Windows 7 Home Premium £79.99
15th Oct 2009 | 11:40
The best version of Windows 7 for home users
Windows 7: Overview
There may be six versions of Windows 7, but unless you need the business features of Professional or Ultimate, Windows 7 Home Premium is the version you want.
But what do you get in Home Premium and is it the right mix of features?
If you've been following the previews or even trying out the beta and Release Candidate test versions of Windows 7 over the last year, you've been using the full set of features – some of which will only be in the Ultimate edition.
Is Home Premium a let-down after that or has Microsoft managed to deliver the Goldilocks' porridge of consumer operating systems; not too basic, not too complicated, but just right?
As with our review of Windows 7 Ultimate, what we're looking at is the same code that you'll get when you buy Windows 7 (or a new PC), but without the final Media Center content deals, without the browser 'ballot screen' that will let you European customers choose between Internet Explorer 8 and various other browsers.
And also without the Device Stage experience and custom software that PC manufacturers will install for many of their systems.
The closer we get to launch, the more drivers are available; upgrade up a touch-enabled PC like the Dell Latitude XT2 to Windows 7 now and the multi-touch drivers will be installed automatically.
Whether you're upgrading your current PC or buying a new one, Windows 7 has to convince you to choose it instead of XP or Vista.
It has to stand up to Snow Leopard now, which is rather easier than it looked before Apple's latest upgrade actually launched, but also to the next two years of Mac OS, Android, Chrome and Linux releases.
And Windows 7 Home Premium has to prove itself as the natural successor to the ultimately-disappointing Windows Vista Ultimate – because given the price tag, Windows 7 Ultimate isn't always the best choice.
Windows 7 Professional has a good mix of key business features; but does Windows 7 Home Premium really give the home users a truly premium experience?
Windows 7: Desktop and interface
The look of Windows 7 is very different from XP or Vista, and the sleek interface isn't just eye candy; it's functional, practical and delivers better performance.
The large taskbar combines the pinned icons of the XP Quick Launch toolbar with full-size icons and the thumbnail previews of Vista, made extra useful because you can preview and manipulate them.
On the taskbar you can pin icons for programs next to icons for open documents and choose the order they appear in. Subtle design elements use highlights and outlines to show you which apps are running and which aren't, which have multiple windows, and which have been pinned so they'll stay on the taskbar and which will disappear when you close them.
Thumbnails are live windows and icons can animate, to show the progress bar for a download or an overlay indicating new messages or whether you're signed in to a service. It's all very slick.
If you right-click an application's icon on the taskbar, you get a jump list of previous files you've used with that program, with the option to close the app without switching to it; again this gives you a huge boost in productivity from a very simple change.
App developers can also choose to add extra commands; links to common tasks and features like your Outlook 2010 inbox or your favourite Windows Media playlists.
Assuming you choose it from the ballot screen instead of an alternative browser, Internet Explorer in Windows 7 doesn't have any new features over the version for Vista and XP.
What you do get with IE is a jumplist that lets you open a new tab or start an InPrivate browsing session; subtle but welcome integration if you actually use the Microsoft browser.
The InPrivate Browser mode lets you surf while not leaving any trace of your internet use when you close down the browser, whilst InPrivate Blocking prevents information being passed to sites.
More interface tweaks
Dragging windows into the corners to snap them to fit half the screen and using Aero Peek, to preview the desktop with outlines of open windows seem like small changes from the XP and Vista interface but they make you hugely more productive because you can find the window you want to work with and put it where you can see it.
Under the covers the new window management code has a significant impact on performance; you get the power and stability of the Vista graphics system (in XP a graphics driver crash will blue screen the system, in Vista and 7 your screen will go black and then come back to life) without the impact on speed.
As long as you have a WDDM 1.1 driver you can have large numbers of windows open without that alone slowing things to a crawl; opening new windows doesn't take extra memory.
