BOOT CAMP 565 (25/02/09)

Introducing Windows 7, part 2


One of the first questions most people ask when a new version of Windows is announced is, will I have to buy a new PC? Until now the answer has always been a fairly unequivocal yes! The transitions from Windows 3.1 to 98, Windows 98 to XP, and XP to Vista was predicated by ongoing improvements in CPU performance, cheaper memory, larger hard disc drives and so on. But Windows 7 is different and this week we’ll look at some of the more important behind the scenes changes.


Windows 7 is built on the Vista codebase, which basically means at its heart is Windows Vista, though Microsoft has moved the furniture around and added a lot of extra bells and whistles. The bottom line is that it runs quite happily on Vista hardware, and by that I mean a PC that has been designed and optimised for Vista, not one with just the minimum acceptable processor speed and RAM (see this week’s Top Tip). The really good news is that on the same machine, in many cases Windows 7 will boot faster, run smoother and may even perform better than Vista.


This is much more than just a slicked-up cosmetic re-hash, though, Microsoft has been really busy and carried out a lot of detailed work under the bonnet. Many of the most interesting innovations won’t be immediately apparent to the average user but it’s worth mentioning a few of them, as they could have far-reaching implications for the future.


One of the main requirements for new releases of Windows has always been, as far as possible, to maintain backwards capability with older versions of the operating system, software and peripherals and this has created a bit of a mess. Windows has evolved an incredibly complex layered structure, with the core or ‘kernel’ at the centre, communicating through a dense web of connections to important files called Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) in the surrounding layers or ‘shell’. The mass of interconnections can result in unpredictable behaviour and instability and as we all know a well used Windows PC can get a bit cranky…


Microsoft engineers decided to try and tidy things up by moving critical APIs that Windows needs to function, the so-called ‘dependencies’, into the kernel, and move bits of the kernel that aren’t needed all the time out into the shell. After a great deal of fiddling around they were left with a bootable, stand-alone version of the Windows kernel, with no shell dependencies, which they’ve called ‘MinWin’.


MinWin inside Windows 7 is really small and it occupies just 25Mb or so of hard disc space, which is around a tenth the size of the kernels in XP and Vista. The immediate and most tangible benefit should be an improvement in reliability but it also means that Microsoft now has a self-contained building block that makes it much easier and quicker for them to test and add new features, without having to worry about the rest of the operating system. The revised structure also simplifies the development of new features outside of MinWin, in the shell. It should help speed up the development of new and bespoke versions of Windows as well; these can be rapidly assembled from standardised building blocks, tacked on to the MinWin kernel. Third party software companies should benefit from the change too, though it undoubtedly means that new programs written for Windows 7 won’t run on earlier versions of Windows.


Another significant advance is improved multi-core and multi CPU support. We’re not just talking about dual-core or even quad core processors. No Siree, Windows 7 can scale up to 256 CPUs or cores, which makes it a lot easier to put together incredibly powerful computers from standard parts, but don’t get too excited. We’re only just starting to see commercial software that can make use of multi-core processors. This is one for exotic, high-end and specialist applications but there’s every reason to suppose that it will eventually filter through to the consumer market. 


More down to earth benefits include what’s claimed to be a big improvement in battery life, especially on multi-processor laptops. There are lots of small savings and efficiency gains in the way Windows 7 manages devices and processes, which are only be enabled when needed, rather than kept running all of the time. However, the biggest savings are due to a new feature called Core Parking. When a PC is idling or running programs in the background the processors on dual or quad core machines are kept busy, though mostly with relatively undemanding chores and usually using less then 10 percent of their capacity.  Core Parking diverts all of these low level jobs to one CPU and puts the now unused processors to sleep, thereby reducing power consumption.


So much for the teccy stuff, next week how Windows 7 can make your life easier as we turn our attention to the desktop and user interface, the bits of Windows we see and use every day.


Next Week – Introducing Windows 7, part 3





Application Programming Interface – blanket term for library file, program, service, protocol or object needed by an operating system to carry out a particular function



The core component in a computer operating system, responsible for managing basic tasks, functions and resources



A processor chip with two or more independent central processing units (CPUs), in theory able to carry out complex operations at the same speed, or faster, than a single-core processor running at twice the speed



The minimum system requirements claimed by Microsoft for successive versions of Windows have always been regarded as a bit of a joke, and Windows 7 continues the tradition. Windows 7 probably will just about run on a PC with a 1GHz processor, 1Gb of RAM and 64Gb of free hard disc space, but it’s likely to be a very disappointing experience. Personally I wouldn’t bother installing it on a PC with less than a 2.5GHz CPU, 2Gb of RAM, a 128Mb graphics card that supports DX9 and 100Gb or more free hard disc space.



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© R. Maybury 2009, 0402

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