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Windows 7, Pre-Release Review

If I had to sum up Windows 7 in a few words, I would describe it as Vista with some new features, most of the annoyances and bugs removed, and a shiny new coat of paint. In short, itís impressive! I should note at the outset that the only version of Windows 7 available in beta is Windows 7 Ultimate. What additional versions will be available upon commercial release has not been announced.

Installation

Nothing particularly noteworthy here. If it weren't for a new splash (boot) screen, Iíd think I was installing Windows Vista. This isn't a bad thing, though I would continue to recommend leaving the installation of any operating system to a professional, unless you have experience installing operating systems and you enjoy the technological challenges presented by such an endeavor.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Windows 7 uses the same drivers as Windows Vista, so it wasnít necessary to install or update any existing drivers.

Windows 7 includes a new tool called Devices & Printers. This is a central location from which you can manage all your devices and drivers, similar to the Device Manager, but easier to use. If a device isn't working, there is a new troubleshooting utility that can fix many common issues with devices, such as locating or reinstalling drivers.

When starting Windows 7, the first thing youíll notice is that it launches faster than previous versions of Windows. The second thing youíll notice is the new Taskbar, which uses large icons instead of Taskbar buttons and integrates Quick Launch functionality. The segregated Quick Launch area to the right of the Start button is gone.

Pop-up preview thumbnails have been improved and now include the ability to display multiple windows side by side. When hovering over one of the multiple previews, Windows 7 will automatically flip to that window, displaying it in a larger view, no clicking required. I found this particularly useful for Word documents, as well as photos.

Applications: Microsoft Giveth, and Microsoft Taketh Away

Gone from Windows 7 are Windows Mail (formerly Outlook Express), the Calendar, Photo Gallery, Movie Maker and Contacts. While not part of Windows 7 by default, these are all available as part of a downloadable Windows Live Essentials package.

With Windows Mail no longer present, you can install any email client you wish, or use this as an opportunity to migrate to the simplicity of Gmail or other Web-based mail service and leave email software behind forever.

Windows 7 does, however, include a new calculator, Internet Explorer 8 as the default browser, new versions of Paint and WordPad that utilizes the Office 2007 "ribbon" interface.

There is also a completely revamped Windows Backup. The Backup utility in Vista didnít permit backing up individual files or folders. Windows 7 includes that ability.

One nice addition to IE 8: When you download a file, a green bar shows the progress of the download. I still prefer Firefox, but itís nice to see the return of this progress bar. Speaking of progress bars, the colorful progress display from the XP-and-earlier Defragmentation utility disappeared in Vista, but Windows 7 brings it back, as well. (All together now: ďHip, hip, hoo-cares?Ē)

The new user interface for the Windows Media Player is clean and simple, which is a welcome improvement. When you load a video file, all you see is a window frame and the movie content. That's it. No playlists, no visualizations, no rating system, no clutter, nothing to distract your attention from what is being displayed.

Libraries and Explorer

Most of us are accustomed to managing our files by creating, naming, and moving files, folders and sub-folders. For years, rumors have circulated that people (Iím not sure who) have been looking for a way to make it easier to manage, organize, and retrieve files. Windows 7 introduces Libraries as a means of accomplishing that objective.

When you log in as a user, you will see a number of "Libraries," which are essentially search folders banded together so you can access all your pictures, documents, or music from a single convenient location. This feature is quite useful, but like anything new, it requires some getting used to. New concepts always do.

Windows Explorer itself has received a visual make-over. Explorer in Vista was a bit cluttered and ďbusyĒ looking. It has been aesthetically muted, as well, and now appears in soothing shades of white, which makes for a more pleasant file managing experience. The side pane displays shortcuts to logical locations like the libraries, disks, network, and HomeGroup, which Iíll explain shortly.

Taskbar, System Tray & Control Panel

Win 7 introduces several changes in look and function of Ye Olde Taskbar. One of the first things I noticed is when multiple windows are open for a single application, the icons turn into a graphical stack. The stack never expands beyond three, so if you have four, six, or 16 windows open, the stack will max out at three. I guess it's meant as an indicator, not a precise measurement. I suspect this will be modified by the debut of the commercial release.

The main area of the Taskbar can display three things: Frequently used items, recently used items, or white space/pinned items -- items placed on the Taskbar by the user.

Taskbar buttons have a new right-click menu which provides access to special folders or recent documents. Very nice. Options are good.

If you don't like the new Taskbar functionality (and I would encourage every new Windows 7 user to live with it for awhile before making any ďI-donít-like-itĒ decisions), you can revert to the previous Vista style.

The Taskbar also has what appears to be a little unused area next to the time display. This is the new Show Desktop feature, with an added twist: If you hover your mouse cursor over it, it will make all open windows translucent, letting you see what is beneath them. This comes in handy if you have Desktop gadgets buried under open windows or if you just have a burning desire to see your wallpaper. (Note: Keep in mind that the beta version Iím testing is Windows 7 Ultimate, so it is possible that some of the features referenced may not be available in other versions of Win 7 when it is released commercially.)