Windows 7 doesn't nag you the way Windows Vista and XP do either; there are very few balloon notifications after the initial warning from the new Action Centre if you don't have anti-virus installed and the suggestion to set up a backup.
Instead, the icon for the Action Centre gets a flag when it has a message for you and all the other icons that used to fill the corner of the screen are tidied up into a pop-up notification area.
You can drag them back if you want them on show, but this finally solves the perennial problem in XP of the expanding notification area not showing or hiding the icons you asked it to.
The network connection icon is a menu for connecting to Wi-Fi (and 3G if you have a broadband card or dongle; with some 3G hardware you won't even need to install drivers); again, not having to delve through multiple windows as in XP and Vista saves a lot of time.
And another little convenience; you no longer have to choose between seeing the time or the date in the corner of the screen – the taller taskbar fits in both.
Windows 7: Performance
Under the hood
Similarities in the interface – and the fact that Windows 7 is built on code from Vista – makes it easy to think of Windows 7 as nothing more than Vista done right.
While it certainly fixes problems from the Vista RTM, Vista SP1 and SP2 also solve many of the most obvious issues in Vista.
Windows 7 is a much more ambitious undertaking that not only addresses the performance issues in Vista but does a lot to deal with the historical complexity of the Windows platform (and speed up many-core systems when they become common).
The much-misunderstood MinWin may not contribute much to system performance; it's more about uncoupling the interfaces that programs use to work with Windows from the actual code in the lowest level of system files, to make it easier to replace code in the future.
Much more significant are the many places that Windows code has been rewritten to use fewer resources and work more quickly, the reduction in the size of the page file and the amount of memory used for window management, Direct2D acceleration, and the way that services aren't loaded until they're needed (and are unloaded from memory as soon as they're finished with.
So if you turn on Bluetooth, use it for five minutes and turn it off, the Bluetooth service is only running for those five minutes).
Reduced disk activity
The Windows 7 code also reduces the amount of disk activity needed for reading from the registry and aligns low-level system timers to stop the system switching inefficiently from one process to another, improving both performance and battery life on laptops and netbooks.
Other improvements target power management, turning off CPU cores that aren't needed – when you're not actively using your PC, the aim is to get the CPU doing as close to nothing as possible instead of catching up on system maintenance – and powering down USB ports, SATA drives and Wi-Fi cards.
The software and hardware that you use will have an impact on both power management and performance; if badly-written AV software is thrashing the CPU or loading lots of services, that will slow you down and chew up battery life.
Microsoft has talked about releasing tools to help users stay on top of any problems hardware and software may cause for performance, but it's a controversial issue as third-party developers are unlikely to agree with the assessment.
Windows 7: Performance in practice
Windows 7 also delivers better performance in practice; our tests showed improvements over both XP and Vista SP2.
If you've been using the Windows 7 Release Candidate you'll be used to some of the performance improvements like the system not slowing down just because you have multiple windows open (this relies on the 1.1 version of the Windows Desktop Display Manager so you need WDDM 1.1 drivers – of the graphics chip manufacturers, only Intel is dragging its feet putting these out).
However, the RTM code strips out the debug code and adds a number of performance tweaks; we noticed that restarting from hibernation was considerably improved, especially on older ultraportable notebooks with small, slow hard drives.
Windows 7 system requirements
The system requirements haven't changed from what Microsoft announced earlier in the year; a 1GHz processor, 1GB (for 32-bit) or 2GB (64-bit) RAM, support for DirectX 9 graphics devices with 128MB of memory and 16GB (32-bit) or 20GB (64-bit) of free disk space.
The pre-release versions of Windows 7 have all run happily on netbooks and the final RTM version is no different.
Windows 7 on netbooks
As you can see from our benchmarks, we compared XP and Windows 7 on the Atom-based Asus EEE S101, which boasts a fast flash drive; this has an exceptionally fast startup (measured to the point that Windows is responsive to input) and shutdown times (measured without applications open) and in all cases where tasks took long enough to measure, Windows 7 was measurably faster than XP.
