At the moment, you can run one of four Windows operating systems, but which one’s the best? We lay out the case for XP, Vista, 7 and 8
• Find out which version of Windows is the best
• Discover features you didn’t know existed
• Learn how Windows 8.1 compares with Windows 7
• How to upgrade from XP or Vista to Windows 7 or Windows 8
• Discover your fellow readers’ favourite
It’s a time of change for Windows users. On 8 April 2014 Microsoft will stop providing technical assistance, security patches and other updates for Windows XP and offi cially retire the operating system that’s been at the core of millions of PCs since 2001. For many people, XP is the only operating system they’ve ever used or felt the need to use. But it’s showing its age now.
Meanwhile, Windows 8 has just received its fi rst big update with the launch of 8.1. If you’re happy with Windows 7, but are considering a new computer, you’d probably like to know how 8.1 compares to your existing setup.
Windows 8 has failed to convince many to upgrade from XP, Vista or 7. But those still using XP should seriously consider what they do when Microsoft stops supporting it. Is it time to try Windows 8? Most operating systems take a while to bed in – XP was a case in point, having been largely derided until Microsoft addressed valid concerns about its slack security and overhauled most of the operating system in Service Pack 2. Perhaps Windows 8 will eventually come good too. As Microsoft celebrates the 30th anniversary of Windows being announced, we compare each version as they were in their heyday, and then make the case for the best ever Windows system. We provide round-by-round scores for each Windows version then whittle them down to the best two. We’ve stuck to those versions that are currently supported and that you’re likely to be using. And rather than niggle about shortcomings that got ironed out, we’ve focussed on the parts of each version that made it stand out and perhaps paved the way for future editions.
At the end, we’ll crown the definitive winner. Whether or not your favourite wins, you can have your say about the best ever Windows operating system.
ROUND 1: COMPATIBILITY
Broadly speaking, XP can run any program created for Windows 95 and 98 and many designed for Vista, without any need for you to use its built-in Compatibility mode. Most modern programs run smoothly on XP and performance is generally fast, even on older machines.
Vista, Windows 7 and 8 can also run older programs, though you need Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate to make use of the special XP Mode or Microsoft’s free Virtual PC (www.snipca.com/10653), which lets you run XP programs inside Windows 7.
XP is widely supported by hardware developers so you should easily find drivers for any printer, camera or router. Th is wasn’t the case when XP launched back in 2001. It was very common to get an ‘Unknown Device’ message when you plugged in new hardware, before having to hunt down compatible drivers.
Upgrading to XP from Windows 95 or 98 was easy, because its ‘File and Settings Transfer Wizard’ copied Internet Explorer and Outlook Express settings, along with the Desktop, display information and dial-up connection data from the old OS to XP. In Vista this evolved into the clever Windows Easy Transfer tool which copies across user accounts, as well as files, folders and settings. Vista was initially dogged by a lack of compatible drivers and warnings that no digitally signed driver was available. These days you can use almost any device with Vista. Windows 7 has no significant devicedriver problems but companies have been slow to release Windows 8 drivers or programs for its Modern interface.
Web-browsing is a rosier picture. Windows 8 users get the HTML5-compliant Internet Explorer 11 with their OS. If you’re running Windows 7 you can now download IE11 from www.snipca.com/10650. Microsoft stopped issuing versions of Internet Explorer for Windows XP at IE8 and Vista at IE9, but the latestversions of Chrome and Firefox happily run on XP and Vista as well as 7 and 8.
ROUND 2: ACCOUNT TYPES
As Windows became a home-computing tool as well as one used for business, Microsoft created versions for its different markets. It also soon became clear that children were using home computers as much as their parents. Th is means there was a need to control who could see and use what by creating separate accounts for different users.
In Windows 95 and 98 you could create your own user profile, but you could still see other people’s files. XP improved things by keeping fi les separate in each account. If you wanted to share something, you had to put it in a public folder – a clunky but safer option.
To bolster security, Microsoft created Administrator accounts in which the user could install and remove programs, read and edit documents and look after other accounts. Administrators could set up a Limited user account that only ran existing programs and only let the user change their own password. An even more locked-down Guest user option only lets the user run installed programs. In Windows 7 and 8 Standard accounts are the equivalent of XP and Vista’s Limited accounts. Windows 7 provides slightly more options and Windows 8 confuses things by making you use both a Microsoft account and a ‘local’ account. You need a Microsoft account to download apps (even free ones) from the Windows Store, but at least accounts now synchronise across any associated devices, including Windows Phones and tablets. One big improvement in Vista was that it introduced Parental Controls. Th ese allow the Administrator to impose time and content restrictions on what a particular user account can access. Microsoft included recommended settings depending on the user’s age, plus the ability to filter porn and swearing. Access to websites could also be filtered individually, while the ability to run PC games could be controlled based on games-industry age ratings.
