[ Originally published by Wired Magazine | by Brian X Chen | “First Look: Windows 7 Shapes Up as Microsoft’s Best OS Yet” ]
Good news, everyone! If you’ve been stuck in a time loop using Windows XP, which is nearing eight years old, or Windows Vista, which is just annoying, you can finally break free: Windows 7 is almost here. Microsoft delivers a slickly designed, vastly improved OS that will warp you to the world of today. This upgrade is big, and it’s hugely recommended for Microsoft users.
When we say big, we mean really BIG — so we’re not going to bombard you with an epic overview covering every single aspect. Rather, today we’ll guide you through an early look at some major new features and enhancements we tested in the almost-final version released last week. And in the weeks leading up to the Oct. 22 launch of Windows 7, we’ll continue posting our impressions, testing more features of the OS on various types of hardware.
We’ll start with interface, move on to performance and usability, and then we’ll conclude with the “funner” stuff. Let’s begin exploring, shall we?
Revamped Interface With Improved Presentation
Upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7 will be like ditching your old Toyota Camry for a sexy, new Nissan GT-R. Everything from the typography to the icons, and from the toolbar to the windows, has been refined with some extra detail, polish and shadows. Finally, Microsoft creates a clean, modern look that competes with Apple’s finely designed Mac OS X Leopard.
To accompany the new look, there are three new features that make the Windows 7 interface pretty groovy: Aero Peek, Aero Snap and Aero Shake. They’re window-management tools, similar to Apple’s Exposé in Mac OS X. Aero Peek is the most significant: When triggered, the feature displays outlines of all your open windows behind your active window; each outlined box contains a thumbnail previewing its corresponding window to help you choose.
Aero Snap (see screenshot above) is pretty cool, too: Drag a window to the right side of the screen, for example, and Aero Snap will automatically adjust the window into a rectangle that takes up the entire right side (same happens if you drag to the left). And Aero Shake is a cute feature: You click and hold onto a window and give it a shake, and any visible windows behind it will disappear (minimize, not close).
A major change appears in the main toolbar glued to the bottom of the screen. Rather than clutter the bottom of your screen with annoying rectangular tabs, your open applications are instead contained in a small square displaying only the icon of each active app. With AeroPeek activated, you can also preview thumbnails of the activity of apps by hovering over their corresponding taskbar icons. That’s certainly a welcome change now that many of us multitaskers enjoy running a multitude of apps at once
If Internet Explorer 8 is your browser of choice, there’s a bonus: Hovering your mouse over the Explorer icon, you’ll be able to preview all the tabs you have open in a stacked view, letting you go directly to the tab you wish to browse.
Then there’s the Start button at the bottom left corner — a feature Windows fans have grown to love. It’s very similar to the old one, functioning almost exactly the same. The main difference is the addition of a gradient to give it a fresher aesthetic. As for functions, a very useful addition to the Start menu is a search bar that instantly appears at the very bottom. This will make finding and launching files a snap.
Performance and Usability
You’ll immediately notice Windows 7 feels a lot faster than its predecessors, and that’s because memory management has been smartly re-engineered. In older versions of Windows, every application you have open is sucking up video memory, even if the windows are minimized. This isn’t the case in Windows 7: The only windows and apps using video memory are those visible on your screen. Windows users are accustomed to closing applications to boost performance, but that’s going to be unnecessary with Windows 7.
Smoother performance would be a waste if usability weren’t improved, too. Windows 7 won’t disappoint. Remember in Windows XP when you hooked up an external hard drive and it was unrecognized, requiring you to search the web to find that stupid effing software driver? Windows 7 includes up-to-date files, which should automatically recognize your device, and in most cases it’ll “just work.” If, for some reason, Windows 7 isn’t compatible with your attached device by default, it’ll search a database for you in an attempt to find a file to install.
Similarly, Windows 7 tries to streamline networking of peripherals, such as printers and scanners, with a feature called HomeGroup. Let’s say you’re running Windows 7 on computer B in your household, and computer A is the one hooked up to a printer in another room. If computer B is on the same network as computer A, Windows 7 will search for the printer driver on computer A and share it with computer B. The same networking feature will also allow you to share folders and files between networked computers. There’s a catch to this seamless networking: HomeGroup is an exclusive Windows 7 feature. So if your other machine is running the Mac OS, or Linux, then forget about it.
There are also some annoyances that will remind you, “This is still Windows.” When plugging in a thumb drive, for example, Windows will ask you what you want to do with it: Play audio, play a movie, or open the folder to view its files. It’s a thumb drive, for God’s sake: Recognize it and just open the damn folder! After receiving such notifications you can tell Windows 7 to automatically perform one of the aforementioned functions when a specific type of device is attached (see screenshot at right), but we wish the OS would just know what to do.
We also found the software-compatibility checker to be kind of lame. For example, when we downloaded TweetDeck, a .air file which requires Adobe Air, Windows 7 didn’t recognize the file extension and offered to do a search for compatible software. That search did not discover Adobe Air — a pretty popular format — so we were disappointed.
Microsoft improves on the entertainment experience, too. Windows Media Center gets a utilitarian makeover that looks a tad like Apple’s Front Row (and we’re not complaining). The revamped program makes it easy to browse your movies, photos, music and so on by tapping a few keys. Nice big thumbnails display previews of your media to make your collection look nice and perdy.
A feature we have yet to test (once we get the proper hardware) with Windows Media Center is the new media-streaming capability. If you have a Wi-Fi enabled TV, you’ll be able to seamlessly stream your Windows Media Center content onto the television set. This should make piracy a blast.