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For the Windows faithful, it’s been a tough eight years. With the launch of Windows XP in 2001, we thought we were poised on a brink of a new world of NT-based goodness—but two years and uncountable exploits later, the future of Windows was grim. Facing a never-ending torrent of new ‘sploits, worms, and trojans, Microsoft fired back with the single greatest operating system update of all time—Service Pack 2. In the single fell swoop of SP2, Windows XP went from Swiss cheese to secure, and once again we were poised to enter the promised land with… (wait for it)… Vista.
Of course, we all know how Vista turned out. Haunted by poor performance in everything from games to disk access to networking, Vista is widely considered to be Microsoft’s biggest failure. Nonetheless, Vista laid the groundwork for a host of new technologies, all absolutely vital to pushing Windows into the 21st century. Vista’s new, modern driver architecture was designed to move core functionality from the kernel (where any instability can bring down the whole system) to user space—an absolutely necessary development. Likewise, Vista’s proper enforcement of permissions for both users and applications enhanced security, even though UAC remains very annoying. And once vendors fixed their driver flaws and Microsoft squashed some underlying bugs, Vista morphed into an entirely workable operating system, even if we still wouldn’t describe it as “good.”
So, as 2009 draws to a close, we find ourselves testing another new Microsoft OS: Windows 7. Building on the now-mature technologies introduced with Vista, but with a renewed focus on performance and ease-of-use, Windows 7 seems poised to succeed where Vista couldn’t. We’ve finally received a final build of Win7, and have run it through the wringer in both the Lab and in the real-world. Here’s what we found.
While support for new hardware and improved security are perfectly valid reasons to upgrade your OS, the sexiest benefits of an operating system upgrade are all the new features. Indeed, from a completely revamped user interface to brand-new features designed to make organizing and sharing your files easier, Windows 7 delivers much more than some new wallpaper and a different color Taskbar. (Though there are lots of new wallpapers.)
The most obvious changes from previous versions of Windows to Windows 7 can be found in a redesigned user interface. Sure, much of the interface remains the same, but Microsoft has completely overhauled key elements, starting with the Taskbar.
After 14 years of nothing more than cosmetic changes, Microsoft’s redesign of the Taskbar combines the pure window organizing power of the classic Taskbar with the application-launching, multi-purpose convenience of Mac OS X’s Dock. In addition to showing the applications that you currently have open, the new Windows 7 Taskbar also hosts shortcuts to your most commonly used applications. Click a shortcut when the app is running, and it brings the most recently used window to the foreground. Click the same shortcut when the app is closed, and it will launch the app.
But that’s not all. Drag a file onto a shortcut in the Taskbar, and Windows will open the file using that app. Hover your mouse over a running application’s icon, and it expands to show live thumbnail previews of all of that app’s windows, floating just above the Taskbar. Mouse over a thumbnail, and Windows will bring that particular window to the foreground. You can even close individual windows from the thumbnail previews.
For anyone who regularly finds himself with more than 10 windows open, the new Taskbar is a dream come true.
Another core enhancement to the OS comes in the form of Jump Lists. In short, Jump Lists put frequently used files in a convenient menu that’s a simple click away from the shortcut icon on the Taskbar or on the Start Menu. Apps that support Jump Lists will display the list when you right click on the shortcut, or when you left-click and drag the mouse up away from the Taskbar. Additionally, some apps will automatically populate their Jump List with files you recently opened.
Along with the redesigned UI elements comes a whole new world of user-interface shortcuts. There are really too many to get into here, but the best of the new shortcuts allow you to maximize a window by dragging it to the top of the screen, minimize it by dragging it to the bottom, maximize to half your screen by dragging it to either edge, or (our favorite) minimizing all other windows by shaking the one you want to focus on. Furthermore, enhancements to alt+tab let you immediately find lost windows, and you can use the Windows key and numbers 1 through 0 to launch the first ten shortcuts on your Taskbar. And when those apps are already open, you can cycle through multiple windows by pressing the app’s keyboard shortcut again.
Windows Explorer also receives some much-needed love. The changes since Vista are relatively minor, but they serve to make the left-column of Explorer the quickest way to navigate to any folder on your hard drive, network, or even in the cloud. Furthermore, you can arrange the different categories in any way you want, quickly add special folders to the Favorites section, and even hide sections you don’t use.
The other main place to access the file browser is the shortcut bar on the right column of the Start Menu. In Windows 7, there are more folders that you can choose to display there, including Downloads and Recorded TV. However, you still can’t place any folder you choose in one of those precious slots.
The controversial Ribbon, which replaced traditional menus and shortcut bars in Office 2007, is prominently featured in Windows 7. In the applets that ship with the OS, you’ll see the Ribbon featured prominently.