November 12, 2008, 9:51 AM — Microsoft may call the newest version of its operating system Windows 7, but you may want to think of it as Windows 6.5. In overall look and feel, it mimics Vista, although there are enough changes to make it far more than just a juiced-up service pack.
Anyone looking for massive changes or some kind of paradigm shift will be disappointed. But those who want a better-working Vista with the kinks ironed out and some nifty new features introduced will be very pleased.
Overall, Windows 7 is a more functional, more efficiently designed operating system than Windows Vista, with far more attention paid to the user experience. From revamped a User Account Control (UAC) feature to better home networking, improved search and nice interface tweaks, the entire operating system has gotten an overall polishing. Even Windows Backup, one of the worst applications ever shipped with an operating system, has been turned into something useful.
A usable UAC
Let's start by going straight to the most reviled feature of Windows Vista: UAC.
In Windows 7, UAC has been tamed and is actually now a useful security tool. For a start, there are fewer prompts by default. Want to do something really crazy like change the date or time of your PC? Go ahead: Unlike Windows Vista, Windows 7 lets you do it without popping up any prompts. In fact, UAC rarely gets in your way -- you get a prompt only when a program tries to make changes to your PC. If you make them yourself, it allows you to go ahead.
In addition, UAC is customizable. With Windows Vista, it was all or nothing -- UAC was either on or off. With Windows 7, you have some control over how it works.
You tweak it by using a slider. There are four settings:
-- Never notify. In this one, UAC is completely turned off.
-- Only notify me when programs try to make changes to my computer. This is the default; make a change yourself, and UAC leaves you alone. When a program makes a change, a prompt appears. Otherwise, UAC sits there silently.
-- Always notify me. Think of this as UAC Classic. It works like Vista's UAC: When you make changes to your system, when software is installed or when a program tries to make a change to your system, an annoying prompt appears.
-- Always notify me and wait for my response. This setting is baffling. Its description is identical to "Always notify me," and it appears to work precisely the same. Either it's not enabled in this pre-beta, or else there's some difference that's so subtle it's not noticeable.
Microsoft should consider cleaning up one aspect of UAC. As with Vista, any selection or setting that spurs a UAC prompt has a small, multicolored shield icon next to it. That shield remains the same, no matter what your UAC setting is. So if you've kept the UAC setting at the default, you'll see that shield next to a setting for changing your system time or date. But when you click, no prompt appears. Microsoft might consider giving some visual notification when the state of UAC changes -- for example, by graying out the shield when UAC is in a state in which it will not generate a prompt.
Nifty interface tweaks
Although at this stage Windows 7 looks much like Windows Vista, there have been some nifty interface tweaks, and more are on the way.
The biggest tweak hasn't been built into this beta, so I haven't been able to review it: a drastically redesigned and more functional Taskbar. When the new interface takes effect, according to Microsoft and to screenshots that the company has supplied, the Taskbar will be somewhat similar to Mac OS X's Dock. Large application icons on the Taskbar will launch programs when clicked, and you can customize which applications live there. The Quick Launch bar will be history, because the entire Taskbar now acts as a Quick Launch bar, an addition to its other capabilities. And when you run applications, their icons will show up on the Taskbar as well.
Microsoft claims that the new Taskbar will have plenty of ingenious features, such as the ability to display all running programs in a thumbnail list, the ability to show the progress of a task in a running window and more. Again, though, I haven't been able to test this because it's not built into the pre-beta distributed by Microsoft.
There are some nice interface enhancements that are in the pre-beta, though, such as the way windows are minimized, maximized and moved. When you have a nonmaximized window, if you drag the title to the top of the screen, it maximizes the window. With the window maximized, when you drag the title down from the top of the screen, it returns to its previous, nonmaximized position. Drag a window to the right or left edge of the screen, and it takes up that half of the screen.
In addition, Windows Explorer now has a button to turn the preview pane on and off, something that previously took multiple clicks. Also, the Control Panel now includes some animation -- when you're on the main Control Panel screen and click any category, the category's main screen slides into place on the right and displays a list of relevant actions on the left. You can also always return to the main Control Panel screen by clicking a small icon, and it slides back into place.
There are plenty of other interface tweaks throughout. It's now somewhat easier to clean the Notification Area -- the far right of the Taskbar -- and keep it free of icons, with a new dialog box. The Taskbar also pops up alerts that are more detailed than Vista's when it finds problems with your security or hardware.
