Windows 7 RC1 adds speed, UI improvements

By Preston Gralla, Computerworld |  Windows, BitTorrent, Windows 7

Windows 7 Release Candidate 1 (RC1), prematurely available on BitTorrent file-sharing sites and due to be more widely available on May 5, is a polished piece of work, ready for prime time. This hotly anticipated version arrives with a variety of nifty new changes to the interface and some important refinements under the hood.

Most of the changes in RC1 are not earth-shaking, but in general the operating system has been tweaked in numerous small ways to improve productivity and overall usefulness. In this review, I'll look only at changes made between the beta that was released last January and RC1.

Windows XP Mode

Perhaps the biggest surprise -- and for Microsoft Corp., possibly the biggest boost -- is a feature that has been announced but not yet available: Windows XP Mode, which will run XP applications in an XP compatibility box, but make them appear as if they are running directly in Windows 7 itself. In this way, Microsoft hopes to give users the best of both worlds -- the compatibility of XP and the shinier new Windows 7 interface.

The feature sounds underwhelming until you dig into the details. According to Microsoft, you won't actually have to manually run Virtual PC to run those XP applications once you've installed them; instead, they will appear to work directly within Windows 7. You'll just have to run Virtual PC the first time and run the application -- from that point on, it will appear to be just other application running directly in Windows 7 (at least, that's the promise). And you won't have to buy XP separately -- your Windows 7 EULA (end-user license agreement) includes XP as well. In essence, you get two operating systems for the price of one.

This solves one of Microsoft's biggest problems with XP very cleverly -- it's such a solid, stable operating system that people simply don't want to give it up to move to a newer operating system. Now they don't have to -- they can run XP as if it were a part of Windows 7.

Microsoft says Windows XP Mode will soon be ready for download, and as soon as it is, I'll follow up with a report on how well it works.

Speeding things up

I installed RC1 on a Dell Inspiron E1505 notebook with 1GB of RAM and a 1.83-GHz dual-core processor. Even at that configuration, the operating system was surprisingly fast, seemingly even faster than the beta, which represented a significant performance improvement over Windows Vista. However, I did run into one installation issue: Windows 7 didn't properly recognize my video card and used a default, generic video driver, which would not allow Aero to run and could not use the notebook's highest resolutions. When I asked Windows to rescan my hardware, it was still unable to properly recognize the card. I had to manually download and install the Windows Vista video driver. After that, the laptop worked like a charm.

On the other hand, when I previously tested the beta build, I had problems getting Aero to work, even though Windows recognized the video card, and I had problems with wireless networking as well. Those problems were solved in RC1.

Overall interface improvements

RC1 includes a host of subtle user-interface changes that, taken together, represent an improvement over the beta.

For example, Windows 7's task bar is the most visible improvement over Windows Vista. In the beta, the task bar was already impressive; in RC1, it has been tweaked to become even more useful.

If you frequently open many files in a single application, you'll welcome the new feature Microsoft calls "task bar thumbnail overflow." As with the beta, when you have many files open in an application and hover your mouse over its icon on the task bar, you'll see a list of files open, rather than their individual thumbnails, because that many thumbnails simply can't fit on your screen.

In RC1, this list view has been juiced up, and it works more like the thumbnail view. Highlight any file on the list, and you'll "peek" at the highlighted window, just as you can do in thumbnail view. In addition, you can close any window by clicking a small "X" in the same way as you can in thumbnail view.

Keyboard junkies will appreciate a new keyboard shortcut for the task bar that makes it easier to jump to an individual window in an application without having to use the mouse. As with the beta version of Windows 7, you can still use the keyboard to launch any application that has been pinned to the task bar. For example, if Microsoft Word is the second item pinned to the task bar, press Windows Key-2, and you'll launch Word.

With RC1, though, you can now cycle through individual windows within any application on the task bar. For example, if Word is the second icon on the task bar, and it has several windows open, hold down the Windows key, then press 2 repeatedly; each time you press the 2 key, you'll cycle through a new open window in Word. (For more nifty ways to get around Windows 7, see "Windows 7 tips, tricks and tweaks.")

The task bar has gotten several other new features as well. It can display more pinned icons than previously, so that if you have many of them pinned, you no longer have to scroll through them. For example, at a resolution of 1024 by 768, you'll be able to see 15 rather than the previous 12 icons if you use large icons, and 22 rather than 16 if you use small icons.

Making the jump

The beta of Windows 7 introduced Jump Lists, which are lists of actions or items associated with a particular application. In the beta, to see a Jump List for any application, you right-clicked its icon in the task bar or Start menu. Typically, you'd see a list of the most recent open files (or Web sites, in the case of Internet Explorer), as well as options to pin or unpin the application icon to and from the task bar.

Windows 7 RC1 tweaks the Jump Lists by giving you some control over the maximum number of items on the list -- you can now limit it to under 10. In addition, if you right-click the Control Panel when it's in the task bar, you'll see a list of the most recently used Control Panel features and applets. That's mildly useful. It would be better if you could see a similar Jump List when you right-click Control Panel on the Start Menu. Unfortunately, though, you don't.

