One area where Windows 7 makes a dramatic improvement over Windows Vista or XP is with display management. Previous iterations of Windows could handle multidisplay setups at a basic level, but I've found I needed to add third-party software solutions to be able to manage and customize the monitor the way I like. Inevitably, with each PC I use, I've had to turn to third-party solutions-from video card manufacturers, PC vendors, or third-party ISVs-for tools such as Ultramon or Display Fusion.
First of all, Window 7 once again makes it easier to get to the display configuration dialog. Windows Vista unfortunately added an extra step to access display configuration from the desktop, as users had to select the Personalize option, then click on Display Settings. However, with Windows 7, users can right-click on the desktop and select the new Screen Resolution option from the context menu. From there, I could easily set the alignment of my monitors, tune the resolution of each, select the orientation of each (portrait versus landscape), and choose whether to clone the screens or extend the desktop across both.
My favorite aspect to the new display controls, however, is the newly added support for hotkeys that allow me to control window size and the proper monitor for open windows without requiring me to touch the mouse. With Windows 7, I could move open windows from one display to the next (Win+Shift+Left or Right), shrink (Win+Down), or maximize (Win+Up) open windows. I could also dock open windows to either corner of the display (Win+ Left or Right).
Windows 7 also makes it easier to hook up a projector, as I could easily reach the right configuration screen from the Screen Resolution dialog, or by simply typing Win+P and selecting the desired display mode.
Unfortunately, those who like to display different backgrounds on each monitor may still need to resort to third-party solutions, as that capability does not appear to be included at this time. On the other hand, users of Windows 7 have the option to select multiple images to create a background slideshow that will be displayed across both monitors.
User Access Controls
Although I am, at best, ambivalent about Windows Vista on the whole (I don't hate the OS, but I don't love it either), I moved to the much-maligned OS because of the UAC (User Account Controls) feature that required administrator assent before making changes to the system. I've always been a big proponent of the concept of least-privileged computing, and I have tried very hard to practice what I preached. I found operating in that mode difficult at best in XP, so I moved to Vista and lived with the chattiness and intrusiveness of that version of UAC-cranking UAC security up to the maximum as I needed to input administrator credentials to approve any modifications to the system.
With Windows 7, Microsoft aims to reduce some of the intrusiveness of UAC to keep people from disabling the feature altogether. To achieve this, Microsoft created the UAC settings configuration page-a slider bar that can be used to alter the amount of protection provided by the feature.
Users have four UAC settings to choose from, with two new alternatives. At one extreme, Always Notify is closest to the ON position in Vista, alerting in a protected dialog whenever the user or software attempts to modify restricted parts of the operating system. On the other end, Never Notify is equivalent to OFF in Vista-no UAC controls. In between, Windows 7 offers the Default (which only notifies in a protected dialog when software attempts to change the OS, but not the user) and a similar setting that alerts under the same conditions, but does not require the protected dialog box.
Software and Driver Support
In my brief time with Windows 7, I've used a simple rule of thumb when deciding what software and drivers might work with Windows 7-if it worked with Windows Vista (the 64-bit version in my case), it will probably work with the current Windows 7 beta. The closer the software gets to the kernel, the less confident I would be in that assessment, however.
For instance, I found that all the Windows Vista 64-bit drivers available on the Dell support site for the XPS 1330 worked without a hitch, save one. While the Intel chipset package would not load, I was able to successfully install the drivers for the video card, integrated audio, network connections (including Intel 802.11n drivers, Bluetooth, and a Novatel wireless WAN card), as well as the touch pad and integrated webcam.
I did once experience a Blue Screen of Death when coming out of sleep state, which seemed to be related to the Intel Wireless LAN drivers, but I have not experienced that problem a second time, despite numerous attempts to recreate it.
On the software side of things, I've found that a trial copy of Office 2007 Professional works very well on Windows 7. I've also installed common third-party software packages (Adobe Reader, Java, and Firefox) with few problems, although these applications do not offer the Jump List capabilities. Google Chrome, on the other hand, did not load successfully as the installer warned of a known incompatibility with this version of Windows.
However, I would not recommend installing applications that require low-level system access, such as anti-malware suites and applications unless they specifically advertise support for the OS. Microsoft provides links to only three beta anti-malware suites that claim support for Windows 7-from AVG, Symantec and Kaspersky.
eWEEK Labs Senior Technical Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.