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Ever since MS released the limited public Beta of Windows 7, the blogosphere has been abuzz with feature lists, mini reviews and, surprisingly, praise. Of course we wanted to see for ourselves what all the hubbub was over, but who would sacrifice their machine for the Beta? It turns out the answer was “Nobody”. Not because no one was brave enough, but because we had another idea. Since one of the complaints about Windows Vista (one of the only legitimate complaints, as it turns out) is that it doesn’t run well on, ahem, less than state-of-the-art boxes, we thought we’d put Win 7 to the test in exactly that arena. So we decided to build a machine from scratch, spending less than $500 for the parts, and in fact trying to buy basically the cheapest components we could that would a) yield a complete system and b) be in stock at the store down the street so that we didn’t have to commit treason against the urges of instant gratification we were feeling. Hit the clicky thingie to find out what we built and how Win 7 did (or didn’t do) on it…

Fortunately for the purposes of this test, there’s a TigerDirect Outlet about two miles from our offices. So we looked online and put together a wishlist of inexpensive components. Of course when I got there, only one item was in stock, which was the motherboard we’d picked out. Great. So, into the circular file with the list, then, and off hunting I went.

Ultimately we ended up with the following:

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  • PowerUp! Spider Series ATX Mid-Tower Case with 450W power supply – $39.99
  • ASUS P5GC-MX/1333 Motherboard – $54.99
  • Intel Core2 Duo Processor E7300 – $119.99
  • Corsair Dual Channel TWINX 2048MB PC6400 DDR2 800MHz memory – $34.99
  • EVGA Nvidia GeForce 9500 GT – $59.99
  • Lite-On DVD-RW SATA – $34.99
  • Seagate 250GB SATA 150 HDD – $44.99
  • Microsoft Comfort Curve Keyboard 2000 – $14.99
  • Microsoft Basic Optical Mouse – $12.99

Total purchase: $459.70
Minus rebates: $33
Total system cost: $426.70

So, you know, not too bad for a complete system. But also not the fastest system in the world (in fact, without getting ahead of ourselves here too much, Windows 7’s Performance rating for this machine came out to a 3 – three! – thanks, or not, to the hard drive, which was the weakest component in the system).

After about an hour, the system was built and I was ready to start the install, wondering how the installation process would be and how many, if any, of the components we’d purchased would be detected by Windows 7 and have their drivers properly loaded.

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The first thing I’ll say is that Microsoft have done a fantastic job with the installation process so far. It’s not perfect, but it was by far the easiest Windows installation I’ve seen to date. It got into a GUI very quickly and asked very few questions along the way, the most important one being if this was an upgrade to an older version of Windows or a new install. The only part of the installation that I’d want to see improved is the fact that at one point, there was no “Please wait…” or cursor animation indicating that something was going on. I was afraid the install had stalled, but in fact there was just no feedback in that particlar part of it.

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I selected our new, unformatted hard drive as the isntallation location, and Windows 7 didn’t even hiccup. It seems to have done a Quick Format, after which…

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…Windows 7 Setup began the actual installation process…

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…and a little while later, I saw the Windows 7 bootup screen for the first time. I like the fact that Microsoft chose to use an animation (some colored lights swirling in then forming the Windows 7 logo) rather than just a status bar for this. For one thing, it’s new and different and for another, it makes the bootup time seem even faster (and it’s MUCH faster than with Vista) because it’s a linear animation and not a repeating pattern, like the Vista status animation is.

Upon starting Win7 for the first time, we ran into the first and only installation issue, and that’s that the network adapter hardware on the motherboard wasn’t recognized by Windows 7. I tried to run the setup program on the CD that came with the motherboard, but it wouldn’t run, saying it wasn’t designed for this version of Windows. Hmm. Fortunately, copying the driver files to the computer from the CD and installing them manually (by going into the Device Manager) worked like a charm, and we were online in no time.

