Windows 7 Public Beta: First Impressions

By Robert Strohmeyer, PC World |  Windows, Windows 7

On Thursday at CES, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced the public availability of the Windows 7 beta release. At PC World we've been running our own evaluations of the forthcoming replacement to Microsoft's much-derided Windows Vista for some time now, and we just couldn't wait to take this new version for a spin. Here's one editor's take on the latest Windows 7 user experience.

This being an early beta release, I won't get persnickety about the performance issues and minor functionality glitches I experienced during my first day with Windows 7. Let there be no doubt, however, that in the weeks and months to come the PC World Test Center will continue to put the new OS through its paces to see what it's made of.

Back in late October of 2008, PCW senior editor Yardena Arar and former PCW editor in chief Harry McCracken took an early look at some of the new features you can look forward to in Windows 7. Rather than reprising their excellent coverage here, I'll delve into the question of how 7's new features work, and I'll take a look at some other enhancements that struck me during my early hours with the OS.

For more great PC World coverage of Windows 7 news as it emerges, visit our Windows 7 infocenter.

Interface Enhancements

As Yardena and Harry noted in their earlier preview of Windows 7, the new OS's Desktop interface is even glassier than Vista's. So if you're not a fan of Aero, prepare yourself for Aero overload. That said, the new glassy Taskbar simplifies your view of running apps by using a unique icon--instead of the program's name--to represent each one. The revamped System Tray is as unhelpful as ever, unfortunately, but having the option to hide some icons and turn off notifications from apps and utilities that you don't care about certainly reduces the aggravation factor.

One interface tweak I already love is the elimination of Windows Sidebar--a a resource-hogging nuisance that I routinely disabled on every new Vista machine I encountered. Without more-extensive performance testing, I can't say for sure that the Sidebar-free gadgets in Windows 7 will be less detrimental to system performance than Sidebar was, but my first impression is that they're not quite as bad. Of course, they're no more useful than the old gadgets were, either. In fact, they're the same.

One striking interface update comes in the included Paint and Word Pad apps, both of which now sport a Ribbon interface à la Office 2007. Though the jury is still out on whether the Office '07 Ribbon menus constitute an improvement over previous menu layouts, the Ribbon format works exceedingly well for minimalist apps like these, putting all of the most useful features within easy view. For instance as I was grabbing and snipping screen shots for this article, I found Paint infinitely easier than Snipping Tool to work in because the selection, resizing, and cropping tools were readily accessible from the Home menu bar. Thanks to the Ribbon, many users may discover that these two throw-away apps have gained a new lease on life. Go figure.

A feature that we noticed during our earlier trial of the beta but weren't able to try out first-hand was the Jump List. Fully functional in the public beta, jump lists add a handy submenu to many applications, so you can see items that you recently worked with in a given app, or look at further options you have for starting new documents or accessing often-used features. In my trials, the jump lists helped me get more out of the apps I worked with. But if this feature is to become even more useful, developers must embrace them in upcoming versions of new programs.

Another improvement in Windows 7's interface compared to Vista's is the simplified Shutdown control on the Start Menu. Gone is the unhelpful icon; in its place are clear, concise textual menus that tell you exactly what will happen when you click on them. So you no longer have to reconfigure your Start Menu to determine whether your PC will shut down entirely or merely go into hibernation when you click the button.

Action Center

A new addition to Windows 7 is the Action Center, which pulls a variety of security and maintenance features together in a single menu for simpler management. Though it's unlikely to wow many advanced users, the Action Center's clearly labeled options should make it easier for beginners and intermediate users to set their system security preferences with confidence, manage backups, and troubleshoot minor performance problems or return to a previous restore point if things go awry.

User Account Control

As noted in our look at the earlier beta, Microsoft has tweaked User Account Control in some important ways that should go a long way toward addressing many Vista haters' complaints. It now offers four levels of protection: always notify, notify only when programs try to make changes (this is the default), notify when programs try to make changes but don't dim the screen (my preference), and never notify. I won't win many allies by saying this, but the setting I was hoping to see added to this list is an option to require a password when programs try to make changes, which would add a level of actual security to UAC: Any fool with access to your computer can click Continue, but requiring an admin password would add a meaningful level of security. This missing feature is standard on more-secure operating systems such as Linux, and it would be a worthwhile (though admittedly unpopular) addition. In any case, having four options built in is a major step up from the old Vista UAC workarounds.

Networking Improvements

Windows 7 adds a few networking improvements that Vista and XP lacked. One of the most significant of these is HomeGroups, which give structure to the process of sharing devices and media files over a home network. Setting up a HomeGroup between two or more Windows 7 PCs automates the sharing of Libraries (collections of pictures, music files, movies, or documents), printers, and storage devices. Windows 7 also increases the number of SMB network connections that you can have in a single network.

Setting up a HomeGroup needn't put all of your systems at risk, it seems. When you create one, Windows generates a secure passkey that you must enter on every system that you add to the HomeGroup, which should help keep interlopers from reaching your shared files and devices, even if they manage to get onto your wireless network.

Easy Upgrade

In our last trial of Windows 7, we had no opportunity to perform a full upgrade from Vista--an experience that will be important to many people who want to try out the 7 beta or to upgrade their own systems to 7 from XP or Vista. If no news is good news, I'm pleased to report that my own upgrade went off without a hitch. The actual install time was roughly 40 minutes, and the system rebooted more times than seemed necessary for a simple OS upgrade, but the final result was a fully functional installation. Even my AVG antivirus continued to function normally, which came as a welcome surprise.

Of course, I'm running the new OS on a test machine that I use primarily for trying out things like this, and it isn't exactly laden with media files and applications. In coming weeks, we'll try the beta out on additional systems with a range of installed apps and files to see how the upgrade goes on machines with more-complicated software loads.

Performance

The biggest question on everyone's mind is whether Windows 7 introduces much-needed performance improvements over Vista. I can't answer that question based on one day of subjective use, but I can say that it seems a little faster. Throughout the OS, windows open faster, apps seem to launch more quickly, and the interface seems a little snappier than it was with my Vista installation on the same machine a few hours ago. Startup is a bit quicker, too, getting me from power-on to fully booted in about 74 seconds, versus 87 seconds prior to the upgrade. This comparison is totally unscientific, mind you, and we'll do more extensive testing in the PC World Test Center soon. But my first impression was that Windows 7 generally outperformed Vista on the hardware I used.

Try It For Yourself

So that's my take on my first day with Windows 7. But you don't have to rely on my opinion alone. If you're curious, have lots of free time, and want to conduct your own research and reach your own conclusions about the upcoming Windows OS, read our guide to getting Windows 7 beta for yourself. The DVD images are large and will generally take a few hours to download and install, but there's nothing quite like taking an advance look at the next generation of your OS. If you decide to check it out, let us know what you think of it by dropping a note in our comments section below. Ultimately, it's you, the end users, not us the critics, who will decide whether Windows 7 is the bomb or a dud.

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