Once more unto the breach, dear friends. The first iteration of Microsoft’s next operating system has arrived, and things are looking up for the Windows faithful. In fact, the first beta of Windows 7 is so reliable and responsive that it reminds us of the early Windows XP betas. With less than 12 months to go before launch, Windows 7 is in much better shape than Vista was at the same time, and it feels like a much more usable operating system than even XP did during its beta phase.
So what’s new with Windows 7? The first thing you’ll notice is a completely overhauled user interface. The Taskbar, which has worked more or less the same way since Windows 95, has changed. Instead of having separate areas for the Quick Launch toolbar and running applications, the new Taskbar combines the two in a way that’s similar to OS X’s Dock. Start an app, and its icon will show up in the Taskbar. Hover over it, and you’ll see a ton of useful info about it, including recently opened files and thumbnails of all the open windows. Move your mouse over a thumbnail and everything else on the screen except that window fades out, making it simple to find things on even the most cluttered desktop. Say you like having your favorite apps in the Quick Launch area—with Windows 7, you can pin apps to the Taskbar, and they’ll remain there whether they’re running or not.
What else is new? Homegroups make sharing printers and files between the computers on your network dead simple, without mucking around with NTFS permissions and user accounts. Libraries let you collect all your important files in one place. The new navigation column in Windows Explorer gives you speedy access to the locations on your PC and network that you use most. Gadgets embed directly on the Desktop instead of the Sidebar. The notification area on the Taskbar (where all the small icons for running applications show up) puts spammy or misbehaving apps in a holding pen where they won’t annoy you. Oh, and UAC is much less annoying—we’re even using it.
Additionally, there are dozens of small tweaks to the OS that, taken alone, don’t amount to much but combined make a significant impact on your end-user experience. For example, Windows 7 will ship with an array of common audio and video codecs, including H.264, AAC, and DivX. Also on the media front, the built-in streaming server can handle all the formats that the Xbox 360 uses. You can sort and search your files by perceived type—that is, the type of content in the file rather than the file format. The Action Center corrals many of the system warnings that previously would have popped up in disparate locations. Drag a window to the top edge of the screen to maximize it. Drag it to the right side of the screen and it expands vertically to fill your screen. When you open a communication app or game that uses the microphone, Win7 reduces the volume of all other apps. The Shut Down button has even made its triumphant return to the Start menu.
Don’t get too excited yet. Even though Windows 7’s first beta surpasses Vista in many ways, we still know very little about the final OS. We don’t have a firm release date or even know the number of different flavors there will be (we’re hoping for one, but that’s probably a pipe dream) or what it will cost. However, we’ve learned enough from the first beta to leave us cautiously optimistic that Windows 7 will be more XP than Vista.
The single biggest change in Windows 7 is the new Taskbar. It combines the QuickLaunch bar and the old-school Taskbar into one hyperfunctional notification area. Hover over an open application and you’ll see a handy menu showing thumbnails of all open windows associated with that app. Hover over a thumbnail, and Windows fades the rest of the clutter away, leaving just the window you’re looking for. Windows 7 will ship with support for all popular codecs, including H.264, AAC, and DivX. Still no word on Blu-ray support, though!
We frequently have five, 10, or even 20 windows open at once. Windows 7 includes much-needed UI tweaks that make it easy to manage tons of open apps and windows. That’s perfect for power users and neophytes alike.
While we’d prefer an OS that let us control whether system notification apps run at all, this is the next best thing. Now you can hide notification apps entirely, see notifications from them, or treat them exactly as you did in Vista or XP.
Libraries allow you to combine the contents of multiple folders on your hard drive into a single folder analog for convenience. You can create your own Libraries and even save files to them (they’ll show up in a folder you specify).
Want to take a quick peek at the Gadgets embedded in your desktop? Just hover your mouse over the lower right corner of the screen. Software widget enthusiasts will be pleased to know that Windows 7 moves Gadgets from Vista’s Sidebar to the Desktop.
The new Action Center puts all the assorted warnings, alerts, and other operating system noise in one convenient location. In addition to more info, you can also choose to archive or ignore annoying messages.
The apps that remain integrated with Windows (Mail, Photo Gallery, Messenger, and Movie Maker are now part of the downloadable Windows Live Essentials) all got the Ribbon treatment, à la Office 2007.
Jump lists give app developers a way to show context-sensitive information about their apps directly on the Taskbar. For example, Word displays a list of recently accessed files.