Once that was resolved, I immediately started to play around with a lot of Vista’s new features, such as the completely revamped Taskbar and its seriously fantastic functionality. For those of you who haven’t read up on Windows 7 much yet, the Taskbar is much different than in Vista and XP. By default, there isn’t really a distinction between what was the old Quick Launch and the main part of the Taskbar, other than the fact that items that you choose to pin to the Taskbar stay there, defaulting toward the left side of the Taskbar, near the Windows Start button, where they were with Quick Launch.

The default display scheme for the Taskbar shows a slight gleam around the edges of icons for programs that are open, whereas pinned items that aren’t running don’t have that effect. Mouseover effects are also enhanced for running programs. One of the coolest things, though, is that right-clicking on a Taskbar icon gives you some cool options under Windows 7, such as being able to launch a new instance of a program, or getting quick access to your history, when right-clicking on the IE icon.

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Other nice additions are the ability to right-click on an empty part of the Taskbar and do very useful things like tiling or cascading open windows.

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The Start menu also has some nice new functionality. Programs that create documents, like Word, Paint, etc., now will expand the menu to the right when moused over so that you automatically see a list of recent documents created with that program…very nice!

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Another feature of Windows 7 that I like is the ability to have your desktop be a slideshow, not just a single image. This way, you can select whatever images you want and have them rotate at an interval that you set. It’s a nice way to keep your desktop interesting without having to wait for a screen saver to run.

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In the Games folder, there are some new options as you can see in the above screenshot. You can now have games check for updates themselves. I imagine a game has to be written to take advantage of this feature, but it’s definitely a good one.

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The Windows 7 Beta includes the IE8 beta, and here you can see a file download dialog that shows that the file you’re downloading was checked by the SmartScreen Filter, a component of IE8 that’s an extension and enhancement of IE7’s Phishing Filter.

There are loads more new features and improvements, sublte and not-so-subtle, in Windows 7, but to get back on point, let’s talk about how our little sub-$500 Frankenstein computer did, performance wise. I’m happy to say that Windows 7 runs extremely well and feels light and quick, even on this machine, which I would consider pretty close to entry level. Sure, you could get a $299 machine with a Celeron and 1GB RAM, but such a machine wouldn’t even run XP well once you got all your stuff installed.

On our test machine, though, Windows 7 not only feels more than acceptably fast, it’s actually fun to use. I never felt like I was waiting for things to happen, which is something that can happen on a Vista machine if it’s a bit underpowered or doesn’t have enough RAM.

Bootup time has been different most times that we’ve clocked it, but has averaged between 25 and 40 seconds, and shutdown time has been between 8 and 15 seconds. This is a huge improvement over Vista’s startup / shutdown times, even on a well-configured machine.

We even installed Tomb Raider Underworld and on this test machine it ran pretty well at 1440 x 900. There was a bit of “tearing” here and there, but it was definitely playable, and I suspect that TRU is likely about as intense a game as somebody would expect to run on a lowish-end machine anyway (although I’m sure there are those of you out there who will correct me on that).

Microsoft have said that this is the only public Beta for Windows 7 that they plan to release. To be honest, in the hours that I spent using Windows 7, I found so few issues that it seems like Microsoft may be a lot closer to releasing Win7 than most people might thing. It already feels pretty polished in most areas. I’m sure there’s still plenty that I didn’t see, and people have definitely found some issues here and there (there are definitely a number of bugs and features that are flaky), but in all, I was very impressed not only with Windows 7’s new features, but how “done” it all felt and, in particular, how well it rand on this inexpensive box that we put together.

The Windows 7 Beta is still available for download for a couple of weeks. If you have a spare machine to play around with or if you’re comfortable dual-booting, it’s definitely worth checking out and exploring.

Get the Windows 7 Beta 32-bit ISO file here
Get the Windows 7 Beta 64-bit ISO file here

Note that you’ll need a Product Key to activate your Windows 7 Beta, and Lifehacker has posted a handy set of instructions on how to get your key, here.

The Windows 7 Beta is set to expire on July 1, 2009, so hopefully it won’t be too much later when it’s actually released, as I have a feeling that a lot of people who start using it aren’t going to want to stop.