You can more easily choose and customize themes by right-clicking the Desktop and choosing Personalize. The applet is far better organized and simpler to use than the cluttered one in Vista.
In addition, some Windows 7 applets, such as Paint and WordPad, now sport a ribbon interface, much like the one in Microsoft Office 2007 .
Finally, the Windows Sidebar has been dispensed with, but Gadgets remain. They are no longer confined to the Sidebar and can live anywhere on the desktop.
Networking and Homegroup
Windows 7 has improved on Vista networking, overhauled the Network and Sharing Center, and debuted a new feature called Homegroup that makes it much easier to share files, folders and devices with other people and machines on your home network.
The new Network and Sharing Center offers a more streamlined interface with fewer confusing options for setting up sharing. It displays a better-organized set of links for accomplishing network-related tasks and offers a way for you to immediately see the most important information about your network, such as its type, its name, the state of its connection and so on.
Most important is the addition of what's called a Homegroup. Designed for home networks, a Homegroup makes it easier to share files, folders and devices such as printers with computers on your network. Homegroups work only if you designate your network as Home; if it's a Work or a Public network, the feature won't appear.
When you create a Homegroup, you specify which files, folders, and devices you want to share, and create a password so that only people with that password can join the Homegroup. A particularly useful feature is the ability to easily designate which files and folders to share and which to keep private. That way, if you use the same laptop for home and office, for example, you can keep your work files private when you're at home. In addition, when you come home from work, you won't need to fiddle with changing your default printer; when you join your Homegroup, you'll automatically use your home printer.
Document sharing is much improved as well. You can much more easily share files with others. Vista and XP force you to go through menus and options screens to customize file sharing, often forcing you to figure out how to configure permissions -- a task not for the weak-hearted. Windows 7 makes that much easier. Right-click a folder or file, and from the menu that appears, select "Share with." You'll see a menu that offers sharing options, such as sharing with a Homegroup, disallowing sharing, or sharing with specific people.
In addition, wireless networking has been tweaked so that you can connect to a network with fewer clicks. The wireless networking icon in the system tray displays a small star on it when wireless networks are available. Click it, and a list of available networks appears. Click a network, and a small Connect button appears.
File organization and search
One of Windows 7's most subtle changes will have a surprisingly large impact on the way that people use their computers. It changes the way in which files and documents are organized.
In earlier versions of Windows, including XP and Vista, you're practically forced to organize all of your files and documents under the Documents folder in your user account. Everything about Windows, including default locations for saving, default locations for searching and so on, is built that way. Organize things differently, and you'll make your life difficult.
Windows 7 changes that. Instead of organizing your files and folders in a Documents folder, there is instead an overall Libraries folder, under which separate Downloads, Music, Pictures, and Videos areas can be found.
However, that's not the big change. You can now include folders from other locations on your network in your Libraries. For example, if you have three PCs, and you would like to be able to see all of your work files from all those PCs in one location, you can drag them to your library. Those folders will still live in their original locations but will also show up in your library.
Search has also been improved considerably. From your Windows 7 machine, you can now easily search through other PCs on your network. Place the folders from another PC into a library, do a search on that library, and you'll search the other PC's folders
In addition, search results are easier to scan, and they present more information for each file. It's also much easier to filter searches using file name, author, and file type, because those filters appear just underneath the Windows Explorer search box when you put your cursor into the box.
But you don't need to be in Windows Explorer to search other PCs, as long as you've added folders from those PCs to your library. When you do a search from the Start menu's search box, you'll search through those folders as well.
One of Vista's biggest problems has been its lack of hardware support; when it shipped, many peripherals simply didn't work with it. Even Microsoft executives were bedeviled by the problem.
Microsoft says that Windows 7 will support all hardware that Vista does, and even in a pre-beta, it did a stellar job. It recognized all the hardware on my laptop, including the wireless card (something that Vista was particularly finicky about), and my Lexmark E120 network laser printer. In addition, I plugged in an I/O Magic LightScribe DVD burner, and it recognized it without a hitch.
I experienced only one glitch: At first, Windows 7 could not properly recognize the laptop's wide-screen resolution. However, a restart unaccountably fixed the problem. So it goes with betas.
