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.
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).
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.
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 email@example.com.