Of the new features in Windows 7 it's probably among those that has received the least amount of coverage, but for expatriate PC users the ability to switch the language of the operating system represents a major step forward for Windows.
For years PC users living outside of their home country have faced problems when they buy a new PC. Windows has been based on a single language so, for example, when a Brit bought a new PC in Germany they had to either put up with the German interface or shell out again for another copy of Windows in English.
Both paths have their disadvantages. Navigating an operating system in an unfamiliar language can be a problem. Let's face it, Windows error messages are sometimes difficult to understand in your mother tongue - imagine them in a foreign language. For expats living in Asia, where many nations don't use the Roman alphabet, things quickly become impossible if you can't read the characters.
All that changes with Windows 7, or to be more precise: Windows 7 Ultimate.
In the most expensive version of its new operating system (and the corporate Enterprise version) Microsoft is offering the ability to switch the interface language between any of 35 languages. New language packs are available for download at no cost.
To test out the feature I installed a Japanese version of Windows 7 and tried to switch it to English.
The first problem users will face is navigating and selecting their new language. The packs can be installed through Windows Update but the interface is entirely in the default language, in this case Japanese and, more importantly, so is the list of languages that could be installed. Users who can't recognise the name of their desired interface language will need a friend to help choose it.
The English file was about 150MBs and took about 10 minutes to download and install, The new interface language immediately began appearing but a restart was required to bring most of the operating system up in English.
The packs don't completely erase the base language. While menus, dialog boxes and even Windows Help appear in English a little bit of Japanese remains on things like network connection names. Users can change those manually.
I completed the change by setting the default language for non-Unicode software to English. This is an important one as it will determine the install language of some software downloaded.
More details on the language packs and their installation can be found in a Microsoft Knowledge Base article.
With the language options Microsoft finally joins Apple and most Linux distributors in offering multiple language interfaces for their operating systems. I've never switched languages in Linux but I do have experience in Apple's OS X and compared to the Windows 7 procedure it's much easier. For one, downloads aren't required and the files are already on the hard disk.
But for most expat Windows 7 users the time it takes to download a language pack and install it will be a small price to pay for the ability to use their PC in their own language.