Although I don't have as many gripes as others about Windows Vista, it was abundantly clear on day one that Vista would run slower than XP on the same hardware. To my way of thinking, that was Microsoft's key mistake with Vista, not UAC or hardware incompatibility. When you pay good money for hardware, the last thing you want is to pay good money to make it run worse.
So what's the story with Windows 7?
I have now personally built two Windows 7 stations from scratch, including a rebuild I'm doing for my venerable laptop. The older system is a Pentium D class system with integrated graphics. So far, everything I've tried on that system has run as well or better than on XP on that same system. The only exception is Microsoft's own in-the-box games, which inexplicably require hardware acceleration (if your PC can't run the Windows 7 Aero interface, it won't run Mahjong Titans or Spyder Solitaire well). After a few weeks of experience, my conclusion is that Win7 will not suffer from the same general performance problems as Windows Vista.
Today I was reading an article in the Windows Secrets Newsletter by the always excellent Fred Langa. In "Preparing Windows XP for the long haul," Fred discusses ways in which an XP system can be tuned up to keep it running. His thesis is that XP is "still the best OS for older hardware designed with XP in mind." I understand his point very well and on the surface it makes sense. It is in Microsoft's best interest to make a successor version of Windows perform well enough that the user does not regret making the switch, exactly what did not happen with Vista. But based upon my experience with Win7, I don't agree. If Windows 7 had been the version of Windows appearing right after XP, if we had skipped Vista, I think there would have been far fewer complaints. I consider Windows 7 a worthy successor to XP.
Fred states that Windows XP (SP3) is not dead and I agree. But here's where I part company with Fred - just because it may make sense to keep XP running does not mean that Windows 7 is a bad alternative, even for older hardware. If the PC is really old, that's another matter. My four PCs are much younger than XP, deployed just before or slightly after Vista hit the market. My ThinkPad T60 was purchased in 2007 but was a model from late 2006. While most might consider four year old computers "older," I have always tended to buy toward the high end to get maximum life, so all these machine can be considered "Vista-capable." I use my ThinkPad for everything, even light video editing, and it remains entirely adequate.
Fred does make an important point about drivers. If you are going to tune up your system, he suggests grabbing drivers now, pointing out that vendors will start paying less and less attention to an OS nine years old. I take this one step further. If you are considering Windows 7 on older hardware, run Microsoft's Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor. It will give you an excellent overview of how Windows 7 is likely to fare on your system, including any hardware issues that might be relevant. The most likely hardware problem will be an inadequate graphics card. If the computer is a desktop, that is something you can resolve now, before AGP cards completely vanish from the scene (and while they can be had cheaply). If a laptop proves "graphically challenged," sticking with XP until you buy again might be the best course.
Before you spend the time and money to switch to Win7, check all your key software applications to make sure they will run in Windows 7, one way or another.
By the way, if you don't plan to keep your current PC more than six months, ignore all of this. The conversion from XP to Windows 7, although not as messy as some suggest, will be time-consuming. You won't feel good about investing that time unless you get an appropriate return.
Read Fred's entire article. It is very thorough, extremely organized, full of excellent tips, and worth bookmarking. But don't be scared off Windows 7.