isn’t fair, as the non-home flavors include quite a bit of extra software and features.”

    But you’re still misunderstanding Microsoft’s recommendations. They just recommend a 40 GB HDD. The install is always about 15 GB. Installs just don’t “settle down” like that. They’re suggesting the larger HDD (compared to XP) to make sure users have enough storage for the OS and other apps and data and such. It’s meant to ensure the user has a better experience, rather than trying to cram the OS onto a 20 GB HDD, say, and then only having a few gigs left for programs, some of which (Office, Photoshop) will almost single-handedly eat the rest of that space.

    Understand that this basically shatters the Microsoft side of your argument. Their OSs are getting larger and larger each iteration. So far the performance increases are at best mitigations of how terrible Vista’s were. And all of this is at a much higher cost in system resources than XP ever was.

    And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that most Linux distros can do eye-candy and performance better than 7 in fractions of the install footprint and system resources.

    JP Acreman

    September 5, 2009 at 01:52

  2. […] the original post: Geekcentric — Power users rejoice as Apple, Microsoft release … This entry was posted by admin and posted on September 4, 2009 at 10:08 pm and filed under […]

  3. My point wasn’t just about raw hard drive space consumed by each OS but about the shift in focus to concentrating on efficiency and fixing mistakes instead of just piling on new features.

    Apple has clearly been more aggressive about this than Microsoft, to the point of making “0 new features” a bragging point when they talked to developers.

    But Microsoft has obviously focused on performance and improved how Windows handles memory.


    September 5, 2009 at 10:14

  4. Looks like Windows 7 actually uses less ram and hard drive space than Vista while running. http://blogs.zdnet.com/Bott/?p=672

    Quite a bit less in that particular ZD test.

    Win7 seems to run surprisingly well on lower end machines. I ran the upgrade tester the other day and I would even be able to run it on the piece of crap AMD I have at home.

    (See this, you’ve got me commenting on my own posts now. I feel like Donald May.)


    September 5, 2009 at 10:38

  5. Good column, Mike. As usual. I’m looking forward to 7; in fact I’m postponing a (badly needed) new laptop to wait (currently run XP.) I know purchases now come with a free upgrade but would rather skip the upgrade route.

    Pat Curry

    September 6, 2009 at 11:09

  6. Great column, as usual. I am delighted to see these operating systems getting leaner and meaner.


    September 6, 2009 at 20:38

  7. I never knew the difference between Vista and 7—thank you for putting this into layman’s terms. Before I read this, I really thought 7 would be a more bloated Vista, but I am glad to read that it is a more efficient OS.

    Jack Yan

    September 26, 2009 at 22:06

  8. We’ve been using Windows 7 at work for at least a month now, so why do you say the release date is October 22? And we’re not even using the English version.


    October 11, 2009 at 08:49

  9. Jack: Sounds like you have a very brave IT department that was testing a release candidate.

    Microsoft has been doing public testing of Win 7 releases for a while now, but most IT departments don’t switch to new operating systems until they see the first service pack, months after the initial release.


    October 14, 2009 at 10:48

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