We take a first look at the Release Candidate for Windows 7 Security Edition. Where other versions have promised enhanced security, this version could even deliver.

The latest addition to Microsoft's family of Windows 7 products is now nearing Release Candidate stage. Microsoft Windows 7 Security Edition - in circulation with select MSDN members for the last four months - was developed in parallel with the more-familiar Windows 7 range launched to widespread acclaim last October.

Some significant changes to the codebase have necessitated a longer gestation period, as the few remaining issues are resolved, for what some analysts are already calling the most stable, easy to use and, crucially, safest operating system (OS) the company has yet released.

We put this near-final version through its paces to see how it compares to more familiar editions such as Windows 7 Home Premium and Windows 7 Professional.

Security first

In contrast to popular past versions of Windows, real-world security has been promoted as the cornerstone of the OS in all stages of design and development.

This has meant certain features long-familiar to Windows users have been removed, or at the least extensively modified. But early reports suggest that with the enhanced security now available, the final RTM version may even allow users to surf the web without need for anti-virus software.

Realising that supporting legacy code has contributed to many deep-seated security vulnerabilities, Windows 7 Security Edition has been redesigned from the ground up, and no longer runs win32 binaries natively.

Learning from tried-and-tested industrial operating systems in long use in critical server-level environments, military security and even space-probe control systems, Microsoft has alighted upon a Unix-based kernel for the core of the operating system, with an accesible graphical user interface skinning the traditionally command-line-lead system.

User first, market share second

With Microsoft's legendary ease-of-use to the fore, we found using this interface entirely intuitive, assisted by the kind of attention to detail that has made the software giant so endeared to its loyal user base.

While abandoning support for every program ever written for Windows to date may mean independent developers will have to rewrite all their existing software from scratch, Microsoft is upbeat about the enhanced security this ‘clean start' will reap.

‘We anticipate that user uptake of Windows VII SE will remain slow initially,' admitted a February 2010 press release from Redmond, ‘but security through obscurity is an important part of our roadmap. We forecast that even after several years mainstream use, worldwide market share is not expected to rise much above 10%. Hence cybercriminals will have little incentive to aim at our new OS.

‘Nevertheless, given that there are several million unique strains of malware currently in circulation, very nearly all designed exclusively for the Windows platform, we anticipate that even with a 10% share, there could soon be hundreds of thousands of new strains of malware, specially compiled for the new Windows VII Security Edition API (application programming interface). Hence our attention to other levels of security to deal with this inevitable new threat landscape.'

NEXT PAGE: How Microsoft keeps out the hackers >>

We take a first look at the Release Candidate for Windows 7 Security Edition. Where other versions have promised enhanced security, this version could even deliver.

As a true multi-tasking, multi-user operating system, Windows 7 Security Edition utilises a sophisticated system of privileges to effectively exclude unauthorised intrusions. Additionally, and in contrast to Windows before, the OS is less monolithic in structure.

In effect, individual sub-systems take a more sandboxed approach, further enhancing overall system stability.

The anticipated slew of viruses will find it nearly impossible to propagate through the system. Meanwhile worm and Trojan threats cannot infiltrate unless a user naïvely consents to install them by first typing in an Administrator password.

On the Autorun

Some users will be disappointed that Autorun is no longer switched on by default, so you now need to manually open inserted CDs and USB sticks each time they are inserted into a PC. Developers are confident that the novel user-controlled mechanism to do so, codenamed ‘Icon Doubleclick' will not hinder newcomers to the platform.

The older Autostart feature has hitherto been an easy way to infect any Windows PC, where merely inserting a malware-loaded flash drive could result in total infection of the machine - as witnessed in recent Conficker worm outbreaks.

Controversially, Windows 7 Security Edition has dropped support for the address space layout randomization (ASLR) and data execution prevention (DEP) mechanisms, once championed by Microsoft for the way they made Windows 7 more secure than any other modern OS.

This backtracking is believed to be a tacit admission by Microsoft that these security features were little more than impressive-sounding marketing jargon, used to bolster confidence in Windows users inured to the ragged insecurity built into their OS of choice.

Both ASLR and DEP acronyms have been sidestepped and proven useless in protecting Windows 7. This was highlighted at last week's Pwn2Own event, when Windows 7 Home Premium with Internet Explorer 8 was comprehensively hacked within minutes of this year's white-hat hacker challenge.

Entertaining at home

Noting the relatively poor uptake of Blu-ray by most consumers, Microsoft has stripped out the digital restrictions management (DRM) systems that first appeared in Vista, and which continued to be present in last Autumn's Windows Vista 6.1 Service Pack 3 (SP3) patch . This was also offered as a paid-for upgrade, ‘Windows 7', in some territories.

By removing the low-level OS sub-systems responsible for silently encrypting and decrypting media data in the background, savings have been made to efficiency, even allowing Windows 7 Security Edition to run on modest 1GHz Intel processors with 512MB of RAM.

Environmentalists will be cheered by other important efficiency-raising changes in the way the OS works, introducing the possibility of saving significant amounts of system resources. This could be equivalent to huge net savings in energy usage, and a reduction in greenhouse gases after scaling up these savings to worldwide global use.

Not only will the reduced need for anti-virus software mean faster computers - no longer slowed down by endless scanning and updating - but the same elimination of needless CPU drain will save users money on their electricity bills.

Perchance to dream

Additionally, we tried a new ‘instant wake from sleep' feature, which now means that long, daily boot times are the thing of the past. Useful for laptops in particular, merely shutting the lid will put the portable into a deep-sleep mode; and lifting the lift instantly wakes the machine. Unlike similar Hibernate/Suspend technology vaunted before in Windows, up to and including Windows 7 Ultimate, we found this sleep function worked reliably every time, with no subsequent random hangs or instances of a notebook failing to sleep correctly.

Final pricing is to be confirmed, although we expect this to be offered as a free upgrade to anyone with a Geniune Advantage-licensed copy of Windows XP or later.

Applicants for the free upgrade will also need to prove that they have suffered any inconvenience, instability or system downtime arising from insecurity issues while ever using Microsoft Windows.

NEXT PAGE: Our expert verdict >>

Microsoft Windows 7 Security Edition: Specs

  • Intel Pentium-class processor 1GHz or higher, or Xbox PowerPC processor
  • 512MB RAM
  • 1024 x 768 or higher monitor
  • internet connection (disconnection recommended for Level II enhanced security mode)
  • Intel Pentium-class processor 1GHz or higher, or Xbox PowerPC processor
  • 512MB RAM
  • 1024 x 768 or higher monitor
  • internet connection (disconnection recommended for Level II enhanced security mode)


Microsoft’s proven history of original innovation in the design of operating systems has been surpassed in this interesting new take on the Windows 7 OS. Despite the limited availability of familiar applications, we expect this variant to prove itself in the medium-long term, as many users will discover for the first time the joy of a safe and stable computing experience.

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