FEATURE: Windows 7's pleasant surprises
Jan 6, 2009, 10:12 GMT
Washington - This spring, Microsoft plans to unveil Windows 7 - the successor to Windows Vista - in a public beta program. That means anyone will be able download and try the new operating system - months before it's released. You probably won't want to do this on your main computer - beta software, after all, is bound to have bugs, some of which could prevent you from getting your work done. But if you have an extra computer around, you might want to give the new Windows version a try. Judging from the version of Windows 7 that has already been released to early testers and some members of the press, there's good reason to be hopeful about Windows 7. Here's what's in store.
--- Why Windows 7?
You may not even have upgraded yet to Windows Vista, and already you're hearing about Windows 7. What's the hurry? Apparently, Microsoft has heard enough from its users about Windows Vista - and not much of what they've heard has been good. Adopters of Vista grumble frequently about Vista's frequent interruptions caused by the user account control (UAC) feature, the high system resources required by Vista's Aero interface, general sluggishness, as well as instability and incompatibility with existing software and hardware.
Naturally, word of all of these complaints has gotten around, and adoption rates have been less than expected - especially among corporations. Some customers are even paying hardware makers extra just to install Microsoft's previous operating system - Windows XP - instead of Vista on new machines.
So Microsoft has had plenty of incentive to fix what users don't like about Vista - and fast. Already Windows 7 is becoming known as the operating system that Vista should have been.
The goal of any installation program should be to get your software installed with a minimum of input required. That's especially important for an operating system, which can take 20 minutes or more to be copied to your computer. If you have to supply information to the installation program several times during the process, that's more time wasted - and it means you can't just walk off and return half an hour later, expecting the entire procedure to have completed.
Previous versions of Windows have had terrible installation routines, forcing you to supply information multiple times. Vista improved the situation a bit, but Windows 7 has streamlined installation even further. There are only two times when Windows 7 asks you for input: in the beginning, when you supply your license key and choose the drive on which to install the operating system, and at the end, when you provide a user name and password.
Windows 7's interface is cleaner, more elegant, and faster than Vista's. Gone is the Vista sidebar - the vertical bar to the right that held gadgets. The sidebar was too resource-intensive, Microsoft says, so in Windows 7 your gadgets remain hidden by default but can
Libraries are a file organisation concept new in Windows 7. A library looks just like a file folder, but it can actually point to files stored in multiple locations. For example, you can create a library called 'files' that points to documents that you have stored in several locations on your C drive as well as several places on your home or corporate network. Double-click the 'files' library, and you'll see files aggregated from all of those locations. By default, Windows 7 comes with several libraries pre-defined: Documents, Pictures, Videos, and Music. You can right-click any of those libraries to customise the locations to which they point, and you can create your own libraries with ease.
Windows 7 is full of other small but useful interface enhancements. The Start menu, for instance, doesn't differ greatly in appearance from the one in Vista, but it includes some productivity- boosting features. Icons pointing to recently-used applications now include a fly-out menu that lists recently-opened files within those applications. This means that in Windows 7 you'll have one-click access to the file you were last working on.
The taskbar, too, is graced with some much-needed productivity improvements. First, multiple instances of a minimised application are represented by only one icon on the taskbar. Allow your mouse cursor to hover over that icon, and Windows 7 shows you decently- sized thumbnails of the contents of each instance, making it much easier and quicker than before to return to a particular open file or Web page. Also, a new taskbar button called Show Desktop at the right edge of the taskbar gives you a quick view of what's on the desktop if you allow your mouse cursor to hover over it. Click the button, and all open applications are minimised, and you have a full view of your desktop.
You might say that performance is what Windows 7 is all about. Vista has been widely criticised for being too slow - and for slowing users down with annoying user account control (UAC) prompts. By making improvements in performance such a priority, Microsoft has tacitly admitted that it wants to appease disgruntled Vista users.
The company's efforts show. There are far fewer of the annoying UAC prompts that greeted Vista users at almost every turn. And Microsoft has made UAC easier to customise - and to turn off - than it used to be. A new UAC slider allows you to determine exactly which level of UAC protection you want.
Beyond the better-behaved UAC, though, Windows 7 impresses with its overall snappy feel. Windows and dialog boxes appear more responsive, and some features - such as the default view of directory listings, which now favour the 'details' view - have been re- engineered with snappiness in mind. Windows 7 also boots quicker and shuts down more speedily than Vista. Several early benchmark reports show Windows 7 already ahead of both Vista and XP in performance on identical equipment.
Compatibility issues - both for hardware and software - plagued Windows Vista. The development team at Microsoft wanted to avoid those hassles, as much as possible, for Windows 7, so Microsoft has already published a list of new features which could alter the way that applications run under the new operating system. Essentially most applications designed to run under Windows XP and Vista will work fine under Windows 7. The exceptions include programs that work to enhance the security of Windows - including antivirus software. Already, however, there are at least two vendors that have Windows 7- ready versions of their antivirus products available.
So what's not to like in Windows 7? The answer to that will depend, in part, on how much you hated the changes that Microsoft introduced in Windows Vista. Vista asked Windows users to do a lot of things differently, and Windows 7 follows suit.
The Windows Explorer file manager in Windows 7, for instance, moves even further away from the familiar tree format used to manage files in XP and previous versions. Some Vista users hate the new Windows Explorer, so for them, a third-party Explorer replacement will probably be in order.
Windows 7 will also, once again, force you to upgrade more applications than you'd like. Your antivirus, anti-spyware, and disk management utilities may no longer work properly with Windows 7. So you'll have to proceed with caution as you install old, familiar programs on the new operating system.
Gotchas aside, the early beta of Windows 7 shows that Microsoft is readying a product that improves in ways that most users want. It's faster, less obtrusive, more customisable, and more attractive than any version of Windows to date.