The new Taskbar makes it easier to manage and switch between open windows and applications through the use of large icons, instead of the Quick Launch bar that used to reside on the left side of the Taskbar.



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By default, Internet Explorer, Windows Explorer and Windows Media Player all have icons on the Taskbar. You can prevent these icons from displaying, if you wish, though Iím not sure why you would want to do that. You can also add an icon for launching any application by dragging the program's icon to the Taskbar, in the same manner you added program icons to the Quick Launch bar under Windows XP.

These icons perform double duty because they also manage your open windows. For example, if you have already launched Internet Explorer, and you have three tabs open to three different Web sites, the Internet Explorer icon changes subtly to show three icons stacked on one another, reminding you that you have three tabs open and thus providing fast and easy access.

Hover your cursor over a stacked icon, and you'll see all three Web pages displayed as thumbnails across the top of the Taskbar. Hover your cursor over any thumbnail and it will automatically maximize to fill the screen.

If you aren't a fan of thumbnails, you can instead have all open windows display as a stacked list. When you're using stacked lists, to go to any open window, click it in the list. To close the window, hover your cursor over it in the list, and click the red "X" that appears. As you may have noticed, youíll be doing lots of hovering in Windows 7, so rest up.

The System Tray, near the time display, has been redesigned so all the little icons are now hidden behind a little arrow, resulting in a less-cluttered appearance.

Windows 7 no longer uses a Sidebar for Desktop Gadgets. You have to right-click the Desktop and choose Gadgets to add one, which can then be dragged to any location on the Desktop. If you want to dock and lock Gadgets to the side like you can under Vista, simply drag them to any edge of the screen and they will dock there.

When you launch a Windows Search, the Taskbar "morphs" into a full-size search screen, which is a significant improvement from Vista.

In Win 7 you can maximize or tile windows by dragging them to one side of the screen. For example, if you drag the current window to the left side of the screen, it will become translucent so you can what appears beneath it. Once you release the mouse button, the window will take up exactly half of the screen. This is a much easier method of tiling windows. This same function works beautifully for maximizing windows: Drag a window to the top of the screen, release the mouse button, and the window will be instantly maximized. Blammo!

Error reporting is still present and is as annoying as ever, but under Windows 7, its new Action Center icon consolidates all Windows Security error or notification messages into a single icon, so itís even easier to ignore. If you click the User Account Control (UAC) settings, youíll see a new slider bar which lets you change the number of notifications you receive.

By clicking a little wrench icon, you can even designate which notifications will appear on the Taskbar, and which will not. You can also control which security messages appear, so if you believe that ignorance is bliss, you now have that option, also!

The aforementioned Action Center effectively serves as a centralized ďhub" within which you can review all system messages, alerts, and notifications.

All things considered, the new Taskbar may be somewhat confusing at first, but after you use it for a while, youíll quickly get used to it functioning as both a task launcher and windows manager.

The Control Panel includes a new area for customizing your Desktop using themes, with easy access to all the relevant settings from a single window. Very convenient.

Jump Lists

The Taskbar makes use of another new feature, that being "jump lists." A jump list is a display of actions or items associated with a particular application. To see a jump list for any program, right-click its icon in the Taskbar. Okay, okay, itís basically just a fancy-shmancy name for a right-click menu, with a few new options.

For example, typically, you'll see a history list of the most recently open files -- or Web sites, in the case of Internet Explorer, as well as options to display application icons on the Taskbar.

Jump lists also make their appearance on the Start menu, in the Most Recently Used applications list. A small arrow appears to the right of any application with an associated jump list. Click the arrow to see the list, then make your selection.

There is also a minor change to the Windows Shut Down button. Click an arrow to the button's right, and youíll receive a list of shut-down options, including the ability to switch to a different user, log off, restart, lock the Desktop, or put the machine into Sleep or Hibernation mode.

The HomeGroup

In previous versions of Windows there wasn't a central location to take care of all the related, but individual settings and configurations. In Windows 7, this has changed with the introduction of the HomeGroup. The HomeGroup gathers all the backend, low-level settings in one area so you don't have to fiddle with seemingly endless dialog boxes and settings panels.

During the installation of Windows 7, you are asked if you want to create a new HomeGroup or join an existing one. If you decide to create one, a random password is generated which will allow other Windows 7 computers to join the HomeGroup.

Though a password is provided by default, you can change your password at any time by clicking HomeGroup in the Control Panel.

The HomeGroup is also responsible for automatically sharing music, video, picture libraries and printers across the network, allowing every member of the HomeGroup to gain access to them. Documents are, by default, not shared, but you can enable that if you wish. In addition, there's a new "Share with" drop-down menu in Explorer that allows you to share any file with one click, in either R or RW (Read only or ReWrite) mode. You can also choose to share with specific people or select "Nobody," if youíre feeling reclusive.



