Deserved or not, Microsoft had dug itself a cold, deep, dark hole with Windows Vista. Users demanding that Redmond extend the life of Windows XP wasn't exactly something they could be proud of, either. Bombarded by complaints and negative press even after the first service pack was released, the bar had been set high for Vista's successor: Windows 7.
Luckily for Microsoft, Windows 7 is more than just spin. It's stable, smooth and highly polished, introducing new graphical features, a new taskbar that can compete handily with the Mac OS X dock, and device management and security enhancements that make it both easier to use and safer. Importantly, it won't require the hardware upgrades that Vista demanded, partially because the hardware has caught up, and partially because Microsoft has gone to great lengths to make Windows 7 accessible to as many people as possible.
It's important to note that the public testing process for Windows 7 involved one limited-availability beta and one release candidate, and constituted what some have called the largest shareware trial period ever. As buggy and irritating as Vista was, Windows 7 isn't. Instead, it's the successor to Windows XP that Microsoft wishes Vista had been, and finally places it on competitive footing with other major operating systems such as OS X and Linux.
Microsoft is offering six versions of Windows 7: Starter, Home Premium, Professional, Ultimate, OEM and Enterprise. The three versions that Redmond will be promoting most heavily are Home Premium, Professional and Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor, although Starter will also be available to consumers.
Windows 7 will support both 32-bit and 64-bit systems. The bare minimum requirements for the 32-bit include a 1GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of available hard-disk space and a DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM 1.0 or higher driver. 64-bit systems will require at least a 1GHz processor, 2GB RAM, 20GB of free space on your hard drive and a DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM 1.0 or higher driver. A touchscreen monitor is required to take advantage of the native touch features. Do note that some users have claimed to have limited success running the Windows 7 beta with less than 1GB of RAM, but that's not recommended.
Microsoft is offering several paths to install Windows 7. People can buy a new computer with the operating system already installed, upgrade from Windows XP or Vista, or do a clean install on a computer the user already owns. The clean installation took us about 30 minutes, but that will vary depending on your computer.
The upgrade procedure is different depending on whether you're running Windows XP or Windows Vista. Vista users merely need to back up their data before choosing the Upgrade option from the install disc. Both XP Home and XP Pro users will have to back up their data, then choose Custom from the install disc. Custom will have the same effect as a clean install, although it'll save your old data in a folder called Windows.old. Once you choose Custom, you'll need to select the partition of your hard drive that contains Windows XP, and then follow the instructions to enter your product key and allow the computer to reboot as needed.
If you're not sure if your current computer can run Windows 7, you can download and run the Microsoft Security Essentials from Microsoft.