Windows 7 has also added a new feature that's designed to make it easier to work with hardware -- a Device Stage window. This window appears only when a hardware manufacturer has created one to appear specifically for the device. When you plug in the device, instead of familiar Auto-Play, the Device Stage window appears and gives you options such as an icon for scanning or printing, for example. However, given that the window will be written by the vendor, it may also include marketing materials. In any event, none of the hardware I plugged in launched the window; they most likely won't appear until much closer to the Windows 7 launch.
Microsoft is also pushing Windows 7's touch-screen capabilities, although most weren't enabled in this version and very few existing machines include touch-screen features. The idea is that you'll be able to shuttle around applications and windows, run programs and accomplish plenty of tasks this way. Microsoft also claims that the operating system will recognize when you tend to use a mouse or your hands and will, for example, make the Start button larger if you typically touch it with your finger instead of clicking with a mouse.
Overall, Windows 7 is a lighter-weight operating system than Windows Vista, and it will be able to run on less powerful hardware. For example, at the recent Professional Developers Conference, where Windows 7 was unveiled, Windows and Windows Live Senior Vice President Steve Sinofsky said that Windows 7 used less than half of the 1 GB of RAM on his Lenovo S10 netbook.
In addition, Asus CEO Jerry Shen says he plans to release versions of the Eee PC powered by Windows 7 in mid-2009, including touch-screen models. Windows Vista is too processor- and RAM-intensive to run on netbooks, so expect to see Microsoft push Windows 7 heavily on netbooks.
Microsoft also claims that it's working to improve performance -- but then again, it always says that when it releases a new operating system. Still, I can say that Windows 7 was surprisingly zippy on my machine, even in its pre-beta version -- far faster than Vista was in beta testing, even in later betas. Microsoft claims that it's improving memory management and reducing power consumption on laptops. In addition, the company says it will protect the operating system from poorly written or problematic hardware drivers.
Multimedia support has also been improved in Windows 7. Those who listen to music or play videos on their PCs will be pleased to see that there is now a built-in way to do both without having to launch Windows Media Player, which tends to take up considerable RAM. Launch Windows Explorer and turn on the Preview pane, and a small media player appears in the pane. Click on the file you want to play, click the Play button, and the media plays in the media player in the pane. This is just a player, so for other capabilities, you'll have to go to the WMP. But for simple entertainment, it's a handy addition.
In addition, Windows Media Player now features a bare-bones, stripped-down view in a small window that's suitable for playing media but not for managing your library. So if all you want to do is play media, you can use it as a simple player. In addition, Windows Media Player can handle a wider variety of formats, including the high-definition DivX format, popular among video downloaders, as well as the AAC audio format used by Apple's iTunes.
Other notable changes
Windows 7 comes with some nice extras, including a simple sticky-notes applet that mimics the sticky notes you leave around your desk. There's certainly nothing groundbreaking about this little applet -- Macs have included a similar one for well over a decade. Still, it's a nice extra that you might use.
The Windows Backup program, which in Vista was essentially worthless, is finally useful. You can now customize your backups by choosing to include or exclude specific drives and folders. Particularly nice is that when you plug in a device that can be used for backup, such as a USB hard drive, a wizard can be launched that walks you through creating a backup. Overall, you'll need fewer clicks to create a backup.
Network administrators will welcome another addition: the PowerShell scripting command line language that helps IT staff to perform system and network administration.
Also notable about Windows 7 is what's missing. Windows Mail, Windows Photo Gallery and Windows Movie Maker -- all solid applications -- are now gone. However, all of them will be available as free downloads from Windows Live.
Also missing are applications that most of us never used and will not miss. Windows Meeting Space, for example, a fairly worthless application for setting up ad hoc networks, is gone, as is the related application People Near Me.
The bottom line
Windows 7 is in pre-beta, so there's no way to come to a definitive, bottom-line conclusion about the operating system. However, it's surprisingly stable, solid, well-done and speedy at this early stage in the development cycle. Some important features of it are still missing -- notably, the new Taskbar.
However, even at this early stage, it's clear that Windows 7 is a real improvement over Windows Vista. It cleans up some of Vista's rough edges, adds useful new capabilities and most likely won't have the same problems with hardware that Vista did. We'll have to wait for further betas to offer a more definitive conclusion.