What if Microsoft waved a magic wand and everything people hated about Windows Vista went away? You might have an operating system that you liked — and that's what Microsoft appears to be striving for with Windows 7. We checked out an early beta of the future operating system, and though at this point many features are either missing or works in progress, the improvements to everything from user interface to memory management look highly promising.
Along with several dozen other reviewers and analysts, we got our first real look at the operating system, preinstalled on loaner notebooks, over the weekend at a workshop on the eve of the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference. Microsoft planned to hand out installation discs later Tuesday, after the head of engineering for Windows and Windows Live, Steven Sinofsky, delivers his scheduled keynote formally introducing Windows 7 to PDC attendees. (We'll report on our experiences upgrading PCs from Vista to 7 later on.)
Of course, some of the promised features are things that Microsoft has pledged — and failed to deliver — before. Wasn't Vista supposed to be faster than its predecessor? We won't be able to test performance (and other under-the-hood features) for some time, obviously, but we can share with you what Microsoft is saying to back its claims.
On some details, Microsoft has said very little. As of Monday, the company had offered no new word on when the operating system will ship — the official target date continues to be early 2010, but some insiders say that the actual date may move forward by a few months. Likewise, Microsoft hasn't said anything about editions (and pricing) other than to indicate that they probably won't mirror the Vista lineup.
Microsoft has said all along that Windows 7 would refine (but not rewrite) the Vista kernel. However, some of the anticipated changes depend on support that Microsoft may not be able to control. For example, a number of cool network features will work only if your employer installs Windows Server 2008 R2 (also handed out to reviewers). Other new features require cooperation by hardware vendors, though this time their contribution won't extend to rewriting drivers. Still other changes involve slimming down the code by offloading applications (such as e-mail and photo management) that were once bundled with the code. With Windows 7, you'll get them either as downloadable apps or as Web services.
But the operating system that remains tries very hard to please users by addressing some of the biggest gripes people had about Vista, and by generally making everyday tasks accessible and easy to perform. To the extent that these efforts are visible in our early beta, they look pretty good.
The interface: A kindler, gentler Windows
Windows Vista's interface makeover emphasized style over substance: Among its most-hyped new features were the Aero user interface's translucent window frames (woo-hoo!) and the Flip 3D window switcher (flashy, but not particularly useful). It didn't do much to repair Windows' reputation for being annoying; in fact, the in-your-face tactics of the new User Account Control security feature made Vista more aggravating. And much of what was new in Vista, such as its desktop search, amounted to Microsoft playing catch-up with Apple's OS X.
Windows 7 takes a strikingly different approach. Its interface contains plenty of tweaks, but they're relatively subdued and they emphasize everyday efficiency rather than sizzle. Several of the changes aim specifically to get the operating system out of your way so you can work without distractions. And virtually none of what's new feels like warmed-over OS X.
The changes start with the Windows Taskbar, a core component of the Windows experience that has changed very little since it debuted in Windows 95. With Windows 7, it undergoes its biggest remodeling job ever: The familiar bars containing the name of a running application and a tiny icon are gone, and in their place are unlabeled, jumbo icons that represent running applications. The icons look like gargantuan versions of the tiny icons in the old Taskbar's Quick Launch toolbar — as well they should, since they supplant Quick Launch in W7. (The new Taskbar also looks a bit like OS X's Dock, though it doesn't behave like the Dock.)
Vista's Taskbar introduced thumbnail-size previews of windows that would appear when you hovered the mouse over an app in the Taskbar. They were fairly handy, but if you had multiple windows of an application open--say, several browser windows or several word-processing documents — you could see only one of them at a time. In Windows 7, thumbnails for multiple windows appear onscreen simultaneously, in a ribbonlike horizontal strip. Hover over a thumbnail, and you get a full-size preview of the window; you can also close windows from the thumbnails.
Click on an icon in the Taskbar--or on a program in the Start menu — and you get a "jump list," a new Windows feature that's a twist on the context-sensitive menus that the operating system has had for years. Jump lists provide one-click access to various tasks associated with an application — Play All Music for Windows Media Player, for instance, or a list of recently opened files in Word or Excel.
Not every jumbo icon in the Taskbar represents a running application, however. In Windows 7, the Taskbar can include icons for devices you've attached to your PC, too. Hook up a digital camera, for example, and an icon for it will appear in the Taskbar; click its icon, and you'll move to the Device Stage, a new control center for activities involving peripheral devices.
Unfortunately, most of what makes the new Taskbar intriguing isn't yet ready for beta — let alone prime time. The preview version of Windows 7 distributed to reviewers and PDC attendees this week has the old-style Taskbar. Still, judging from our brief hands-on time with the new Taskbar, it could make life in Windows more pleasant in meaningful ways that Vista's splashy effects never did.
