By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 9:00 am
10. Peeking through to the desktop. Microsoft is making a fairly big deal out of a new feature that lets you X-ray your way though windows on the desktop to see what’s underneath them. Which is useful to be sure, but you do it by pressing a part of the Taskbar that’s unlabled (intuitive!), and I’m not sure what purpose the outlines of the windows you’re peeking through serve.
11. Sidebar Deep-Sixed. Compared to OS X’s Widgets, the most distinctive about Microsoft’s Gadget applets was that they sat in the Sidebar on the right-hand side of the screen. In W7, the Sidebar is gone–Microsoft says that folks told them it just required too much space. Gadgets now sit directly on the desktop…which they could do even in Vista if you preferred.
12. iTunes compatibility, sort of. Windows Media Player now supports Apple’s two favorite media formats: AAC for audio and H.264 for video. It can also find your iTunes libraries on your network and play back the media they contain. Apple’s FairPlay DRM, of course, is not supported. And for reasons I couldn’t determine, the first video podcast from iTunes I tried watching in WMP looked reasonably crisp in iTunes, and blocky and pixelated in Windows Media Player.
13. Windows Media Player Unplugged. When you right click on a media file in Windows Explorer and use Windows Media Player to play it, WMP launches in a stripped-down mode that doesn’t dominate your desktop. Or you can play media in Windows Explorer’s preview pane and sidestep having to launch WMP at all.
14. Multimedia routing. Windows 7 adds features for shuttling media files from PCs on your home network to streaming devices such as the Sonos multi-room music system. Microsoft says the OS will transcode files as necessary to make your entertainment play on gadgets regardless of whether the gadgets support the file format in question. Sounds intriguing; I look forward to trying it out.
15. Windows that snap. Shove a window over to the far left or far right of the screen, and it’ll snap into place and go into a half-maximized mode that takes up half the screen. Which is intended to help you tile two windows (say, a browser and word processor) so you can work in both of ’em at once.
16. Search everywhere at once. Something called “Search Federation” lets you add multiple computers, networked drives, and Web sites to Windows 7 searches, so your queries go beyond your own machine. Interesting in theory; I need to give it a try.
17. Themes and schemes. I can’t remember the last time that Microsoft made any significant change to the clunky controls used to choose Windows themes–if you told me it’s the same in Vista as it was in Windows 2.0, I’d believe you. In Windows 7, Microsoft provides a nice new Theme chooser that provides full-size previews and lets you save your own custom Themes with a few clicks. That’s good. But it also says it plans to rename Themes as Styles before Windows ships. That’s…kind of pointless.
18. Windows Live, Meet Windows Live. Officially, Windows 7 has shockingly few bundled applets: Its Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, and e-mail apps have been spun off into a set of free downloads called Windows Live Essentials. Except Microsoft says that it hopes PC vendors will include Windows Live Essentials apps preinstalled on Windows machines. And the Windows Live Essentials apps aren’t the same thing as Windows Live services, which are Web-based tools such as Windows Live Hotmail. I like the idea of Windows 7 concentrating on being a good operating system, but I’m still a tad confused here.
19. Paint enters the 21st century. Windows’ Paint–also known as the app that time forgot–gets an actual makeover in Windows 7, with an all-new user interface. Namely the Ribbon from Office 2007. I dig the ribbon, so I guess this is good news…even though I continue to recommend the excellent (and free) Paint.net as a Paint replacement.
20. Touch me. Windows 7 is the first version of Windows with a multi-touch interface that lets you reach out and control the OS with both hands. I remain skeptical about the potential for such an approach changing PCs the way it’s changing phones: At the moment, there are almost no PCs on the market that have the requisite touchscreens. (Two that do: HP’s TouchSmart PC and Dell’s Latitude XT laptop.) And while Microsoft is cleverly giving W7 the ability to tell if you’re using it with a mouse or your fingers and react accordingly–the Start menu will be a skosh bigger if you tap it rather than click it–it’s been less successful in providing compelling examples of why you’d want to use Windows with your hands. Actually, it keeps coming back to the same blah example: You can put multiple fingers on the screen in Paint to draw hair in one fell swoop. Fun? Possibly. Life-changing? You be the judge.
I could go on–there are scads of other things in Windows 7 I haven’t touched on yet. And I will, in future stories. For now, though, I’m curious about your take on W7–and if you’ve got any questions I might be able to answer, feel free to ask ’em. And if you’re not sick of reading my thoughts, check out Fifteen Random Thoughts on Windows Vista.