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While HomeGroup facilitates setting up a network, it has one major flaw: It is not backward compatible with Vista or XP. In other words, you will need to have Windows 7 installed on at least two machines if you want to reap the benefits of HomeGroup. I suspect this limitation is going to preclude many people from using it. In fact, since Iím only testing Windows 7 on one computer, I canít test its full capabilities, either.

Hopefully, Microsoft will take steps to resolve this problem prior to the commercial release. We shall see.

Setting up a home network, including printer sharing, file sharing, streaming media, etc., has always been a bit of a challenge. It's still a lot of work, and you really need to know a thing or two about all the underlying sub-systems in order to get everything to work seamlessly. Windows 7 makes improvements in this area, but I would continue to recommend letting a professional set up your network, if nothing else, so you have the peace of mind knowing that it was created properly, that itís fully functional, and that maximum security is in place.

Performance

I'm not doing any serious performance testing on Win 7, but observationally, my impression is that itís good, except for one semi-minor annoyance: There seems to be an issue when dragging windows. Even though responsiveness is good, the actual motion of the window feels as if itís stuck to the Desktop with molasses. Performing a dragging operation, the window moves with the mouse cursor in a lethargic manner that is definitely noticeable. It can also be quite annoying at times. Similar problems appear occasionally with the Aero ďSneak-PeekĒ feature. This is another beta glitch that I suspect will be resolved prior to Win 7ís commercial release.

Aero Peek

Aero Peek is an enhancement to the Aero interface introduced in Vista Ultimate that lets you "peek" behind any open window to view your Desktop. It's more sophisticated than the ďShow DesktopĒ icon that resided on the Quick Launch bar in previous versions of Windows.

Aero Peek appears as a small, rectangular area to the right of the time display at the right edge of the Taskbar. When you have multiple windows open and you mouse on over to the Aero Peek rectangle, all of your open windows disappear, and you will see your Desktop. But you don't see just the Desktop, you also see where each of your open windows are positioned.

For example, if you have three open windows -- one near the top of the Desktop, one to the left side, and one to the right -- you will see representations of each of those screens. If you prefer to see the Desktop itself, with no indication of what else might be open, click the Aero Peek rectangle instead of hovering your cursor over it. (More hovering! Iím so exhausted.)

Aero Peek also works in concert with the Taskbar. As I mentioned, when you hover your mouse over an application with open windows, you'll see thumbnails of the open windows, and you can preview them by hovering over any thumbnail. That's Aero Peek at work.

Aero Peek is enabled by default, but to turn Aero Peek off, right-click the Aero Peek rectangle and remove the check mark from the box next to ďPreview Desktop.Ē

Compatibility

Microsoft set out to make sure that Windows 7 wouldn't have the problems with hardware compatibility that Vista had, and avowed that all hardware that works with Windows Vista should also work with Windows 7.

Iím happy to report that so far, so good. Windows 7 immediately recognized all the components of my test computer without a hitch, including my router, and connected to it lickety-split. (Sorry for the technical jargon.)

I encountered no software problems either. Windows 7 ran every application I have tried thus far, including not just obvious programs such as Microsoft Office, but lesser-used ones as well, such as TypeItIn, FoxIt, and Startup Monitor. In addition, several antivirus applications are already compatible with Windows 7, including AVG, and Kaspersky. Additional anti-virus programs will be supported at the time of Win 7ís commercial release.

Beta operating systems typically run slower than the final release, but this Beta 1 of Windows 7 is already surprisingly fast. My impression is that it is generally faster than Vista. (Note: Iím running the Windows 7 beta on an AMD Athlon 64, 2.40GHz, Dual Core processor, with 3GB of RAM.)

Conclusions

This first beta of Windows 7 is surprisingly good, remarkably reliable, with just a few kinks to be worked out. As I mentioned at the start, Windows 7 is much further along at this stage than Windows Vista was at a similar point. Though itís not scheduled for release until first quarter of 2010, barring any unforeseen circumstances, it wouldnít surprise me if that release date is moved up to later this year.

I would not recommend the Windows 7 beta to anybody who doesnít have a powerful test machine with lots of memory (at least 3GB), nor to anybody who doesnít have a comfortable working knowledge of, and familiarity with Vista. Without that, it will be impossible to know what is new in Windows 7 and what is simply part of Vista. But most of all, for anybody contemplating testing Windows 7, you must have patience, tolerance for glitches, and accept the fact that there is virtually no support of any kind available. You also need a separate computer that you can dedicate to the task.

If you do decide to install Win 7 on a test computer, keep in mind that this is a time-release beta which will cease to function on August 1, 2009.

Iíll be back periodically with updates about Windows 7 for my newsletter subscribers as it continues to evolve, and Iím planning to review the full, commercial release, whenever that occurs.

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