Icon clutter be gone
Windows 7's Taskbar still contains the Notification Area, also known as the System Tray — a feature that has traditionally packed more aggravation per square inch than any other area of Windows, since it tends to bulge at the seams with icons for applications that you don't remember installing and that often pester you with balloons alerting you to things you don't care about. In Windows 7, Microsoft finally supplies tools you can use to tame the mess. For each app, you can choose to display or hide its icon, and to show or suppress its notifications. The overflow area — where icons that don't fit in the Notification area live — remains, but it's far less unwieldy: It now pops up, rather than shoving applications in the Taskbar to the left, and you can move icons between it and the Notification area by dragging them from one place to the other.
At the far right of the new Taskbar you'll see a little rectangle of what looks like unused real estate. Click it, and all open windows will minimize so you can see the desktop. This feature duplicates an icon in the now-defunct Quick Launch toolbar, but if you're a fan of the desktop applets known as Windows Gadgets, you may use it more often. That's because the Sidebar, which formerly housed Gadgets, is gone, and they sit right on the desktop. (Microsoft says that users complained that the Sidebar ate up too much precious on-screen real estate, especially on laptops with no pixels to spare.)
Microsoft has also introduced a couple of easy-to-use window management features that users may find helpful: If you want to work in two windows side-by-side, dragging the second window to either side of the screen snaps them both into place so that each takes up half the screen. If you drag a window to the top of your display, it snaps to the top, taking up the width of the screen.
UAC: Let's try that again
Windows XP's reputation for shaky security stemmed in part from the scary possibility of hackers worming their way into your PC and launching applications or changing settings at will. In Vista, Microsoft responded with User Account Control, a safeguard which tries to protect you by asking, in effect, "Are you sure?" before executing a wide variety of system actions. The problem was that those actions are intentionally initiated by the user in the vast majority of instances. Telling Vista that you know what you're doing gets old quickly. But Vista's UAC essentially has only two settings: on and off.
Windows 7 still lets you opt for full-tilt UAC or no UAC at all. It adds two useful intermediate settings though: One notifies you to attempts to install software or change settings without making you click to continue, and the other notifies you only when a program tries to change settings. Both of these options provide a happy medium--you'll be alerted when potentially-dangerous actions transpire on your PC, but your work won't grind to a halt nearly as often as it does with Vista's version of UAC.
The new UAC settings reside in a new Control Panel section called Windows Solution Center, which replaces Vista's Security Center. It's home to a bunch of features for adjusting security settings, using Windows Update, and backing up data. And it also lets you turn off various Windows notifications, such as the ones that warn you about security settings. Turn off every nagging notice that Windows 7 lets you disable, and you could wind up with the least intrusive edition of the operating system in a long time.
Did we say that Windows 7 is longer on substance than style? For most part, it's true. But the new features for applying Themes to the Windows interface are nicely done. As before, they let you choose collections of wallpaper, color schemes, sounds, and screen savers that provide Windows with an instant makeover. Windows 7's version lets you see a full-screen preview of a Theme's effect on the operating system with one click, however, and it's easier to create and save your own Themes than with Vista's antediluvian Theme controls. (Microsoft, incidentally, says that Themes will be renamed Styles before Windows 7 ships: That's a classic example of the company renaming a familiar feature without any clear purpose.)
The magic touch?
One major area of change in Windows 7's interface won't mean much to most PC users at first blush: Only a handful of current machines, such as HP's TouchSmart PC and Dell's Latitude XT laptop, support multitouch input; but in theory this feature would let you operate a touch-screen-equipped Windows 7 computer as if it were a massive iPhone, using your fingertips to launch applications, shuffle windows around, and enlarge and shrink photos by grabbing them with both hands. Not surprisingly, Microsoft hasn't yet enabled all of this functionality. Using a TouchSmart PC at the Windows 7 workshop, we could fingerpaint with two fingers in Paint, but we couldn't perform two-fingered photo manipulations that would be a lot more useful in real life.
Microsoft promises that Windows 7 will ship with more touch features. The company is also working to make the operating system smart enough to figure out whether you're using a mouse or your fingers so it can adjust itself accordingly. For example, if you tap the Start button with your fingertip rather than with the mouse pointer, you'll get a slightly larger Start menu that requires less finesse to navigate. And you don't get a mouse pointer when you touch the screen with your finger — which makes perfect sense, since your finger servers as its own pointer. Instead, you get a momentary puddling effect to indicate that you've made contact with the screen.
Will the touch interface that makes the iPhone cool work on a notebook or desktop system? We're skeptical, but Windows 7 lays the software groundwork that will allow PC manufacturers to give it a try, at least.
Some of the biggest criticisms of Vista relate to performance, and Microsoft appears to have made addressing these a priority. In our brief experience with the early-beta code, boot time seemed fast. Of course, we won't be able to make a fair comparison until we can test identical machines with the same bare-bones installations in Vista and W7, but Microsoft did identify a couple of steps it has taken to speed things up. First, Windows 7 initializes many services in parallel; and second, it has fewer services to initialize.
Microsoft engineers are working on several areas to improve general PC performance. One focus is to change the way the operating system allocates memory to new windows. In Vista, the amount of memory allocated per window goes up as you add windows, to the point where the system often shuts down Aero because application windows are soaking up too much system memory. In Windows 7, each new window will be allocated the same amount of memory, and as a result adding new windows won't impose a prohibitive burden on system resources.