Windows 7 shifted web-filtering and activity reporting to its free Windows Live Family Safety download but also made them more rigorous. Windows 8 took everything onto the web and added game restrictions for the Windows Store.
ROUND 3: EASE OF USE
All four versions of Windows are simple to set up and use, though Windows 8 was the first to insist you have a Windows account that controls access to your PC.
Windows XP transformed the Desktop and made great use of the Start menu, which became a much-loved element of successive versions of Windows until Microsoft caused an outcry by removing it in Windows 8. One of Windows 8.1’s most popular changes is that it reinstates the Start button.
XP’s Notification Area and Taskbar add useful status information. Th ese were also popular and were refined in Vista and 7. XP also featured built-in helpers known as wizards that simplified installation and customisation tasks. Useful menus, such as that for Accessibility, let you adjust how fast the cursor moved, the colour scheme and the size of onscreen pointers, text and icons. XP’s Display Properties also made it easy to increase the font size.
Vista made more of the Explorer address bar by adding dropdown location lists and Favorite Links. Th ese later became Windows 7’s Favorites. Vista also introduced the Explorer Preview pane and Taskbar thumbnails for open windows and programs. Unfortunately, Vista’s attractive Aero 3D interface hinders performance and many users simply switch it off. Many of Vista’s style ideas, such as stacked document lists, can be found in Windows 7, where its more efficient processors can run them smoothly.
Vista also brought in User Account Control (UAC), which makes you confi rm you want to install every program. UAC was meant to improve security, but it proved so irritating, many users switched it off. Windows 7 also features UAC but gives users control over when it appears.
Windows 8 feels completely different to other versions because it launches the tile-based Metro or ‘Modern’ interface designed for touch control on tablets, smartphones and touchscreen PCs.
Th ankfully, it’s a dual-interface OS, so pressing the Windows key takes you to the far more familiar Desktop version, which largely duplicates Windows 7.
XP introduced a New Connection Wizard that helped many people get online for the first time. Th e launch of home broadband and Wi-Fi on laptops made web connectivity part and parcel of using a computer from Vista onwards.
All four versions of Windows have their own email software. XP’s Outlook Express was a decent email program and newsreader that reappeared as Vista’s Windows Mail. Windows 7 users got Live Mail which is also easy to use, while Windows 8 Mail is more stripped down.
It’s easy to customise XP and Vista, though Windows 7 has the best selection of themes and colour schemes. It’s more complicated in Windows 8 because you need to go into Settings, Personalize to change Windows 8’s modern screen, whereas you can right-click the Desktop to launch the Personalize menu in Windows 7.
XP’s introduction of the Ease of Access Center is one of its most impressive additions. It allows the user to change almost every aspect of how they use their computer, including whether text documents and webpages are read aloud and whether an alternative input device is to be used. Accessibility features are strong in all four versions of Windows.
ROUND 4: ENTERTAINMENT
One of the main selling points of XP Home was its ability to play video clips, CDs and web radio. From this point on, Windows was as much about home entertainment and computing as a leisure activity as it was about business features. While 3D games and high-definition video came later, XP is even now still able to put on a good show, using free media players such as VLC Player (www.videolan.org), which gets round XP’s lack of DVD codecsupport. Capitalising on the growing demand for home entertainment systems, Microsoft launched a Media Center Edition of XP in 2002 that came with one or two TV tuners, though it wasn’t until the 2005 version of MCE that DVD- recording capabilities were included. Vista came with basic DVD support and let you rip CDs as MP3s. Apart from the business editions, all versions of Vista came with Windows Media Center. By this time, TV tuners were commonly included on graphics cards. Media Center’s stored recordings are in Microsoft’s .WTVformat, which never really took off. Th is could mean recordings are likely to languish unplayed unless you’ve still got Media Center. However, if you’ve still got recordings from Vista and Media Center’s heyday, you can still watch them because Windows 7 can convert them into DVR-MSformat and play them. If you don’t have Media Player on your current PC just right-click the video file and click ‘Convert to .dvr-ms Format’.
In 2005, our viewing habits changed when home broadband took offand YouTube launched. Now we were watching and downloading online video and TV instead of our personal libraries, so Media Center became largely redundant.
Unlike its rivals, Windows 7 works with almost any video and music format. Its improved Windows Media Player also adds a Play To option that streams music and video to other PCs on your home network or to an Xbox. Unfortunately, the Play To concept didn’t really take off because it worked with so few devices. Th e Home Premium and UItimate versions of Windows 7 also include Remote Media Streaming, which lets you watch or listen to anything stored in Windows Media Player through a web connection.
Windows 8 includes the excellent Media Player 12. Worse still, you can’t play DVDs in Windows 8 unless you download a separate program – a decision that probably reflects Microsoft’s focus on connected devices that play digital content you download or stream.
Windows XP supports DirectX 9 and plays older games surprisingly well, but Vista was initially criticised for its poor gaming. Th is was a driver problem that’s since been resolved. While Vista is slower than Windows 7, it now plays most games and DVDs perfectly well. Adding more RAM and turning offthe fancy Aero 3D effects in Display will help.
