Windows 7 RTM -- a closer look

Now that Microsoft's Windows 7 has reached the release to manufacturing (RTM) stage, it's time to take a close look at all the features of the upcoming operating system.

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You might think that, because there are so many similarities between Windows 7 and Windows Vista, Windows 7 is essentially just a big Windows Vista service pack. But in reality, Windows 7 is a solid, well-performing operating system, free of many of the glitches that bedeviled the launch of Windows Vista. Speed improvements, interface enhancements and easier ways to manage your documents make this a new operating system in its own right, and one that's well worth the upgrade.

Installation and performance

In order to examine all the pros and cons of the new OS, I installed Windows 7 RTM on a Dell Inspiron E1505 notebook with 1GB of RAM and a 1.83 GHz Core Duo processor.

I performed a fresh install, rather than an upgrade, which took approximately 45 minutes (including the usual restarts one has come to expect from Windows installations).

The install was largely uneventful, with two minor anomalies. After Windows 7 installed, it did not recognize my video card and used a generic VGA driver. This was problematic on my laptop, because the display cannot use the full 1280 by 800 resolution. However, Windows 7 soon resolved the problem itself: It automatically downloaded the proper driver via Windows Updates. After a reboot, all was well.

I've found similar problems with every prerelease version of Windows 7 I've tried, including RC1. RTM is a slight improvement over RC1 in this respect, because with RC1 I had to manually find and update the driver myself. In RTM, Windows 7 did it by itself. Still, clearly it would have been better if the initial Windows 7 installation used the proper driver. We'll have to wait and see when Windows 7 hits retail shelves whether this becomes a common issue.

More problematic was a blip that I also had with several prerelease versions of Windows 7. I was unable to get Windows Aero to work, even after the new driver downloaded. So I turned to the Control Panel Troubleshooting applet and clicked "Display Aero desktop effects," and Windows discovered the problem -- the Desktop Windows Manager was disabled. The troubleshooter enabled it, and the problem was permanently fixed.

On the earlier versions, the problem was back each time I rebooted, and I had to run the troubleshooter each time. Although RTM is an improvement, this is not how an operating system should run on installation.

On the plus side, performance, even on my aging Dell, was surprisingly zippy and certainly superior to that of Windows Vista on the same machine. Aero worked like a charm, windows and dialog boxes appeared quickly, and I experienced no slowdowns. The Control Panel and its applets opened nearly immediately, without the delays common in Windows Vista.

Checking out the new taskbar

At first glance, Windows 7 doesn't look much different from Windows Vista -- but spend a few minutes with it, and you'll find some significant changes.

The most noticeable is the new taskbar, which replaces both the old Quick Launch bar (for launching applications) and the old taskbar (for switching among running windows). The new taskbar combines the two features, doing double-duty as a task launcher and task switcher, similar to the Mac OS X Dock. In general, it succeeds admirably.

Large icons on the taskbar are used to launch applications, as well as to switch to different windows running in those applications. As with the old Quick Launch toolbar, you click an icon to launch the associated program. If you've already launched the program and have more than one window open in the taskbar, the application's icon changes to show multiple icons stacked against one another.

For example, if you're running Microsoft Word with three open windows, you'll see a stack of three Word icons. Hover your mouse over the stacked icons, and thumbnails of all the open windows appear above the taskbar. Hover your mouse over any one of those thumbnails, and it displays at its full window size. To go straight to any window, click any of the thumbnails or windows. You can also close any window directly from its thumbnail by clicking a small red X that appears on the upper-right portion of the thumbnail.

Internet Explorer, Windows Explorer and Windows Media Player all have icons permanently pinned to the taskbar by default. You can pin any other application to the taskbar by dragging its icon to the taskbar.

What happens if you've got an application with too many open windows to fit as thumbnails across the taskbar? That's when "taskbar thumbnail overflow" takes over. When you hover your mouse over the application's taskbar icon, a list of files appears rather than individual thumbnails. The list still works like the thumbnail view -- highlight any file on the list, and it appears at its normal size, just as it would in a thumbnail view. You can also close any window by clicking a small X, just as in thumbnail view.

It may take longtime Windows users some time to get used to the new taskbar, but when they do, they'll find it a significant productivity boost, particularly when multiple applications with multiple windows are open. When this happens in Windows Vista, the taskbar soon gets cluttered with too many icons, and it is quite difficult to find the window to which you want to switch. In Windows 7, you can find the right window almost immediately by hovering your mouse over the proper application's icon.

In fact, it's superior to the Mac OS X Dock, from which it takes its inspiration, because in the Dock, you don't get a thumbnail view of all your open windows in an application. Of course, the Dock and Mac OS X Exposé have plenty of nifty tricks that the new taskbar doesn't, such as a quick way to see all of your open windows arrayed nicely against the desktop. In the next version of Windows, Microsoft would do well to steal some ideas from Exposé.

Putting the Jump List through its hoops

The taskbar has an associated feature called Jump Lists that makes it even more useful. When you right-click an application's icon in the taskbar, a menu appears of actions associated with that application -- and the list varies according to the application. For example, when you right-click Microsoft Word, you'll see a list of recently opened files, but when you click Internet Explorer, you'll see a list of your most frequently visited sites.

