By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 9:00 am
Windows Vista fatigue. I know I’m suffering from it, and so are a lot of other PC users. Heck the whole PC industry is still trying to shake it, and even Microsoft itself may be afflicted. Is there a cure? Maybe so–in the form of Windows 7, Vista’s successor. Microsoft has been surprisingly mum about W7 until now. But most of the secrecy ends today: The company is introducing the upgrade to its developers today at its PDC conference in Los Angeles. I was one of a bunch of journalists who got a briefing on it last Sunday and hands-on time with a preview version since then.
And it looks…quite promising, really. As in “Isn’t this a lot closer to what Windows Vista should have been in the first place?”
Forgive the cliché, but Windows Vista turned out to be a sort of a bull in a china shop of an OS: a behemoth that slammed its way around users’ PCs, breaking things without providing anywhere near enough benefit in return. Windows 7, from what I’ve seen of it, looks like it may be a different breed of upgrade–one that starts by doing no damage, and then goes on to be quietly competent and genuinely useful.
Vista suffered in part because it seemed to be an operating system that didn’t know what it wanted to be. (You know an OS is in trouble when translucent window frames are its signature feature.) But the Windows 7 I’ve been exposed to over the past 48 hours is surprisingly crisp and coherent:
—It aims for compatibility. As in, stuff that works with Vista will work with Windows 7, no updates or fixes required. That’s because W7’s technical underpinnings are not a radical departure from Vista’s. (Steve Ballmer’s description of the new OS as “Vista, but a whole lot better” may turn out to be an accurate way of encapsulating what this product is.)
—It tries to stay out of your way. Microsoft has a long history of creating products that are sometimes bizarrely disrespectful of their users’ need to focus on getting stuff done. (Insert your own Clippy reference here.) Windows 7, on the other hand, is full of features that let you tell the OS not to bother you with notifications and warnings. It doesn’t even offer to give you a tutorial when you use it for the first time, for fear of distracting you from diving right in.
—It wants to make it easier to manage stuff–applications, documents, and more. The name “Windows Vista” was supposed to be some sort of allusion to a new clarity the OS would bring to your work. It failed to deliver. But Windows 7 looks like it’ll do a nice job of letting you juggle apps and data more efficiently.
—It’s connected. As in, it has a ton of networking-related features–it’s the first version of Windows that seems designed with the assumption that it’s for PCs that live on a network.
—It’s surprisingly original. It ain’t just Steve Jobs that has contended that Windows Vista was a warmed-over knockoff of OS X 10.4 Tiger. Windows 7, however, is its own OS–you may end up loving it or hating it, but its new features have little in common with OS X 10.5 Leopard.
Will the legions of Windows XP users who continue to spurn Vista find Windows 7 to be the upgrade they were waiting for? The version I’ve been using is too incomplete to let me come to any definitive conclusion. But if the new OS lives up to its considerable promise, it could be a meaningful step towards restoring Windows’ reputation. It’s not earthshaking and includes no landmark features–but it looks like it could make using a PC meaningfully more pleasant.
A few disclosures about the discussion of specific Windows 7 features that follows: So far, I’ve used Windows 7 for only a few hours, and only in preinstalled form on a Dell laptop loaned to me by Microsoft. The version of the OS on that machine is missing some of W7’s most interesting features. (I created some of the images in this story, and others were provided to the press by Microsoft.) These are first impressions, not a formal review of a product that’s anywhere near finished.
Speaking of which, Microsoft is saying absolutely nothing about when Windows 7 might ship. It hasn’t even talked about a schedule for a beta release (PDC attendees and we journalists are getting a pre-beta “preview” edition.) But if rumors of W7 arriving surprisingly soon are true, we should know more about the timetable soon.
