Microsoft Looks Beyond Vista with Windows 7

A first look at the first beta of Microsoft's Windows 7 shows an operating system that takes advantages of features first introduced in the troubled Windows Vista while offering its own share of new enterprise features. Changes to the Start Menu and taskbar in Windows 7 are improvements over Vista and XP, but for some tasks, users will have to rely on third-party applications.

Without a doubt, the first beta edition of the Windows 7 operation system indicates that Microsoft is on the right track to shore up many of the perceived flaws of Windows Vista.

While not a ground-breaking release-Windows 7 is at its core very similar to Windows Vista-the new OS has adeptly taken advantage of under-developed features first introduced in Vista, creating a more intuitive and flexible user experience.

Windows 7 offers enterprise customers several compelling new features, such as BranchCache file caching, DirectAccess VPN-replacement technology, and out-of-the-box readiness for BitLocker (features I will look at in depth in part two of this review next week). The primary thrust of Windows 7 is to provide users a better experience in the way they use computers today. And at its heart, Windows 7's greatly improved emphasis on workflow and organization makes the operating system much more palatable for heavy-duty users used to operating with a large number of open windows and applications.

Click here for eWEEK Labs' walk-through of Windows 7 beta.

I spent the bulk of my time using the 64-bit iteration of Windows on a Dell XPS M1330 laptop that came with 3 GB of RAM and a 2.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T9500 processor (Windows Experience score of 3.0, with the disk drive as the lowest common denominator). I also spent some time with the 32-bit iteration of Windows 7 installed within a VMWare ESXi-based virtual instance.

The New Taskbar, Start Menu and Desktop

The most immediately obvious improvements to Windows 7 are the significant changes to the taskbar and Start Menu. With each of the last few iterations of Windows, Microsoft has taken a stab at updating the look and feel of the default desktop experience, changes that in the past failed to keep me from reverting to a previous "classic" theme within minutes.

So far, though, I am really taking to the Windows 7 look, which is fortunate since Microsoft appears ready to cut ties with the past, making it more difficult to revert to an old look than was the case in Windows XP or Vista.

With the Windows 7 taskbar, Microsoft has removed some of the distinction between running and dormant applications. From an icon in the taskbar, users can launch a dormant application or view and select from open windows if the application is already running. As with Windows Vista, users can hover the cursor over the taskbar icons to display thumbnails of open windows and dialog boxes for that particular application (by default, up to 10 thumbnails will show for a given application-any more and the user will instead see a list).

Microsoft Watch's Joe Wilcox takes a look at Windows 7.

However, with Windows 7, users can now hover over a thumbnail to get a full screen preview of the window in question. They can also easily close open windows from the thumbnail by clicking on the small red X displayed when hovering over the thumbnail.

By default, Windows 7 comes with three applications displayed on the taskbar (Internet Explorer, Windows Explorer, and Windows Media Center), but users can pin shortcuts to other programs to either the taskbar or the Start Menu. Users can also arrange the taskbar icons in any order they wish, as Windows 7 automatically creates keyboard shortcuts to fire up these taskbar-borne applications, based on their order, left-to-right (by pressing Win+1, for instance).

Windows 7 also introduces the concept of jump lists, which is basically an organized set of application-specific links. For instance, right-clicking on the IE icon in the taskbar displays the browser history, allowing the user to go immediately to a recently visited site. Similarly, right-clicking on a Microsoft Word icon shows a list of recently opened documents.

This feature is certainly handy, but there are a few drawbacks. For some applications, I'd like to see the ability to customize the jump list-for instance, making the IE jump list show bookmarks rather than history. Obviously, third-party ISVs also need to code the jump list feature into their offerings, as I found applications such as Firefox and Adobe Reader could not offer this handy shortcut feature at this time.

The Start Menu, meanwhile, looks similar to the Windows Vista default. On the left, users see a running list of recently used applications (although users can choose to pin shortcuts here as well). On the right, users see links to commonly used folders: personal ones such as Documents, Music, or Pictures; and system-specific destinations such as the Control Panel or Computer. Users can also customize the Start Menu to change the links to these locations to menus.

Users can also easily view or access the desktop, no matter how many windows might be open at the time. The absolute right edge of the taskbar contains the Show Desktop button. Hovering the cursor over the button shows a preview of the desktop, or clicking on it sends the user straight to the desktop (and clicking it again returns the user to the last screen in focus).

However, with the new organization of the taskbar and Start Menu, I've found little reason to return to the desktop. I've organized my taskbar with links to the applications I use on a daily basis, and populated the Start Menu with a second tier of applications that I use less frequently. Unfortunately, third-party applications still tend to clutter the desktop with shortcut links, a practice I hope will disappear once Windows 7 gains some market share.

An otherwise empty desktop could leave room for Gadgets, a feature that never took off in Windows Vista. In Vista, Gadgets were confined to the Sidebar-a feature that used a lot of system resources and took up a good amount of screen real estate. In Windows 7, though, the Sidebar is gone and Gadgets can be moved freely around the desktop. Unfortunately, the same measly collection of Gadgets exists (CPU meter, RSS reader, Calendar, Weather, etc), but with their new freedom and a less cluttered desktop, perhaps interest in developing new Gadgets will increase.