Windows 7 and 8 support DirectX 11 and thus multi-core processors, fancy shading and lifelike 3D animation and graphics. Either OS is fine for gamers.
ROUND 5: CONNECTIVITY
All four versions of Windows here support USB 2.0. USB 3.0was introduced In 2010 and, in theory, Vista, 7 and 8 PCs can all connect to USB 3.0 devices. In practice, they will transfer files at USB 2.0 speeds unless you fi t a USB 3.0 add-in card so you’ve got a USB 3.0 port. Each version also works with Ethernet, which lets you connect your main PC to a router then attach other devices wirelessly. Windows 7 and 8 automatically identify your wireless network during installation. In XP and Vista you have to set up and share a workgroupif you want to share devices or files on your hard drive with other PCs on your home network.
Windows 7 introduced HomeGroups, which are ‘trusted’ home networks requiring less stringent security controls. HomeGroups make it simpler to share photos, music, videos, documents and printers. Windows 7 and 8 can also share files and folders with Apple computers over wireless networks using the SMB(server message block) protocol.
All versions of Windows work with Google services and let you synchronise documents through Google Drive. You can also easily synchronise items saved in Windows to an Android device. However, only Windows 7 and 8 work with Apple iCloud, which you can use to synchronise with an iPhone or iPad. In Windows 8 you have to log into your PC, which ensures your PC’s Desktop and all your settings are available on whichever Windows computer you log into.
Bluetooth support is common to all versions of Windows and can be used to sync documents and photos and exchange them wirelessly with a device or PC in the same room. Windows 7 and 8 make it simpler to identify and pair devices using Bluetooth. All versions of Windows can use Wi-Fi, but you’ll only find the faster802.11g and 802.11non Windows 7 and 8 laptops. Vista and 7 support 256bit WPA2Wi-Fi encryption but XP only works with WPA, which is less secure.
ROUND 6: SPEED
It comes as no surprise that Windows 7 and 8 users enjoy better performance than XP and Vista users. Not only are the processors in today’s computers many times faster than those housed in XP and Vista systems, but Windows 7 and 8 come in 64biteditions.
Unlike the 32bit processors used in the home editions of XP and Vista, 64bit processors are able to recognise and use more than 4GB of RAM and have much faster data buses. Both these developments radically improve how well Windows 7 and 8 handle video processing, which is important if you want to watch DVDs, stream iPlayer, play games or edit video. Launching programs, moving and copying files and working with several open programs at the same time all feel faster in Windows 7 and 8.
Both Vista and 7 use SuperFetch, which loads programs you use regularly into your PC’s memory so they launch faster. Vista also introduced ReadyBoost, which uses available flash memory on an attached USB drive to cache frequently used files and make the computer multi-task more effi ciently.
Windows 7 boots much faster than Vista or XP because its drivers are loaded in parallel rather than one at a time. Th is ensures that if one driver doesn’t load properly, other drivers continue to do so. Windows 7 dispensed with the unnecessary ‘services’ that loaded at startup in XP and Vista, which also reduces its startup time. Windows 8 starts up much faster than other versions because, when you shut it down, it stores information about that work session in a small system file and simply restores the computer using that file the next time Windows boots up.
Windows XP added important under-thebonnet enhancements, such as Protected Memory Management which helps limit the number of crashes. It also introduced System Restore, which makes it much quicker to get your computer back up and running if a badly written program brings it to a standstill.
Windows 8 launches to the tile-based Modern interface, instead of the more traditional Desktop, adding valuable seconds to how long it takes before you can start using your computer. Windows 8.1 gives you the option of skipping this.
WINDOWS SHOWDOWN: THE WINNER IS…
Windows 7What a tough choice! James and Rosie each argue their case well, and remind me how much I used to enjoy XP, and how much I currently enjoy Windows 7. If it’s a case of deciding which I’d rather use today, Windows 7 easily wins. But was XP better in its time than Windows 7? Th at’s a tougher question. Rosie’s right to highlight the arrival of the Security Center in Service Pack 2 as crucial to XP’s popularity. Th at’s when a lot of people started to believe that Microsoft took their PC’s security seriously. And XP has proved surprisingly resilient, with many people still happy to use it. When I last used XP a few months ago, I was surprised by how easily I could pick it up again. But we live in the age of the internet, and Windows 7 was Microsoft’s first operating system that placed web use at the centre of home computing. Windows 7 showed that Microsoft understood what people really wanted from their computers. As James points out, that’s sharing media around the home, and keeping everything we create or download on it synchronised. Windows 7’s all-round excellenceis one of the reasonsmany people are reluctant to switch to Windows 8. So it’s a photo finish, but Windows 7 just pips it. Daniel Booth, Editor, Computeractive, Uk Did we get it right? Tell us what you think of our verdict and which version of Windows is your favourite ?