David LaGesse

Yes, Windows 7 had not even hit the market yet. But that didn't stop a fog of myths from enveloping the newest version of the much loved -- and much hated -- PC operating system from Microsoft.

The software giant hoped that wide exposure to Windows 7 would help smooth its entry. Microsoft let millions of consumers and professionals download test versions of the operating system. And by a wide margin, testers have found the new system to be the best yet from Microsoft.

Windows Version 7 is leaner, more useful, and prettier than past editions -- a worthy effort to update the Windows world.

Still, the fictions are legion. Much of it is innocent confusion that accompanies any major software release. Some of it arises from Microsoft apologists trying to bury the botched release of Windows Vista, sniping Apple fans who want the Mac to continue gaining market share, or diehard techies who revere free Linux software.

With so much misinformation swirling, we've sorted through seven points that are confusing consumers:

1. It's only a minor update to Vista

Overstated, but there is some truth. With Win7, Microsoft had the luxury of going back to basics. Vista was a massive effort to update the core of Windows. The edition following Vista didn't have to be as ambitious. Programmers could focus on the edges of Vista, reducing its hardware-hog tendencies and annoying security nags. But Microsoft went further, adding consumer-friendly functions to paint Windows 7 as an upgrade. HomeGroups greatly simplify home networking, libraries organize jumbled collections of files, and multifinger power makes touch screens more powerful. Aero Peek allows users to roll over 10 or 20 open windows in a flash, proving that Apple isn't the only company that can make computing easier and more fun.

[Even the name suggests that Microsoft-will-sell-windows-7-one-day-maybe-windows-x.html"> Windows 7 is a return to basics.]

2. Vista users need to upgrade

The Vista launch was painful. The system nagged consumers with unnecessary security concerns, didn't support enough of the hardware that plugs into PCs, and was too bloated to run decently on some hardware advertised as "Vista ready." But most Vista users are past those problems. If they have a system that's working well, Windows 7 offers nothing that's compelling enough to make the switch. Upgrading an operating system costs users in dollars, time, and frustration. Vista is a good operating system -- one that's secure and stable. Windows 7 offers nifty new features and runs more quickly. Gamers and power users would appreciate the bump in speed. But most users wouldn't notice a big difference as they surf the Web, write E-mail, and maybe edit a photo or two.

Microsoft hopefully learned its lessons in the dismal mistakes of Vista's launch.

3. Windows XP is still better

WinXP ran faster than Vista on many, if not all, computers. It also was more compatible with existing equipment, particularly scanners, printers, and other peripherals. But Microsoft spent years working to make Vista's core more stable and secure, and the company succeeded. Buggy software that runs on a Vista PC is much less likely to cause problems with the rest of the system, resulting in many fewer "Blue Screens of Death." Windows 7 has all those benefits of Vista while also running as fast as, if not faster than, Windows XP. Another consideration is that some companies that make PC hardware and software have already stopped making versions for XP. That trend will accelerate if Win7 proves to be the hit that is promises to be.

4. Windows XP users can't upgrade

It's true that Microsoft has not made it easy to move from WinXP to Win7. If installed over Vista, Win7 will transfer software, settings, and data. Not so with Windows XP. All is not lost, however. XP users can find third-party software that eases the transition. "PCMover Upgrade Assistant" ($30) from LapLink preserves most software, settings, and data when users upgrade their XP machine to Win7, what's called an "in-place upgrade." No need to copy files to an external drive or to reinstall programs. There can be hiccups. Installed programs might need to be reactivated with a call to the manufacturer. But it's relatively painless. And WinXP users qualify for the upgrade prices that Microsoft offers for Win7, rather than having to buy a "full" version.

5. Windows 7 is too expensive

The price of Windows 7 may seem unreasonable, considering it is a derivative of Vista and Microsoft is charging nearly as much for Win7 as it does for Vista. The Home Premium version, which is what most consumers will want, costs $119 for upgrading to Win7, versus $129 for Vista. The discount seems particularly thin when viewing Win7 as a fix to Vista's problems. But happy Vista users don't have much reason to upgrade (see No. 2). For Windows XP users, the upgrade cost is fair. Plus, for homes with multiple PCs, which seem to be a majority these days, Microsoft is offering a Family Pack that will upgrade three PCs for $150. That's a good deal for homes that can use it.

6. The initial release will be a mess

It's always safer to wait for new software to get tested in the market, and for Microsoft to release the inevitable fixes. But the pedigree of Windows 7 suggests that the problems will be fewer this time. Many bugs and hardware issues were worked out with Vista. For example, Microsoft worked to make sure that hardware drivers for Vista will also work for Win7. Problems will undoubtedly crop up, but they're unlikely to affect the core of the operating system, which also remains largely true to the battle-tested Vista. Win7 at the start seems to be one of the least risky system upgrades to make.

7. Mac users should abandon Apple

The Mac is still the standard for a computer that "just works." Apple has more control over the end product because it also assembles and sells the hardware. The Mac system is also more secure, if for no other reason than that a smaller market share makes a smaller target for criminals. Windows has to run on any batch of hardware that a maker or user throws together. That's one reason Windows requires more tinkering. But Windows also comes from a culture that is more influenced by techies who like tinkering and think everyone else does. Macs cost more. But they also benefit from the aura of success that surrounds the iPhone and iPod. Windows 7 may cut into the momentum behind the Mac, but it alone is unlikely to reverse Apple's gains.


Available at Amazon.com: Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education