In-Depth

First Look: Windows 7

Don't expect many core improvements from Windows Vista, but there are some around the edges.

Microsoft still hasn't publicly acknowledged the lack of user interest in Windows Vista, but it appears Redmond has applied some lessons learned about why even loyal Windows users have remained so cold and distant. Some of these lessons are codified and presented in Windows 7, its upcoming successor to Vista. Windows 7-its real name, rather than a code name-made its public debut at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference 2008 in October and was handed out to attendees there. While the general availability version is still a ways off, Microsoft officials are estimating a delivery date some time in early 2010.

I installed the pre-beta Windows 7 build on a system with a 2GHz Intel processor and 2GB of memory. It took about an hour total, with Ethernet networking automatically set up (it didn't include drivers for the wireless card, and I didn't go looking for them). One of Microsoft's goals was to retain the driver model and driver compatibility, so most -- if not all -- hardware drivers for Vista should also work here.

For IT shops, a new tool called the Problem Steps Recorder can be used to visually demonstrate what went wrong when applications don't behave as expected. In a boon to the help desk, administrators and other technical users can then implement fixes in privileges and other areas, often without having to physically visit the PC with the problem.

Booting up and logging on were similar to that of Vista. I started without specifying a domain and then added a domain afterward. The steps involved were the same as you would experience with Vista -- it should present no problem for sys admins or help desk professionals.

From a home user standpoint, there are some improvements in setting up and connecting. In particular, Microsoft has improved the Network and Sharing Center, and included a feature called Homegroup that makes it easier to share files, folders and devices across your home network. Home users are also the recipients of some of the other improvements, such as user interface tweaks.

Info

Windows 7 in Use
Windows 7 is still a work in progress, but certain annoyances of Vista appear to have been addressed. Much of the improvement centers on User Account Control (UAC), the series of checks and prompts that has borne the brunt of the criticism surrounding Vista. In Vista, you could either turn UAC on or off. Turning it on (the default) meant that you would be prompted for every system change, from installing new software to changing the system clock. Most users turn it off.

The UAC in Windows 7 prompts only when a program tries to make changes to your PC by default, rather than at every action that hits a security boundary. Even better, it's somewhat customizable. You can configure the types of alerts you want to receive, and how you respond. For example, you can turn the UAC off completely, and have it always notify the user of any change, or always notify the user and wait for a response before continuing. While not yet perfect, it does provide some granularity in how the UAC responds to user actions.

A tool called the Action Center replaces Windows Security Center found in Vista, and it appears easier to work with and more capable. In addition to monitoring the security of the PC, Action Center also monitors PC maintenance. And for those of you who hate the pop-up balloon messages of past Windows versions (I do), the Action Center uses a new message system that lets you choose to look at notifications when you want to, rather than when the OS wants to show them.

For those still questioning the value of Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) and the Aero user interface, Windows 7 provides no relief. Both are fixtures at the presentation level and user interface, even though there has been no compelling business application to take advantage of them. For programmers, this means that you can't put off learning WPF and XAML forever. For enterprises in general, it means that graphics processing and, at least to some extent, memory requirements will remain fairly substantial.

Also, the WinFX file system is nowhere to be found, a discovery that remains adisappointment. It's not clear if Microsoft has completely given up on the idea of a next-generation file system, or if it has decided to delay it until the next major release after Windows 7. Because the company had led us to believe that WinFX was originally on track for the Vista release, the decision to forego it may mean that it may be a much longer time in coming.

As long as I'm talking about the file system, let me note that I'm a constant user of Windows Explorer to organize and find files. In Windows 7, Windows Explorer has additional features, including a button to turn the preview pane on and off, something that previously took multiple clicks.

You also get to organize your files in a different way. Instead of putting your files and folders in a Documents folder, there's a single Libraries folder, under which separate areas for Downloads, Music, Pictures and Videos can be found. You can also include folders from other locations on your network in your Libraries folder; think of it as a poor man's network file system.

The Windows Search capability is still getting better. From a Windows 7 machine, you can now search through other PCs on the network. Plus, you can place the folders from another PC into a library, do a search on that library, and in so doing be able to search the other folders of the PCs on the network. For someone who has been disappointed in the Windows search facilities for more than a decade, it's a welcome improvement. You get more information in search results -- including better filtering -- enabling you to find the information you're looking for faster and more accurately.

Figure 1
[Click on image for larger view.]
The Windows 7 network setup screen improves the process of setting up a system on a network.

Of course, Windows 7 is going to include the next release of Internet Explorer, IE8. Check out my Beta Man review of IE8 in the May 2008 issue of Redmond for more information.

There are a few other UI modifications, most of which are minor but represent an improvement over the way Vista currently works. For example, some system applications such as Paint and WordPad now sport a ribbon interface similar to the one found in Office 2007 (I personally like the ribbon interface). The ribbon has been changed slightly, but it looks like this will now be the UI of the future for Windows and Windows apps. It's also easier to clean up the Notification Area, located on the far right of the Taskbar, with a new dialog box. The Taskbar itself also pops up alerts that are more detailed than Vista's when there are security or hardware concerns.

Windows 7 Is Still Windows
Vista always gave you the feeling that it had been designed and built by committee, attempting to incorporate a bit of everything. Windows 7 appears to have a different mandate: to simplify and to fix what went wrong. The result should be a package that's somewhat less resource-intensive, and somewhat easier to use and administer.

Don't kid yourself, though; it is still very much Windows. To some, that will be a relief. To others, it will be an ongoing headache. It will be familiar to end users and to systems administrators, but with similar frustrations. But Vista, coming up on the two-year anniversary of its release, continues to suffer from a reputation of being a resource hog and difficult to use. Consumers are buying it preconfigured on new systems, but businesses are staying away in droves, much preferring to use their enterprise licenses to run Windows XP.

Microsoft is modifying Vista in well-conceived ways to produce Windows 7. There's not a lot here that's significantly different than Vista; it's better to think of this version as a refinement of the Vista concept. However, in this era of smartphones, net books and other special-purpose systems, you have to ask the question: Is the era of Windows as a general-purpose OS passing? Still, for those enterprises that have passed on Vista, even at the expense of falling behind the technology curve, this is probably the Windows version you want to pick up.

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