While the next iteration of the ubiquitous Microsoft desktop operating system, Windows 7, isn't a dramatic overhaul of its predecessor Windows Vista, it does fix several sore spots and add a few welcome features. Rumour has it that Windows 7 will drop in the middle of next year, but last month Microsoft released a "preview" tester build of Windows 7. After living in the Windows 7 Preview for a week now, several features and niceties jumped out at me which promise to make Windows a better place to work come 2009. Let's take a look.
Note: The Windows 7 Preview is a pre-beta release, which means it's not even close to feature-complete. Chances are good that later releases will add or take away features listed below (though most likely later releases will grow these seeds and add a few more goodies).
Second note: Surely Windows 7 includes stability and performance improvements under the hood with highly technical explanations that would make operating system coders very happy. However, this list is purely from my experience as a regular user, living and working with Windows 7 for about five days.
Here are just a few of the things to look forward to in Windows 7.
10. Ding-dong, the Sidebar is dead.
One of the first things I hunted down and killed in Windows Vista was the Sidebar, which loaded by default and docked Vista's Gadgets to the right side of your desktop. In Windows 7, the sidebar is no more, and gadgets, should you want them, can roam free across the desktop. This time around, the gadgets feel less distracting to me—the CPU meter and calendar gadgets are my favourites, though this screenshot shows many more.
9. Calculator, WordPad, and Paint got overhauled.
It sucks that Windows 7 is stripping the built-in Photo Gallery and movie-making software that you'll find in Vista (even the Windows Calendar is nowhere to be found in the 7 Preview), but a few of their built-in stalwarts did get some attention. WordPad and Paint both got the Office 2007 ribbon installed, and Calculator now incorporates real world uses into it. At this point only masochists still use Paint and WordPad, but the extension of the ribbon to those inconsequential programs may be a harbinger for more upgrades and ribbon appearances in the future.
8. Windows 7 will run longer on your notebook's battery power.
While I'm running the Windows 7 Preview on a plugged-in desktop computer, notebook owners will be thrilled to know that Windows 7 promises to run more efficiently and thus longer on battery. It can also identify what's causing battery issues, though this is currently a well-buried option.
7. You can switch between Wi-Fi networks in one click from the system tray.
File this under "a small change can make a huge difference": Click on the Wi-Fi adaptor in your system tray to pop up a menu of available wireless networks. From there you can refresh the list, and choose the one you want to connect to in one click. Another boon for roaming notebook users.
6. You can decide what you do and don't want to see in the system tray.
No more registry-editing to blanket-disable balloon notifications in your system tray! Windows 7 lets you set what icons and notifications you see in your tray with a detailed dialog box. Just right-click the system tray and choose "Customize..." in the menu.
Click the thumbnail to enlarge:
5. You get more control of User Account Control.
The single biggest complaint about Windows Vista was its User Account Control's incessant, nagging, pop-up dialogs that would ask you if you were ABSOLUTELY SURE you wanted to do the thing you just told the computer to do. In the name of security, Vista would even check if this STRANGE and SCARY program called Notepad was ok to run:
While legions of Vista users would sacrifice the well-intentioned security that User Account Control offered by turning it off completely just to get their sanity back, in Windows 7 you can fine-tune the level of nags, warnings, and confirmation prompts you get.
Click the thumbnail to see the UAC fine-tuner slider built into Windows 7.
4. Libraries group similar content; Homegroups to make sharing libraries easier.
Windows networking is a pain in the ass, but Windows 7 is out to fix that with two things: content Libraries and Homegroups. Libraries are a way to group similar types of files even if they live in different folders. For instance, your Video library could include your TV folder, Movies folder, DVD Rips folder, and your Home Movies folder. Then, you can create a Homegroup (basically a reworking of Windows' existing Workgroups), that makes sharing those libraries between PCs easier. Since I don't have two Windows 7 boxes available, I wasn't able to test how much easier sharing files was between the machines; however, the whole file-sharing layout and UI looks significantly more intuitive for regular Jolenes who just want to view the photos stored on the office computer in the living room.
3. You can instantly snap your windows to size, and clear the desktop in one motion.
As widescreen monitors become more common, easier side-by-side window management is key—and Windows 7 builds that in. While not as configurable as a third-party program like GridMove, Windows 7 offers the ability to snap a window to half your screen size simply by dragging it to the left or right of the screen. Here's what it looks like when you do so—let go of your mouse button and that Lifehacker browser window would snap that half-screen-sized glass overlay you see behind it.
Along similar lines, the new "Aero Shake" feature lets you clear the desktop of all background windows by grabbing the top bar of the active window and moving it back and forth quickly. Here's a screencast of the shake in action.
2. Windows 7 starts up faster.
Scheduling your morning coffee run for the time between the moment you hit the power button on your PC and actually start working sucks. Windows Vista is sloooooow when it comes to starting up and getting you to your desktop; but even the Preview tester release of Windows 7 shows 20% faster boot times than Vista.
1. You can do MUCH more from the Windows 7 taskbar.
Most people live with the Windows taskbar visible on their desktop at all times, so the more use you can get out of the real estate it hogs, the better. Windows 7's taskbar is greatly improved in two ways. First, you can pin programs to it indefinitely for easy quick launch, similar to RocketDock or the Mac OS X dock. Second, on a crowded desktop covered with windows, using the new "Aero Peek" feature, you can preview individual windows from grouped taskbar apps, and even close documents from the thumbnails themselves. This doesn't sound like a big deal in theory, but in practice when you've got two monitors and a dozen windows open from four apps, Peek comes in way handy. Here's a screencast of Peek in action. (Note: The Windows 7 Preview's version of Peek is yet incomplete; this is just the beginning of what you'll be able to do with it.)
There's also a permanent "Show Desktop" button on the far right of the taskbar which both clears the Desktop of all windows (instant Boss button!) and restores them right to where they were in another click.
As you can see, Windows 7 is a big pile of small improvements over Vista that amount to a lot in aggregate. As such, ordering this list was difficult, since there isn't an obvious, stand-out, "here's why you'd definitely upgrade to Windows 7" feature. It's simply better in many little ways.
Any other Preview release testers out there unearth features we didn't mention here? Shout 'em out in the comments.