I'll admit, the next version of the

Microsoft

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Windows operating system looks like a winner.

I was a skeptic. Change that, I was a

huge

skeptic. That was based on my testing of the last version of Windows. More than two years ago, I tried installing the final beta version of Windows Vista onto a brand-spanking new

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(now Lenovo) ThinkPad laptop. This beta came directly from Microsoft's PR people.

Windows 7 Beta Is Speed Demon

var config = new Array(); config<BRACKET>"videoId"</BRACKET> = 8757826001; config<BRACKET>"playerTag"</BRACKET> = "TSCM Embedded Video Player"; config<BRACKET>"autoStart"</BRACKET> = false; config<BRACKET>"preloadBackColor"</BRACKET> = "#FFFFFF"; config<BRACKET>"useOverlayMenu"</BRACKET> = "false"; config<BRACKET>"width"</BRACKET> = 265; config<BRACKET>"height"</BRACKET> = 255; config<BRACKET>"playerId"</BRACKET> = 1243645856; createExperience(config, 8);

A few weeks earlier, during a visit to Redmond, Wash., Microsoft had provided me with a laptop that had an earlier build of Vista. It was a little quirky, but it worked pretty well. Unfortunately, I was never able to play with that computer anywhere other than on the Microsoft "campus."

So, when I installed the final beta on the ThinkPad, I was astounded that Vista would barely work at all. To their credit, the Microsoft people were horrified. They asked me to send them the offending laptop so they could investigate. After six months, they returned it. It worked, but not as well as when I replaced Vista with a previous version of Windows XP.

The experience soured me on Vista. I have preferred XP machines ever since. Until now, that is -- now that I've downloaded and installed the new Windows 7 beta.

Vista looked to be a very different operating system from XP. Sure, the Windows underpinnings were similar, but the way it looked and felt was a change from the old guard. Windows 7, on the other hand, looks and feels like an improved version of Vista.

You can download the beta from the

Microsoft Web site

. Beware that it will take an hour or more (possibly lots more) depending on the speed of your Internet connection and the number of people trying to do the same thing.

When completed, you will be faced with an "ISO" image file that needs to be converted. You can download software like

MagicISO

and either save the files on a hard drive or burn them to a DVD.

I couldn't install Windows 7 beta on just any computer. There wasn't enough storage space on any of the Asus Eee PCs on hand (and the install program told me I needed 9 GB of free space). Also, I didn't want to (nor should you) take a trusty, every day XP or Vista computer and install a beta operating system. That would be asking for trouble.

I did have an extra Vista laptop in the closet. From start to finish, installing the Windows 7 beta took a measly 35 minutes.

I was happy to see that all of my usual add-ons installed and work perfectly. That includes special software to gain access to the

TheStreet.com's

servers,

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3G and

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4G wireless networks, my favorite antivirus program and lots more.

I found that 7 prefers you to restart the computer after each and every install. With XP and Vista, you were sometimes able to get away with restarting after installing a few programs at a time. That's the only thing I found that was even slightly annoying.

Windows 7 is everything I wanted Vista to be and wasn't -- especially lightning fast. You will not believe just how quickly a Web page can load onto the screen. Try browsing to an especially feature-laden Web site. Try

TheStreet.com

. You will be amazed.

And it's not just the Web browsing. Windows 7 just plain works, works fast, and is a complete pleasure to use. I'm not sure which beta features will make their way to the final version, but I have to say that Microsoft's reworking of the desktop is worth the price of admission. It is super clean. Everything now has the polished feel of an

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OS.

As of now, this is the first PC OS since Windows XP that I'd be willing to recommend for use on a daily basis. Unless you have a strong stomach, I would wait until the final version of Windows 7 is officially released. If it's anything like this beta, it is worth waiting for. I'll have a lot more to say about 7 in the near future.

You have until the end of January to download the Windows 7 beta. It expires on Aug. 1, 2009. That date just might be a big hint from Microsoft as to when to expect this new OS's official release.

Gary Krakow is TheStreet.com's senior technology correspondent.