Every time Microsoft, developer of the most popular personal computer operating systems on the planet, comes up with a new version of Windows, computer users wrestle with the question of whether they should upgrade.
The answer, in short, is yes ... if it's time to buy a new computer, which will have Windows 7 preinstalled. But no, it doesn't make a lot of sense for most users to upgrade an existing computer from Windows Vista or Windows XP to Windows 7.
Despite Apple's compelling TV commercials, Windows 7 provides no compelling reason either to switch to the Apple Macintosh. This decision is largely independent of the operating system, mostly based on whether you can justify the Mac's cost premium.
There unquestionably are some positives about Windows 7.
Windows 7 is faster on the same hardware than Vista, though not faster than Windows XP running programs designed for XP. Searching for files is easier with Windows 7 than Vista or XP, as is networking. Security is better and less intrusive.
Windows 7 is a fairly easy adjustment for Vista users, looking much like it, but it's as much of an adjustment for XP users as Vista. Unlike with the upgrade from XP to Vista, if you're going from Vista to Windows 7, all of your programs and peripheral hardware devices such as printers should work fine.
On the negative side, if you're running Windows XP, to upgrade to Windows 7 you have to reinstall your programs. Microsoft provides a tool called Windows Easy Transfer to help with this, though some users report that despite the name this isn't easy.
Other users have reported problems in upgrading to Windows 7 from Vista. One problem, which appears to have been experienced by a fairly small percentage of users, involves the failure of the upgrade partly through the process. The Windows 7 upgrade routine alerts users that because of the failure it's restoring Windows Vista. But instead the Windows 7 setup process begins again, then fails again, leading to an endless cycle.
Windows 7 also has no wow factor. This is actually both good and bad. There are no huge overhauls in the way things look. But there's also nothing to get terribly excited about.
Many early adapters will no doubt jump, or have already jumped, at the opportunity to use this new and improved tool.
If you're considering upgrading an existing computer or computers to Windows 7, first check out Microsoft's Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor. It indicates whether your hardware and software can handle the new operating system, scanning your PC for potential issues with hardware, printer and other devices, and installed programs.
Most netbooks -- the smallest notebook computers -- come without an optical drive, and Windows 7 upgrades require it. There is a work-around, however, that involves copying a downloaded copy of Windows 7 onto a USB drive and tweaking the netbook's BIOS (Basic Input Output System) to look for a USB drive before booting off the PC's hard drive. A Microsoft spokesperson was quoted as saying that if you don't know what is meant by tweaking the BIOS, you probably shouldn't do it.
Windows 7 comes in three main versions: Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate. Home Premium is fine for most home and small business users. Professional has advanced features for larger companies. And Ultimate adds encryption.
At the time of this writing, Office Depot was selling the Home Premium upgrade for $120 and full version for $200, the Professional upgrade for $200 and full version for $300, and the Ultimate upgrade for $220 and full version for $320. Student versions cost less, as does Windows 7 when it comes preinstalled on a new PC, though the preinstalled versions also come with less technical support.
Why the numerical name Windows 7 after Windows 1.0, Windows 2.0 and 2.1, Windows 3.0 and 3.1, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows Me, Windows NT, Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Windows Vista? It's the seventh client edition of the Windows NT family of operating systems.
Most individual users will likely want to avoid the potential hassle of upgrading their existing computer. If it ain't broke... But a new PC and Windows 7 pair nicely.
With the economy still uncertain, many organizations will likely be wary about spending time and money upgrading their computing infrastructure, particularly in light of the fact that many machines are still doing fine running Windows XP, until Microsoft discontinues support. Right now it's planning to drop business-oriented "extended support" for XP in 2014.