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Windows 7 Beta – some thoughts and analysis

So it’s been a few days since Microsoft unleashed the Win7 beta on the public. Reluctant at first, I decided to take the plunge. I’m not a fan of dual-booting, but from what I had gathered it was fairly stable, so I decided to use it as my main OS.

 

Initial observations (aka what anyone would notice within 5 minutes)

Installation is similar to Vista. It’s a little more polished, but no major changes there. Vista was already a right step in the direction away from XP.

Once everything’s said and done and you’re at the desktop though, things are noticably different.

 

TASKBAR – revamped.

The start menu is the same. Different Start button (just a logo) but that’s it.

The notification area is mildly changed, pretty much the same but rather than choosing to hide un-used icons, you can choose which ones to always display, which to only display actual notifications about, and which to hide completely. You can also check a box to simply display them all. Any that are hidden are accessed in a similar way to Vista except that instead of the arrows unhiding them all temporarily, the arrow just brings up a submenu. This is arguably a slight improvement from the previous way, although if you’re already hiding new icons, there’s no indication from what I can tell when a new one pops up unless it gives a notification at the same time – it just goes into the list.

 

The rest of the taskbar is completely changed. There’s no more Quick-launch bar. Instead, you can *pin* an application to the dock either by dragging it, or right-clicking a running app and choosing to pin it that way. For those who have used Mac OS X, this is basically the new “dock”, except it’s worse in a few ways:

  1. It’s hard to tell what’s what. There are no labels. Yes, you can turn labels on, but it really messes things up (if you have more than a few things on the taskbar all the names will be cut off anyway, and it un-combines icons). Depending on your theme, it’s either hard or nearly-impossible to tell the difference between a running program, and one that isn’t. Apple had a nice distinct arrow in OS X. Microsoft just shows it as something of a highlighted box which you may or may not see easily. Basically, you just have icons to go by, and it’s hard to tell what’s running. Not great.
  2. If there’s only 1 Window open with the application, clicking the program in the dock brings it up. However if there’s 2 or more (say for example 2 Internet Explorer windows), nothing comes up until you choose which Window. They do have PREVIEWS now, but it’s really annoying and takes more time than the old method – a good example is Firefox and the Download window. You always have to choose which one you want. It really should pop up ALL the windows on click (or at least the most recent), and leave the choose option to mouseover. If people would rather not pull everything up, mouseover already brings up the previews.
  3. Not necessarily Microsoft’s fault, but many “always on” programs are still throwing themselves in the System Tray. I’m fine with a virus scanner doing this with it’s background scanner, but AIM, Steam, etc should really be keeping themselves in the dock. Err.. taskbar. There’s little need for them to put themselves in BOTH. Any program run often enough to warrant a spot there is going to end up pinned to the taskbar anyway. Microsoft finally took Messenger out of there (way to set a bad example in the first place), but others really have to follow suit.

Finally, the search (right after you click the start button). I don’t know if it’s always been this way, or if it was just improved, but it’s quite useful. Type in “hidden” and one of the results that pop up will be settings for changing the view options for hidden files and folders. Type in the partial name of a program, and it’ll show up. A nice fast way of getting to stuff quickly.

Speed

There have been a few posts/tests made public (despite the NDA about benchmarks), and many show minor improvements in speed. I will say that navigating does *feel* a lot faster – whether it’s just visual modifications, prefetches, or just plain speed they’ve made improvements here.

 

Home Networking

Microsoft’s introduced the concept of “Homegroups”. Short version is that if you’ve spent hours setting up permissions for various folders so you can share them with people at home, it’s way easier now. Right-click on the folder you want to share, and you can easily grant people with your Homegroup password Read, or Read/Write access to them.

Sadly, Homegroups only works with other Windows 7 computers. You’ll still have to do the painstaking regular sharing if you keep other Vista/XP/etc computers on your network. It would be lovely if they found a way to work around this (even if it required running a homegroup update on older versions of Windows), or simply made regular sharing just as easy.

 

Other apps

I won’t pretend I’ve tried them all, but the ones I have tried are pretty decent. It started when I went to grab Messenger, and they had a pretty nifty page with all the Windows Live programs I could install.

Windows Live Mail: I got it running, set up my e-mail accounts, and am now using it for both my Hotmail as well as the others. Messenger (presumably since I installed Live Mail) also defaults to this program now (instead of the hotmail site). The only hiccup I’ve found is that I can’t add folders to my mail servers through IMAP. It also doesn’t use an IMAP trash folder or anything. Since this is my first time using IMAP instead of POP3, it could be a limitation of my mail server itself though.

Windows Live Writer: Actually, an awesome program. I don’t know how long it’s been available, but it’s the first time I’ve used it. In fact I’m using it to write this up now! It makes it *extremely* easy to add blog posts – at least with WordPress (although quite a few others are supported). Really once it’s set up, open the program, type away, and hit Publish. Much easier than logging in to the website, waiting for pages to load, refreshing to make sure my session doesn’t time out, etc.

 

That’s about it for now – really just a quick overview. Windows 7 isn’t groundbreaking by any means, but with a few changes (particularly to the taskbar), it has the potential to become what Vista should have been.

Maybe one day Microsoft will pull off an entire revamp. Compared to something like OS X, the Windows OS is still very flawed in many ways. Since they’re so content on clinging to built-in backwards compatibility though (seriously, start fresh and use an emulator..), Windows 7 is a healthy step in the right direction.

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