Microsoft's first demonstrations of its next desktop operating - Windows 7 - towards the end of last year were met with tentative approval by developers and analysts. But the first version was far from feature-complete, and a relatively small number of experts can achieve only so much in providing feedback to the software giant anyway. But now the Windows 7 beta is available to the public, meaning as many as 2.5m people will be using the software by the end of January. So, should you install it?
Microsoft's UK PR team demonstrated Windows 7's new features to me last Wednesday and, as is the norm, the company handed out activation keys to the UK press. So I managed to beat the rush and had a fully working version of Windows 7 on Friday - therefore I've had a full weekend playing with the new features and making a first analysis of its performance.
Microsoft has been careful to avoid the Vista-esque hype - describing Windows 7 as an incremental upgrade, rather the holy grail of operating systems. But first impressions are good - I've yet to experience any major problems with the OS, and am coming to terms with the interface tweaks. But let's start from the beginning.
Windows 7 hardware & software requirements
After downloading the Windows 7 beta (a 2.5GB download called Windows 7 Build 7000), your hardware and software will be tested for compatibility with the new OS. Windows 7's hardware requirements include a 1GHz 32-bit or 64-bit processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of available hard disk space, support for Direct X 9 graphics (with 128MB) memory and internet access.
So, any computer that can comfortably run Vista should be able to handle Windows 7 (including the Samsung laptop I installed it on - 1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7100, 2GB, 32-bit Vista).
Microsoft also lists a DVD-R/W drive as a requirement because both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows 7 are provided as .iso files, which need to be burned to DVD before being installed on your system. However, you can get around that using CD/DVD emulation software such as Daemon Tools Lite.
The compatibility check that ran when I installed Windows 7 informed me that Daemon Tools Lite wouldn't work with the new OS - not a major hassle once I'd made the upgrade. Other software incompatibilities included old versions of Adobe Reader and Pinnacle DistanTV as well as Microsoft's own Windows Live OneCare software suite, which the company plans to kill off later this year and replace with the free 'Morro' antivirus software.
Windows 7 installation
But none of these potentially problematic programs are mission critical (I replaced OneCare with AVG Free), so I pushed ahead with the upgrade. Operating system upgrades can be challenging, so at this stage I should provide the usual advice to those planning on making major changes to their system - backup your computer first!
That said, the process couldn't have been smoother, apart from the installation time. We've read reports that the Windows 7 beta can install and be ready for use with 30 minutes, but it took significantly longer on the Samsung laptop - the OS was up and running nearly three hours after I started the installation.
Windows 7 new features
Vista critics have argued that Microsoft placed too much emphasis on aesthetics when hyping the OS - Windows Aero is regarded as, at best, eye candy and, at worst, a resource hog. The same applies to the Windows Sidebar.
And yet it's the interface that makes the first impression once Windows 7 boots up for the first time. Again, Microsoft is promoting the interface tweaks as a major step forward in productivity - the taskbar has had an overhaul, although those who didn't like the 'glassy' effect in Vista should be prepared for more of the same.
The Windows Sidebar is gone though, with Microsoft instead encouraging users to install Windows Gadgets on the desktop.
First impressions of the tweaked taskbar are mixed - by default, Windows 7 combines icons of running apps so if you have several Internet Explorer windows open, rather than listing them vertically, you can see thumbnails of the active web page horizontally.
It certainly looks the part, but takes a bit of getting used to and could be labelled as a solution looking for a problem. In Vista and XP's default setting, the taskbar tells you exactly how many windows you have open for each application, listing all of the web browser windows, for example, by the subject of the page. The visual previews in Windows 7's default setting are easy on the eye, but on first impressions, it takes longer to identify individual web pages.
For those happy with the stacked windows approach of XP & Vista, you can tweak the layout by right-clicking on the taskbar and selecting Properties. Here, you can also choose between large icons and small icons, as well as position the taskbar on the left, right or top of the screen.
Still enjoying the novelty factor of the new interface, I stuck with the default settings and also 'pinned' a number of regularly used apps to the taskbar so they remain in place even after a reboot. Rarely used apps such as Windows Media Player were unpinned immediately.
The revamped notification area on the bottom-right of the interface is a big step forward though. Rather than filling up this area with shortcuts to running apps and nuisance alerts, Windows 7's notification area is less crowded and the large number of apps that collect there are accessed via a small button, rather than appearing by default.
UAC in Windows 7
Microsoft has recognised that User Account Control (UAC) is one of the most controversial features in Vista, and promised to take a hard look at it in Windows 7.
First impressions of the new UAC are good - with intermediate settings introduced to inform you of attempts to install new programs, and when an app tries to change settings. It's less intrusive than Vista's alert-about-everything setting, and more secure than that operating system's only alternative - no UAC protection at all.
Should you install Windows 7?
In-depth details about these features and more are included in our Windows 7 review (which we'll continue to update until the final version is available), but the question on many people's lips is "should I install Windows 7?".
Microsoft said the Windows 7 beta would be available to the public until the end of January, but the company is only opening the beta to the first 2.5m people who sign up. And the beta is due to expire on 1 August 2009, at which time testers will probably be forced to revert to Vista SP1.
After two days playing with the new OS, I've yet to find any major problems with it. At the same time, it's not a major breakthrough in performance or productivity - it feels almost like a bumper Service Pack for Windows Vista, similar to what SP2 did for Windows XP.
So, if you can't wait to get your hands on the new OS, and are comfortable with fixing your own OS problems should they appear, you have just over two weeks to download the beta. If you'd prefer to stay well clear, keep an eye on our Windows 7 coverage, and use the comments section below to let us know of new Windows 7 features you'd like to hear more about.