On our long-term Windows 7 test machine, the Dell XPS M1330, Vista SP2 gave the release candidate code a run for its money but the RTM improved on all the RC times but one test (copying a 3GB folder to a network drive), it equalled or easily beat the Vista times (See benchmarks from the Dell).
Built-in applications like Paint, Media Player and Movie Maker are routinely faster than in Vista (often by up to a third) and Media Center is significantly more responsive than the Vista and Windows XP versions.
Windows 7 and battery life
Battery life doesn't get a significant boost on all upgraded systems compared to Vista; you can expect to see bigger improvements in battery life on new systems of comparable specification as OEMs tweak settings in the power policy. Delving into the details will probably help you squeeze more life out of upgraded models.
With the Asus Eee PC S101, our battery rundown test of wireless web browsing and streaming music and video continuously showed a welcome improvement, from 2 hours 50 minutes under XP to 3 hours 2 minutes with Windows 7 RTM. Even more welcome is that fact that the reported battery life is usually close to what you actually get.
Windows 7: Netbook benchmarks
We didn't have a problem running any of the Windows 7 editions on netbooks, including Ultimate.
And while some manufacturers may shave pricetags by only giving you Windows 7 Start edition, we expect most netbooks to come with Windows 7 Home Premium.
We ran some real-world benchmarks on an Asus Eee PC S101 to see how Windows 7 matched up to Windows XP on low-end hardware. As you will see, Windows 7 is actually quicker in most cases.
Here are the results:
Windows 7: PC benchmarks
To properly put Windows 7 through its paces, we ran real-world benchmarks on a Dell XPS M1330 and compared the differing results between Windows Vista, Windows 7 Release Candidate and the final Windows 7 RTM version.
We timed both the Ultimate and Home Premium version of Windows 7 and as you'd expect, found no differences in performance.
Here are the results:
Windows 7: Features
Windows 7 is much more insistent about asking you to back up your data, and unlike previous versions, every version of Windows 7 has a full backup tool.
In Home Premium you can back up and restore files, create a system image backup or burn a system repair disc.
Crucially, it's also easy to restore from an image backup on an external drive. System Restore is more reliable than in XP or Vista, and it warns you about programs and drivers that will be affected by a rollback
There is one option you don't get in Home Premium; you can't back up onto a network drive (that's only in the Professional and Ultimate version).
As home networks become more common this will be become a more of a limitation and it's about the only feature we think is really missing from Home Premium; Microsoft would doubtless suggest that you get a Windows Home Server system which will do network backup automatically.
The other network-related features that are missing from Windows Home Premium tend to make sense; they're business tools that belong in the Professional version.
You don't really need location-aware printing unless you take your PC to work (although it might come in handy of you regularly visit friends and family and want to print out photos for them).
If you need the presentation mode option of not getting notifications when you're running a presentation full screen, you probably need the other business tools like being able to join a domain, making network files available offline and encrypting files so Professional will be worth it for those; few home users would miss those.
You might want the Remote Desktop option of being able to leave your PC on and connect into it from another PC, but many home broadband connections make that difficult enough that we don't fault Microsoft for not seeing that as a home feature.
Neither Home Premium nor Professional users get the option to boot from VHD files; being able to run Windows without running the setup process is again mostly useful for developers and professional users.
But the one feature you can only get in Ultimate that we'd like to see as an option for home and business users alike is BitLocker whole disk encryption and especially BitLocker To Go, which encrypts removable drives automatically, so you can lock the USB stick you're using to back up your bank statements.
If you want features from another edition, you'll be able to unlock them without re-installing, using the Anytime Upgrade option (this won't be available until Windows 7 goes on sale, so we haven't been able to test it yet).
In fact, as soon as you look at the details of your system, Windows 7 suggests that you want to upgrade for more features; it's a little pushy but it does make it easy to find the upgrade option.
