Compatibility Testing for Windows 7 (Part 1)

by [Published on 4 Feb. 2010 / Last Updated on 4 Feb. 2010]

In spite of the marketing hype, there are some known compatibility issues with Windows 7. This article series will discuss the author’s own experiences in upgrading to Windows 7, and will discuss the various tools that are available for Windows 7 compatibility testing.

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Introduction

Leading up to the release of Windows 7, I kept hearing from various sources that compatibility problems were not going to be an issue in this latest Windows release. After all, Windows 7 was built on top of the Windows Vista kernel, so anything that works with Vista should theoretically work with Windows 7 as well. Furthermore, Windows 7 Professional and Windows 7 Ultimate offer Windows XP mode which emulates Windows XP so that those applications that only run on Windows XP can seamlessly run alongside your other applications. Of course the very fact that I am writing this article implies that Windows 7 may not be quite as universally compatible as the marketing hype might lead you to believe.

Before I Begin

Before I get started, I just want to point out that my purpose in writing this article is not to bash Microsoft or Windows 7. Personally, I think that Windows 7 is the best desktop operating system that Microsoft has ever released. Having said that though, I also have to tell you that Windows 7 is not perfect. In spite of Microsoft’s best efforts, there are some compatibility issues that anyone who is planning on deploying Windows 7 may have to deal with. My purpose in writing this article is therefore to tell you what you can expect when you deploy Windows 7, and to show you what you can do to avoid having any serious compatibility issues.

My Story

I think that the best way to get started is to start off by telling you about my own experiences with deploying Windows 7. I was involved with Windows 7 throughout the development process. By the time that Windows 7 was eventually released, I knew from working with the prerelease versions that Windows 7 was stable, and that I wanted to upgrade.

In a corporate environment, there is almost always a whole lot of planning that goes into an upgrade before Setup is ever run on the first PC. In my case though, the only machine that I was immediately interested in upgrading was my primary desktop computer, which is the machine that I am writing this article on right now. Since I was only planning on upgrading a single PC, and that PC was not running any applications that could be considered to be out of the ordinary, I tossed caution to the wind and upgraded my computer without doing any testing ahead of time.

Granted, my approach seems really reckless. My upgrade was not quite as uncalculated as it may seem though. I had previously been running Vista Ultimate Edition, and a friend at Microsoft had once told me that Windows 7 could best be thought of as Windows Vista R2. Given the similarities between the two operating systems, an unplanned upgrade seemed safe enough, but I did run a full backup of my computer before I performed the upgrade.

I know that at this point you are probably expecting to hear some kind of horror story about my upgrade. To be perfectly honest, the upgrade went fairly smoothly. There were a couple of compatibility issues that I really was not expecting though.

The first compatibility issue that I noticed was that after the upgrade completed, my sound no longer worked. Since my computer was equipped with a Sound Blaster X-FI, I paid a visit to Creative’s Web site and looked around a bit. I was surprised to learn that the Sound Blaster driver that I had been using was not compatible with Windows 7. Creative did offer a Windows 7 version of the driver, and installing the Windows 7 driver immediately fixed my problem.

The other compatibility issue that I encountered was that Dragon Naturally Speaking would no longer work. I can’t remember the exact error message that I received, but it had something to do with the application not being authorized for use on my computer. It wasn’t that Dragon Naturally Speaking wasn’t compatible with Windows 7, but rather that it has somehow been invalidated during the upgrade process. I was able to resolve the issue after spending about 45 minutes on the phone with Nuance’s technical support staff.

Those were the only two compatibility issues that I experienced. Those two issues aside, the upgrade process was very smooth. Even so, I really wasn’t expecting to encounter any compatibility issues at all given the fact that Windows 7 was built on top of the Vista kernel. In a way this was a valuable lesson. The issues that I experienced underscore the importance of compatibility testing regardless of how minor an upgrade may seem. Of course this raises the question of how you can test Windows 7 to make sure that it is compatible with your existing hardware and software.

The Windows 7 Compatibility Center

Microsoft actually offers quite a few different tools that you can use to test Windows 7’s compatibility with your existing hardware and software prior to deployment. Some of these tools are geared more to home users, while others are more suitable for enterprise deployments. Since everyone’s needs are different, I will show you both varieties of tools.

The first compatibility tool that I want to show you is the Windows 7 Compatibility Center. The Windows 7 Compatibility Center is a Web application that you can use to look up individual applications to find out whether or not they will work with Windows 7. You can access the Windows 7 Compatibility Center.

If you look at Figure A, you can see that the Web application allows you to browse various application categories in an effort to locate the applications that you want to check for compatibility with Windows 7. My experience with the Windows 7 Compatibility Center has been that it is usually more efficient to enter an application name into the search engine rather than trying to locate the application by browsing through the various categories.


Figure A: The Windows 7 Compatibility Center allows you to determine whether or not various applications are compatible with Windows 7

As you looked at the figure above, you may have noticed that the Windows 7 Compatibility Center contains a Hardware tab. This tab, which is shown in Figure B, allows you to check to see if your hardware is Windows 7 compatible.


Figure B: The Windows 7 Compatibility Center also allows you to look up various hardware components

Many years ago, when Microsoft released Windows NT, they created something called the Hardware Compatibility List. The Hardware Compatibility List (also known as the HCL) was a list of hardware that was certified to work with Windows NT. At the time, adhering to the hardware compatibility list was an absolute must. I can recall several incidents in which Microsoft’s technical support staff refused to help me with various technical issues because Windows NT was running on hardware that was not listed on the HCL.

Believe it or not, the HCL has existed in one form or another for every version of Windows that was based on the NT Kernel (Windows NT, 2000, 2003, XP, Vista, 2008, and Windows 7). Today, most people don’t give hardware compatibility a second thought, because pretty much any PC will run Windows without any problems, and because Microsoft does not enforce adherence to the list like they used to in the days of Windows NT. Even so, it is still a good idea to use the Windows 7 Compatibility Center or one of the other tools that I will be showing you to make sure that your hardware will work correctly with Windows 7. Taking a few minutes to do a quick compatibility check now could save you some heartache down the road.

Conclusion

In this article, I have explained why compatibility testing is important for Windows 7, and I talked briefly about the Windows 7 Compatibility Center. Of course the Windows 7 Compatibility Center is really just a quick and dirty tool for looking up any known compatibility issues with individual applications or hardware components. There are better tools available for performing more comprehensive compatibility testing. I will begin showing you these tools in Part 2.

If you would like to be notified when Brien Posey releases the next part of this article series please sign up to the WindowsNetworking.com Real time article update newsletter.

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