Windows 7 Beta Preview

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New Features in Windows 7

The first thing you’ll notice once the desktop loads is the new taskbar. It’s been completely revamped for this version of Windows. The Quick Launch bar is now gone, not just disabled. By default here are three application launcher icons on the task bar: Internet Explorer (IE), Windows Explorer and Windows Media Player. You can add any others you want by simply dragging them onto the taskbar.

A major change in Windows 7 is the behavior of icons on the taskbar. They also serve as status indicators for open applications: if you have multiple tabs open in IE, for example, the icon will change to an overlapped stack of the number of instances you have open, and hovering your mouse over the IE icon will display a thumbnail of each tab, hovering your mouse over a thumbnail will display a full-sized preview and clicking on either the thumbnail or preview will open that window. Progress bars are also shown on the taskbar icons, so there is no need to keep, for instance, a download window open to keep track of an ongoing process.

Another new interface feature is Aero Peek, a replacement for the Show Desktop feature in previous versions of Windows. The activator for Aero Peak is a small rectangle to the right of clock. If you hover your mouse over that rectangle you can see the desktop with outlines of your open windows. Clicking on the rectangle minimizes all open windows.

The right-click menu for icons on the taskbar has been changed, it now includes “jump lists.” Jump lists include a list of the most recent open files (documents, web pages, media files, etc.) for that application as well as the option to open the application, pin or unpin it, or close any open windows. The start menu also has jump lists – there is an arrow to the right of any application on the start menu with a jump list, click that arrow and you’ll get the same set of options.

The shutdown button has also been tweaked in Windows 7. There is an arrow button to the right of he main shutdown button, clicking this arrow brings up a list of options: Switch User, Log off, Lock, Restart, Sleep, and Hibernate.

Hardware Compatibility

One of Microsoft’s goals with Windows 7 was to not have the same hardware issues that Vista and two generations back Windows 2000 had. They seem to have largely succeeded. All my hardware was detected correctly and both wired and wireless networking were setup automatically.

Some people have reported problems with Windows 7 recognizing multiple hard drives, not seeing drives configured in earlier Windows versions. This is actually easy to fix using the Disk Management module.

Software Compatibility

Windows 7 has very few issues with software, most things that run in Vista will also run in Windows 7 without a hitch. I did run into one problem with a commonly used office suite, when I installed OpenOffice.org and launched it I lost my cursor. Closing the application did not restore the cursor. I had to restart Windows. After the restart, I was able to launch OpenOffice.org with no problems.

UAC

Apart from hardware compatibility problems, and general slowness, UAC has probably been most people’s biggest complaint with Vista. In Windows 7, it’s been brought under control you can make minor changes to system settings like setting the clock without any prompt coming up. You will get a prompt if an application attempts to make changes, which is a very good thing from a security standpoint. UAC can also be tweaked beyond Vista’s all or nothing. It can be turned off, set to the Windows 7 default or to the Vista default.

Gadgets and the Sidebar

Gadgets (desktop widgets) were introduced with Vista, and Windows 7 allows you to use them, but the Vista Sidebar is no longer there, you can place Gadgets anywhere on your desktop.

Homegroup

The software side of networking has been overhauled as well. Sharing with other Windows 7 systems has been tremendously simplified by a new feature called Homegroup. When you set up a network as Home you select which files, folders and devices are available for sharing and set a password. Anyone on your home network who has the password can access those shared items but nothing else and the shares are specific to that network. If you use the same computer on both home and work networks, you can easily keep the two sets of shares completely separated.

Performance

Windows 7 is really impressive in this arena. For the first time I can remember, an operating system actually needs fewer resources than recommended by the manufacturer. Officially, Windows 7 requires 1GB of RAM, it actually runs well (with Aero turned off) in 512MB for basic uses such as websurfing, email or word processing. For gaming or multimedia you’ll need at least the 1GB that’s recommended.

Conclusions

Windows 7 is an excellent operating system, fast and powerful and with a number of improvements over its predecessors. The user interface has been greatly improved, as have hardware and networking. Where I had trouble recommending people get XP or Vista, Windows 7 seems to be worth upgrading to.

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