With all that out of the way, what Windows 7 features and facts have made the biggest impression on me so far? I’m glad you asked. Here are the first twenty answers to that question that come to mind…
1. Gain without pain? Windows Vista was one of those Windows upgrades that broke perfectly good applications and drivers with abandon. Microsoft’s goal with Windows 7 is to ship an operating system that will run any piece of software that works in Vista. And it’s implementing various technical tricks to nudge apps that need a little help in the right direction. Whether the promise of seamless compatibility will turn out to be more than a promise remains to be seen–I’ve been unable to get Adobe Acrobat to install in the preview edition–but Microsoft will never get there unless it tries. And this time, it’s trying.
2. The Taskbar. It’s received a major makeover–actually, the biggest one it’s ever gotten since it debuted in Windows 95. Gone are the bars with the names of apps and tiny icons. In are much larger, labeless icons. The stacks of thumbnails you got when you hovered on an app with multiple windows in the Taskbar have been replaced by a more efficient ribbon of thumbnails. Devices connected to the computer (like a digital camera, say) show up in the Taskbar along with apps. Overall, it’s quite slick, and you won’t encounter any new W7 feature more often. Unfortunately, it’s also missing from the preview edition of the OS. (I had some brief hands-on time with it, and liked it.)
3. The System Tray (officially known as the Notification Area, although I don’t know of anybody who calls it that). If it were possible to pick up an operating system element and hurl it through a plate glass window in sheer rage, I would have done so to the System Tray countless times by now. With Windows 7, Microsoft finally gives us tools for managing the mess. You can selectively choose which applet icons appear in the Tray and whether they’re allowed to bug you with word balloons, and shuffle icons between the Tray and the overflow area (which now pops up rather than shoving apps in the Taskbar to the left) as you please. It would be better still if W7 let you prevent applicatios from shoving stuff in the Tray in the first place, but the new features are still a giant leap for Windowskind.
4. Jump Lists. These appear on the Start menu and when you clicks apps in the Taskbar; they’re context-sensitive lists of actions relating to the app in question. Windows Media Player, for instance, gives you ones relating to music playback, as seen below. Jump Lists aren’t yet implemented in the preview version of W7–I think they’re a good idea, but want to try them before I commit to an opinion.
5. More control over User Account Control. The infamous UAC now has settings that go beyond On and Off. You can choose to have it tell you when apps are installed or settings change but not to make you grant approval, or to alert you only when a program changes Windows settings. I’m not sure whether these chages are enough to turn UAC from legendary nuisance to trusted friend, but they should quiet the worst gripes about it.
6. Performance perks. Microsoft says it’s doing a number of things differently to make Windows 7 run faster and more reliably than Windows Vista. It’s working to speed bootup times by doing things like handling multiple startup tasks in parallel. And it’s taking a new approach to memory management designed to let you open gazillions of windows at once without hobbling the OS. It’s pointless to express any opinion about an operating system’s speed until you’ve benchmarked a final or near-final version. But for what it’s worth, W7 loads quickly and feels pretty darn zippy on the Dell notebook Microsoft loaned me, which is unencumbered by third-party adware and junkware.
7. Device Stage. This new feature places all the settings and features relating to a peripheral in one place, and lumps in online documentation and e-commerce opportunities such as going online to shop for printer ink, too. It sounds good in principle, but device manufacturers have to do some of the heavy lifting, including providing Microsoft with beautiful 3D renderings of their products. And I’m still not sure how I feel about third-party companies being able to insert e-commerce features into my operating system.
8. Libraries. These new grouping of files are like virtual folders that contain files of a given type–such as photos–from all over your PC or even an entire network. Good idea, although I fumbled with it, since I wanted to copy certain photos out of my Library into a folder with other photos…but those other photos were in the Library, too. (Got that?)
9. HomeGroups sweet HomeGroups? W7 introduces a new networking feature called HomeGroups that intends to make it easy for multiple computers on a home network to share files and peripherals as easily as if they all resided on one PC. I thought that that was what Windows’ networking features were always supposed to do; in reality, they’ve remained convoluted and unreliable until now. I look forward to giving HomeGroups a spin on my own personal home network.