In addition to lists of files, you'll see tasks you can perform. For example, if you right-click on Windows Media Player, a task will let you play music. You'll also be able to close all open windows or pin the program to the taskbar if it's not already pinned there. (When you run a program that is not permanently pinned to the taskbar, the program's icon shows up in the taskbar for as long as the program runs. Once you stop running a nonpinned program, it vanishes from the taskbar.)

Similarly, recently used programs that appear on the Start menu each offer a list of recently opened files, the same as the one that shows up for applications on the Jump List. An arrow appears next to applications that use this feature. Click the arrow to see the list, then click any file to re-open it.

The new taskbar and Jump List have some hidden features. For example, you can manually pin files to a Jump List for a program that normally doesn't handle that file type by simply dragging the file onto the program's icon on the taskbar. You can then open the file using the program to which it has been pinned. It's a simple way to open a file using an application that normally doesn't handle that file type, without being forced to permanently change the file association.

Remote Desktop Connection users will be pleased to see that when you pin the Remote Desktop Connection icon to your taskbar, it includes all of the remote desktop connections you've saved in the Jump List. That makes it much easier to take control of remote PCs on your network.

A deep look at Aero Peek

No doubt the niftiest addition to the Windows 7 interface is Aero Peek, a tweak to the Aero interface that lets you "peek" behind any open window. It puts the Show Desktop icon on Vista's Quick Launch bar to shame.

Aero Peek takes up residence as a small, just-visible vertical button at the right edge of the taskbar. Mouse over it and all of your open windows disappear -- you can see straight through to your desktop. However, your open windows don't entirely disappear -- you also see the outlines of each.

For example, if you have four open windows, you see the outlines of each of those screens, even if they overlap. To see the desktop with no outlined windows, click the Aero Peek rectangle instead of hovering your mouse over it. In that case, it works just like Vista's Show Desktop feature.

This does more than just offer a bit of eye candy -- although the eye candy is certainly nice. If you use gadgets and they are hidden by open windows, Aero Peek lets you peek through all open windows at the gadgets underneath, because Windows 7 considers gadgets part of the desktop. In addition, if you regularly keep many windows open, it's a quick way to see at a glance which windows you have open.

Switching among windows using Alt-Tab has been improved by combining it with Aero Peek. When you use Alt-Tab to cycle through your open windows, you still display the window that you've tabbed to, but you also peek through to the desktop to see the underlying desktop, along with outlines of any other open windows, just as you can with Aero Peek.

Aero Peek is directly tied to the taskbar's thumbnail feature. Turn off Aero Peek, and you won't see thumbnails when you hover your mouse over the icon of a running application in the taskbar; you'll see a stacked list instead. You turn Aero Peek on and off by right-clicking the Aero Peek rectangle, and by checking or unchecking the box next to "Peek at desktop."

Other interface tweaks

There are interface tweaks throughout Windows 7. One of my favorites is the way windows are minimized, maximized and moved. Drag the title bar of a window to the top of the screen, and it maximizes the window. When you drag the title down from the top of the screen, it returns to its previous, non-maximized size. Drag any window to the right or left edge of the screen, and it takes up that half of the screen.

There are plenty of other improvements. You can now turn the preview pane in Windows Explorer on and off by clicking a button, a task that in Vista takes multiple clicks. The Control Panel also has some new tricks -- when you're on the main Control Panel screen and click any category, the category's main screen slides into place on the right and displays a list of relevant actions on the left.

It's also easy to clean the Notification Area (the area on the right side of the taskbar that shows the time and date, icons of programs running, etc.) and keep it free of icons via a new dialog box. And when you want to customize your desktop, you can choose and customize themes more easily by right-clicking the Desktop and choosing Personalize.

Several Windows 7 applets, including Paint and WordPad, now sport a Ribbon interface, like the one that debuted in Microsoft Office 2007 and is being carried over into the prerelease of Office 2010. In addition, Vista's Windows Sidebar, which let you use a number of desktop gadgets, has been dispensed with; gadgets can now live anywhere on the desktop.

The Start button no longer protrudes across the top of the taskbar, and it glows with a more noticeable light than in Vista. The associated Windows Shut Down button has been improved: Click an arrow to the button's right, and you get a list of shutdown options, including switching to a different user.

There are similar changes sprinkled throughout every level of the operating system, giving it a more polished feel than Vista.

Finally, in Windows 7, Microsoft seems to have found its inner bizarre artistic self, because in addition to the usual high-resolution photographs and nature scenes that the company includes for use as desktop backgrounds, there are oddly compelling images that are a mix of psychedelia, Hieronymus Bosch, Disney characters, Japanese anime and flat-out weirdness.

Surprise! UAC is usable

Quick, what is the most reviled feature of Windows Vista? As far as I can tell, it's User Account Control (UAC), Microsoft's method for keeping your computer safe. Unfortunately, many users felt that UAC was so inconvenient that they turned it off entirely.

In Windows 7, UAC finally gets out of your way and strikes the right balance between security and usability. Far fewer prompts appear, and the ones that do appear pop up only for good reason. Want to do something really weird and wild, like, say, change the date and time on your PC? With Vista, you'll get a UAC prompt. In Windows 7, you can make the change without the prompt.

Also, UAC is now customizable. In Vista, UAC was either on or off. With Windows 7, you have some control over how it works by using a slider to change to one of four settings:

Always notify me when: This is in essence UAC Classic, and it works like Vista's UAC. When you make changes to your system, or when software is installed or when a program tries to make a change to your system, a prompt appears.

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