- As well as telling you what version of Windows you have, System information tells you what you can upgrade to
- You can buy an upgrade key online, enter it and unlock features without re-installing
- As well as new options in the Font control panel and an improved ClearType tuning tool, Windows 7 includes a new text system called DirectWrite that's much faster as well as offering better typography.
More than utilities
The Devices and Printers window gives you the option of automatically downloading photo-realistic icons for devices and drives; there are only a few so far, but it does make it far clearer what a random product number actually represents.
More usefully, you can right-click on any icon with a warning to run a troubleshooter. Windows 7 already has a wide range of these – and it will be updated automatically with new troubleshooters as they're released.
So far, there's a trickle of Device Stage support for devices like Sansa media players, Lenovo PCs and Epson printers; this is definitely a useful way of getting at all the features of a multi-function device, from storage cards to software updates, and we're hopeful that manufacturers will find it useful enough to build for the full range of devices.
You can use Windows Firewall in the simpler control panel mode, or as a full management console with advanced options; you can work with port and IP number ranges, create security rules and set a security profile for different network adaptors (and use them at the same time) – refinements that add up to much more powerful security, but still with a friendly front end.
- If there's a potential problem, you'll see a warning; run the Troubleshooter for fixes Windows can do for you
Parental Controls actually loses some features; you can still use it to control what apps children can use, what the age-rating on games has to be and how long they can use the PC for.
However, web filtering is now provided by Windows Live or other third-party security software which can now plug in to Parental Controls to add a much wider range of features.
Windows 7: Search and libraries
Windows Vista introduced search from the Start menu as well as inside Explorer, for programs as well as documents, but it was often slow; the Windows Desktop Search 4 update in SP2 did improve this slightly but it still wasn't responsive enough to feel like a viable way to navigate the interface.
Windows 7 makes search significantly faster and as well as installed applications it now searches all the control panel settings, using synonyms to make it easier to find what you want.
If you're looking for the option to lock the touchpad into selection mode to make it easier to grab text on a long web page, you don't need to remember that it's called ClickLock – you can just search for 'lock' and it will be on the list of results.
- Search finds documents, applications and control panel items fast enough to replace hunting through folders and program groups
It also incorporates the OpenSearch protocol; Microsoft talks about this as a way of finding business documents on SharePoint sites, but with the right XML file to set it up you can search web services like Flickr (or Bing) from Explorer.
Search is what drives the new Libraries as well; they're a saved search across as many folders as you want.
Libraries sort your media and files so that you can view them all in one place, even if they're scattered across multiple folders on multiple storage devices.
- Libraries link multiple folders into a single logical container – and you can create your own libraries for organising any kind of file
What you get is a combined view of multiple folders at once, so if you have photos on your PC, on an external hard drive and on a NAS box you can see them all together.
This is the way media libraries in Windows Media Player have worked for a long time, but you can use libraries in any application. Business users may be forced by work policies to keep documents in logical places; libraries give you the flexibility to keep things wherever you want without the inconvenience of having to remember where you put them or spend hours re-arranging them.
Libraries get some extra tools for organising content, so the video library can sort files into full length and short clips while the document library has options like Author and Tag.
There's also a new Content view in Explorer that gives you mini-thumbnails and document metadata at the same time.
Other tweaks in Explorer fit more thumbnails into less space and put a New Folder and Preview Pane button on the toolbar all the time for convenience.
One handy Vista feature is still in Windows 7 but oddly it's turned off by default; check boxes to make it easier to select multiple files without accidentally losing everything you've already picked.
Other tweaks in Explorer fit more thumbnails into less space and put a New Folder and Preview Pane button on the toolbar all the time for convenience.
One popular Vista feature is still in Windows 7 but oddly it's turned off by default; check boxes to make it easier to select multiple files without accidentally losing everything you've already picked.
Windows 7: Media
Windows Media Player gets a big makeover in Windows 7, including coming with key codecs like QuickTime and DivX rather than making you find and install them yourself.