In RC1, you can also manually pin files to a Jump List for a program that doesn't normally handle that file type -- something that you couldn't do in the beta. You can then open the file using the program to which it has been pinned. But be careful when you use this feature, because it can lead to unintended consequences: When you drag the file to an application's Jump List, that application will now open all files of that type when you double-click the file. For example, drag an HTML file to Notepad, and Notepad will always open HTML files from then on, rather than, say, Internet Explorer. (Of course, Internet Explorer will continue to open HTML pages on the Internet or a network.)

Those who use Remote Desktop Connection to take control of other computers on their networks will have something to be pleased about -- when you pin the Remote Desktop Connection to your task bar, it now includes in the Jump List all of the remote desktop connections you've saved. So you can now more easily take control of a remote PC.

Microsoft also claims that now you can change task-bar settings in a more reliable way. In earlier versions, including Windows 7 beta, when you made changes to the task bar, those changes were permanently saved only after Explorer exited at the end of a session. If there was a crash or if Windows did not shut down properly, the task-bar settings wouldn't be in effect for the next session. Microsoft says that the task-bar changes are now made permanently within 30 seconds of when they are applied, which should eliminate the problem.

Alt-Tab windows switching has been improved; the feature has now been combined with Aero Peek. When you use Alt-Tab to cycle through your open windows, if you pause on any, you'll be able to peek through to the desktop and see the open window as well as the underlying desktop, along with outlines of any other open windows. I found this new piece of eye candy very useful because I no longer had to guess at the contents of any open window -- I could see it immediately.

Windows Explorer and search tweaks

In RC1, both Windows Explorer and file search have been tweaked in subtle, but generally useful ways.

One small but useful change is the way in which Windows Explorer displays folders in the Address Bar. Previously, if you browsed to a folder deep within your hard disk and the entire path could not be displayed, the parent folder of your current folder might be truncated. In RC1, the parent folder and the current folder are always displayed.

Searching has been slightly improved as well. In the beta, when you searched for a file, it also displayed snippets of information from the file that were quite useful in determining whether the file was the one you were searching for. In RC1, you now get more of a good thing -- the snippets are longer, and they're included more frequently.

In addition, in the beta, you would see file properties within search results, but those properties were not labeled. In RC1, they are labeled, making them easier to understand. In addition, there have been some layout and color changes. The result is that, overall, search results are easier to scan.

A few desktop tweaks

Among the more entertaining additions to Windows 7 in RC1 are a slew of very un-Microsoft-like desktop backgrounds that make one wonder whether people in the Microsoft art department have been ingesting chemical compounds that are not strictly legal.

Many of the new backgrounds are a mixture of Sergeant Pepper-style psychedelic art and Japanese anime, with a chaser of Hieronymus Bosch thrown in. They're thoroughly entertaining and the most unlikely art you'll ever see coming out of Microsoft.

In RC1, you can also control whether to hide or display desktop icons and gadgets. Right-click the desktop, select View, and you get a menu that gives you control over whether you want to display the icons and gadgets or hide them.

Other changes

There are plenty of other changes in RC1. Microsoft claims that RC1 includes faster start-up and shutdown, faster resumption from standby, faster searching and indexing, and quicker recognition of USB devices. I could not confirm all of that, but on my laptop, Windows 7 did resume from standby noticeably faster, and start-up and shutdown seemed quicker as well.

In addition, there has been a small attempt to make Windows 7 greener. When you click the battery icon in the notification area, you'll see only two power plans: "Balanced" and "Power-saver." The high-performance plan, which generally consumes more energy than the other two plans, doesn't show up. However, you can make the high-performance plan appear by clicking the battery icon, selecting "More power options" and then selecting "High performance."

There are a number of security tweaks, including some minor changes to User Account Control (UAC). Most notably, the UAC prompt now blacks out the desktop. In addition, AutoRun has been disabled when you use USB flash drives and other nonremovable optical storage as a safety precaution, because worms can use AutoRun to sneak malware onto your PC.

Internet Explorer has gotten several minor tweaks as well. You can now launch an InPrivate browsing session via IE's Jump List, and you can open new tabs from the Jump List as well.

Windows Media Player has also received a minor makeover. Previously, Media Player had a "Lightweight Playback Mode" which took up far less real estate than the full-blown Media Player. That mode has been renamed "Now Playing Mode" and is even smaller and more compact.

Windows Media Player also now supports .mov files recorded by digital cameras. There's also a Remote Media Streaming feature that lets you stream media to other PCs.

Finally, there have been some changes of note for enterprise use. RC1 includes changes to the DirectAccess feature for connecting to corporate networks remotely, including adding smart card support. Folders can be deleted and renamed when in offline mode. And AppLocker, which allows IT staffers to control what applications can be run on PCs, has gotten some tweaks as well, making it easier to administer.

The bottom line

Windows 7 RC1 includes a substantial number of productivity and performance tweaks that make an already solid, fast, entertaining and useful operating system even better. The only major change -- Windows XP Mode -- isn't available yet, so I could not test it.

RC1 is stable enough and fast enough that it's well worth the download. As with all operating systems that are not final, there is always the caveat that you should use it for testing purposes only. The operating system is clearly ready for prime time, although if my experience with my test machine holds true for others, there may be some driver issues. But when RC1 is available for widespread download, anyone considering a move to the operating system should give it a spin -- they'll most likely be very impressed.

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