So, I spent a little time with the Windows 7 beta to see how the “new” OS compares to Vista and decided to do a little write-up; nothing too fancy or in-depth, just a general outline of my experience with it and highlights of a few new features and changes to the OS compared to Vista.

One of the biggest changes is visible as soon as the desktop loads: The new taskbar. By default it’s vertically larger than the taskbar in previous versions of windows and uses only icons rather than icons with text. When you mouse over an Icon it will pop up with a thumbnail view similar to the one in Vista. However, Win7 takes it a step further and now automatically groups multiple instances of programs together into a single element. If you mouse over an icon with grouped instances it will pop up a thumbnail view for each window and you can select which instance you want by clicking on a thumbnail. Some programs such as IE8 can go so far as to have each tab in a single instance of IE8 show up as an individual thumbnail so you can switch to a specific tab without first having to bring the main window into focus and then switch to the desired tab.

Internet Explorer 8 Showing Tabs As Thumbnails

Internet Explorer 8 Showing Tabs As Thumbnails

As of writing this FireFox does not have the same thumbnail functionality as IE8, but hopefully Microsoft has left the feature open for use by programs other than IE so that Mozilla can add support for it in a future release. It saves a lot of space and provides a nice alternative to what we’ve been using on Windows up until this point. A basic feature that was more about aesthetics than practicality in Vista has now been turned into a useful way to shave an extra step off of switching between open tasks and a selling point for the OS.

Top: Default Taskbar, Bottom: Classic View

Top: Default Taskbar, Bottom: Classic View

For anybody uncomfortable with the new taskbar, you can make it look like the pre-Win7 taskbar by going into the settings and checking “Use small icons” and “Combine when taskbar is full” (never combine is also an option). Additionally, programs can be pinned to the taskbar for quick access. When you click a pinned program its icon expands into the window for the program. It’s basically revamp of the “Quick Launch” found in previous versions of windows.

Overall I found the changes made to the taskbar a step in the right direction, but I’m sure there will be a lot of people that will revert to the “classic” view upon install.

Libraries Should Make It Easier To Quickly Access Data

Libraries Should Make It Easier To Quickly Access Data

Windows 7 also introduces a new “Libraries” feature which allows you to tag folders as containing content related to a Library. This feature is a nice step towards making it a lot easier to keep your data organized and easily accessible. To access your Libraries you just open up an Explorer window and select the Library from the list, once selected it will list all items tagged as belonging to that library from the various locations on one or multiple hard drives. I haven’t played around with this feature much myself, but I can definitely see it being useful to many people when W7 hits retail.

Also new is a revamped home networking model called Homegroups which supposedly makes it far easier to share files, folders and printers with other computers on your network. Unfortunately, I couldn’t test out this feature because I didn’t install it on any other computers in my residence as I don’t think the owners would take too kindly to me futzing with their systems. You’ll have to read a more in-depth preview of W7 on some other site to get a look at this feature (and a more detailed look at things I’ve already talked about).

WMP12 "Now Playing", Playing A Video With No Player Controls Visible

WMP12 "Now Playing", Playing A Video With No Player Controls Visible

Windows Media Player 12 doesn’t differentiate itself from WMP11 by much, but it has one nice upgrade in the form of a new “Now Playing” view which eliminates the GUI while watching videos or listening to music. If you’re watching video the WMP window is literally just a window with the video playing. Playing music will give you the usually options such as displaying a visualization, album art, or the media guide. If you hover over the window while in Now Playing mode brings up the player controls. It’s a much welcomed feature, and now the only thing stopping WMP from being a worthwhile media player is its lack of a tree view for navigating your music and video collection. It has libraries integration, which is a nice addition but I would like the option of manually navigating my various media folders with a simple tree view as well.

Peeking at Windows Explorer, the translucent boxes are windows which are temporarily hidden.

Peeking at Windows Explorer, the translucent boxes are windows which are temporarily hidden.

The new “Peek” feature is a useful way to get a look at another window without actually having to switch to it. This function makes it easy to check on the progress of running task, to look at a reference picture, or read a snippet from an article without having to click around. You can use it by positioning your mouse over a programs taskbar thumbnail until it activates, as well as holding your cursor over the “Show Desktop” bottom which has been moved to the lower right corner of the screen to peek at the desktop without having to minimize anything.

UAC can now be made more or less annoying

UAC can now be made more or less annoying

Adding to the list of welcomed changes, the infamously annoying UAC feature introduced in Vista is back in a more subtle and customizable form. Now allowing you to choose how often (if at all) it alerts you to system changes and potentially dangerous operations. By default it pops up far less often than Vista’s UAC implementation does, although you can set it to maximum if you’re paranoid. Some would argue that even though UAC was annoying, it did make a users system more secure. I’d agree with that, but many people including myself feel confident enough in their ability to avoid malware and to protect themselves through other, less obtrusive means were forced to turn it off in order to avoid hanging ourselves. During my time with the Win7 beta I felt no need to lower UAC’s protection level from its default setting as I found it very reasonable with its alerts.

The Sidebar is gone and Gadgets are now integrated into the regular desktop environment.

The Sidebar is gone and Gadgets are now integrated into the regular desktop environment.

Aside from that there isn’t too much more to Windows 7, nothing in-your-face at least. There are improvements under the hood such as more optimized memory usage among other things to help it run a little smoother than Vista and feel less “bloated”. Ancient programs such as Wordpad and Paint have gotten a slight upgrade by being given an Office 2007 style ribbon bar which finally makes them look like modern programs rather than something that’s stuck in the 90’s. Functionality for the two programs remains largely the same, but they’re far more pleasing to the eye and don’t break up the visual style of the overall package. And finally, the Sidebar that Microsoft introduced with Vista has been removed and Gadgets/Widgets/Whatever you want to call them are now integrated into the standard desktop environment.

All in all I like Win7, and it is a step up from Vista, it adds some much needed interface upgrades, visual tweaks and under the hood improvements. The only real problem is that it’s just a step up. It’s like Vista Service Pack 3…except you’ll have to bend over and pay $200-300 for it. If you didn’t buy Vista because of all the mostly undeserved bad press it got then I’d definitely recommend grabbing a copy of Win7 once it’s released. But those of you who shelled out money for Vista and are mostly satisfied with it likely won’t find enough new things in W7 to justify the upgrade cost…not yet, at least.

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