It divides the interface into a main library window for choosing and organising media and playlists, an auto-sizing miniplayer for watching videos or photo slideshows and an even smaller thumbnail preview layer for controlling playlists when Media Player is minimised.
The miniplayer controls are all you need for music and short videos; this takes up a lot less space and still shows what you're listening to. It brings Media Player in line with more streamlined players like MPC and VLC.
- Send music to a digital media adaptor or another PC; here we can play to the bedroom radio or the stereo in the office
Media Player also gives you a very simple way to take your music and listen to it on another PC or any DLNA device, and to get at your music when you're out of the house. The new remote playing features are very simple to use; click on the Stream menu to set up streaming at home and over the internet.
You can right-click on any track or use the Play To button in the Playlist pane to play music on another PC – or a DLNA device like a Sonos ZonePlayer.
This integrates well with the new peer-to-peer Homegroup networking. If there's another PC in your homegroup sharing music or videos, you'll see it automatically inside Media Player's Library pane, along with other shared libraries and removable drives with music and pictures on. you can play any track form a shared library just by clicking it.
- There are three settings for setting up streaming (once you've joined a Homegroup); you can choose whether to share or allow remote control separately
Sharing and streaming media isn't complicated but you get the choice about whether you want it to happen.
You have to set up sharing music, allowing access to your library and your Play To targets separately, and you have to download and set up Windows Live ID (more providers may join this service by the time Windows 7 goes on sale).
At the moment the process for getting the ID you need is a little complicated and could be more streamlined, but the instructions are clear enough.
- If you want to play music from a PC at home when you're away, you need to set up an online ID; so far that's only Live ID
Even so, finding music elsewhere on your network and on your devices is a lot easier than in the past and streaming works well even over Wi-Fi.
The intrusive Sync dialogue that used to pop up every time you plugged in any storage device is gone; Microsoft says users can find the sync settings easily enough if they do want them.
The Media Center application gets several of the Media Player improvements and its own interface is cleaner and simpler.
- Media Center uses the widescreen ratio of modern screens to good effect
Instead of demanding that you configure it, Media Center opens with a Getting Started dialogue that still lets you choose individual configurations if you don't want the defaults but also lets you skip all that and just start using media if you want.
As well as supporting gestures on touchscreens there are new navigation options when you're using a mouse instead of a remote: drag the cursor along the seek bar of a video you're watching and you get dynamic thumbnails to help you skip to the scene you want, although we didn't see this with all videos.
- With more codecs included out of the box, you don't have to install QuickTime just to watch the videos you've shot on your digital camera
If you have a lot of content, turbo scroll turns on automatically to jump through the alphabet as you move through lists of music and video rather than bringing up every title individually.
You can do the same with the TV Guide: keep scrolling and instead of going a program at a time, you can scroll through day by day.
Both Media Player and Media Center share libraries, so you only need to choose multiple media folders once. Media Center shares the new codecs so you can play a wider range of videos straight out of the box. And Media Center performance is far better than in the Release Candidate; no more stuttering video when you stream over your network.
- Add a folder to a library in Media Center or Media Player and you'll see it in the library in Explorer
Windows 7: Touchscreen
We tried out the Windows 7 touch features on a Dell Latitude XT2 tablet (which currently comes with Vista).
Vista gives you single-finger touch for making selections and clicking buttons, with an on-screen 'mouse' that you can drag around to click the left, right and middle buttons, plus touch versions of the eight pen flicks – up, down, left, right and into the corners to scroll, copy, paste and so on.
Windows 7 gives you the same basic touch options and drag and drop, tapping and double-clicking is smoother and more fluid. But the on-screen mouse is turned off because Windows 7 is designed for the kind of multi-touch screen you get on the XT2.
- Finger painting on screen - you'll only do it for fun but it shows how responsive the multi-touch interface is
Install Home Premium and you get far more gestures and a much more natural interface (the correct multi-touch drivers for the N-Trig screen are installed automatically).
Swipe with your finger to scroll up and down through Web pages and long documents; it's much easier than using your finger to move the scroll bar, although you can do that if you prefer.
- Adjust how quickly and closely you need to tap if you want to use your finger as a mouse button
Panning, as Microsoft calls it, works in almost any app with a scroll bar but some – like IE 8 – have extra options like 'bouncing' the page to tell you you've reached the bottom of the document.
To stop it being tiring to pan through a long document, the inertia setting keeps the documenting moving just a little after you stop swiping, sliding slowly to a halt.
You can have the movement stop more quickly or carry on for longer by altering the resistance, or turn inertia off altogether. It's not immediately obvious what's most comfortable and efficient but it's very good to have these tuning options.
- Set the inertia to make swiping through documents with your finger feel natural
Swiping your finger from side to side flicks you backwards and forwards; very handy in Internet Explorer, although it seems very odd that swiping left to right takes you back and right to let takes you forward.
You can fine tune how long you can wait between two taps and still have it count as a double click, and how far apart the taps can be.
- The on-screen keyboard is big enough to type on and it offers context-sensitive suggestions to reduce the amount of typing you need to do
You can also set how long you have to press and hold on screen to get a right-mouse click – but you can also press with one finger and tap with another for right-click, which feels a little more fluid again.
The usual multi-touch gestures are rotate and zoom. Apps need to be written specially to understand two-finger rotate; we tried it in Windows Live Photo Gallery and the new Corel Digital Studio 2010 and it worked well. You just twist your fingers in the direction you want the image to rotate and around it goes.
- Windows Live Photo Gallery lets you rotate images by twisting your fingers, and zoom by pinching them
Windows will try to zoom a document in any app if you use the pinch and drag gesture; with the latest
drivers this works very smoothly in Internet Explorer, Word, Photo Gallery and Excel and only a little more jumpily in WordPad.
In Explorer you can change the size of thumbnail images by pinch-zooming. This is nice integration of touch with the rest of the user interface (although you can't pinch-zoom in Paint – instead you can paint with multiple fingers at once). Similarly, you can get jump lists by dragging your finger up over the taskbar icon – touch really does get full support.
The new on-screen keyboard is much larger and has better spacing; you wouldn't want to write an essay with it, but if you're using a tablet with the keyboard folded away (or a UMPC with no keyboard) you can easily tap our URLs and search terms.
The ribbon interface in Office, WordPad and Paint works well with touch too, because the buttons are big enough to tap easily. Generally, touch works even on standard menus and buttons, but as touch screens become more common, expect to see more touch-specific software and Web sites - the next version of the Flash Player, 10.1, will support Windows 7 multi-touch gestures, as will AIR 2.
Windows 7: TechRadar verdict
Now that Windows 7 is over the finish line, it's clear that Microsoft really has delivered on its ambitions. Windows 7 includes all the features that were promised, with the performance you need, wrapped up in an interface that makes them easy to find and use.
These range from the trivial but popular personalisation options to the clearly useful tools, like built-in 3G and GPS support, native ISO burning and remote streaming, to significant work under the hood, including significant performance improvements.
There's no confusion over which version to buy for what features and apart from network backup there are really no features missing from Home Premium that a home user would actually use.
Windows 7 is a modern operating system with an attractive but functional interface, a host of new features that do what home users need and excellent performance.
Performance and battery life can be hampered by poor settings in third-party software and hardware, and Microsoft hasn't included a tool to warn you about such problems.
Legacy dialogues still lurk in some corners of Windows 7, and multi-monitor support, while improved, still has too few options. And if home networks are common enough to make media streaming useful, they're common enough to use for automatic backup.
Windows 7 combines the security and architectural improvements of Windows Vista with better performance than XP can deliver on today's hardware.
No version of Windows is ever perfect, but Windows 7 really is the best release of Windows yet and Windows 7 Home Premium is the right version for home users.