In-Depth

Windows 7: Already Better than Vista?

Early testers reveal a snappier, crisper and far more satisfying desktop effort.

Windows Vista isn't even in its half-life, but already Microsoft and its customers are spending far more time talking about what's to come -- Windows 7. As we discussed in Part I, Windows 7 offers every indication of being a huge hit. In Part II of our two-part coverage, readers discuss changes in the GUI, Taskbar, UAC and more.

User Interface
The Windows 7 user interface represents a solid facelift of Vista, rather than a completely new look and feel. That means Vista users feel pretty comfortable, even as they enjoy the new features.

"I'm impressed with the Libraries," says Steve Birchfield, IT operations supervisor for AnazaoHealth Corp. "They allow me to combine directories into one coherent list of files being pulled from multiple locations. I couldn't add an applications library of directories on non-indexed network drives, but the music, documents and video libraries are a good start. The icon on the Taskbar for Libraries also has a nice list of the most frequently used folders I go to when I right-click on it. That saves me a lot of time since I use the same five or six folders most of the time."

A common theme is that Windows 7 fixes much of what is wrong in Vista. "[Windows 7] is intuitive, and with the speed enhancements, I find myself wanting to use it. UAC is not as annoying and can be tailored to the user's technical abilities," adds Birchfield.

C. Marc Wagner, services development specialist, UITS, Student Technology Centers, at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., also likes the usability. "It's cleaner than Vista's interface. I especially like the new network interface for connecting to wireless. No muss, no fuss," he says. "In one pop-up, you can select and connect to an available network and mark it as preferred. It prompts you automatically for security keys or authentication, if needed."

Bill Carreira, director of Municipal Information Systems for the City of Kingsland, Ga., is another Windows 7 UI fan. "This OS is very usable, and will probably be the next Windows XP. I also like that the UAC screen doesn't keep popping up asking me permission to run programs every time I start a new application. That was a distraction," he says.

A few features may take getting used to. "There's one feature I've yet to figure out the purpose of: Aero Peek," says Steve Chapman, founder of the blog UX Evangelist. "It's where you hover your mouse over the Show Desktop button on the far right side of the Taskbar, and it makes all of your windows translucent so you can see your desktop through them. By the time you wait for the effect to happen, you could've been well on your way to clicking the button, seeing your desktop, then clicking it again to bring all the windows back up to where they were," he complains.

Some built-in apps -- like Paint -- now include the ribbon interface that debuted in Office 2007. Opinion is divided on this new approach. "As far as ribbon integration throughout various apps like WordPad and Paint, I'm still getting used to it," Chapman says. "It's a learning process, but I'm starting to see the benefits. If it wasn't forced upon me, I would've done away with the ribbon UI since I use Paint almost daily."

Some see the influence of another vendor in the Windows UI. Redmond reader David Aflak, a senior manager at Esurance Inc., says: "Usability is better than Vista, but many of the features are very similar. It's more Mac-like in operation than Vista, more intuitive."

Taskbar
The biggest change in UI has got to be the Taskbar. "The Taskbar is childish and a little clumsy," says Christopher A. Blanchard, MCSE, a customer engineer for EMC Corp. "The Icon Only usage, instead of the usual descriptive bar, makes me wonder how some programs will integrate with the new Taskbar. I'll find out soon enough with the installation of some legacy software."

However, Blanchard is clearly in the minority.

"I'm starting to like the new Taskbar," Birchfield opines. "I like that you can pin applications to the Taskbar and when they're open, the application minimizes back to that icon. They've combined the functionality of the Taskbar and the quick launch into one icon, and it saves Taskbar space. I like that Microsoft has combined the running tray apps into the single up arrow on the Taskbar. No more scrolling icons in the tray. The new Show Desktop button is very useful and also the way windows change colors or appearance if you push a window too far off of the screen."

But Birchfield does have to adjust the new Taskbar: "The Taskbar takes some getting used to. Once I realized the icons on the Taskbar were like a combined quick launch and open item similar to a Mac, I was fine," he explains. "But it still takes some thought when I go to look for minimized applications. The monochrome tray icons remind me of a Mac also."

Aflak likes what he sees so far. "The Taskbar is vastly different. The ability to hover over buttons and see previews, along with the system making peripheral windows transparent, helps keep things organized. Also, the UAC is less intrusive, meaning that when it does want attention, it flashes the Taskbar icon, rather than taking over the whole screen," he says. Redmond reader Aflak goes on to add: "It's very similar to the Mac Dock. Preview and hover allow you to organize your windows better. The pop-up system tray makes the right side much less busy. The ability to peg running apps to the Taskbar for future execution is right from the Mac Dock."

The whole goal of the Taskbar is to make it faster and easier to launch apps and find files. "Between interactive thumbnail previews, which allow you to control certain functions within an application via its thumbnail preview, and jump lists, which store recent history and the most popular functions of apps per your usage of them, a great deal has been made accessible in an intuitive manner via the Taskbar," says Chapman.

Not all are infatuated, though. "The jury is still out. The default settings for desktop icons and for the Taskbar icons are too big for my taste, but these can be adjusted," explains Wagner. "Those settings were not too hard to find. Instead of having a link on your desktop for your various personal folders, there's now an icon on the Taskbar that pops up."

Just like Aflak, Rocco Santori sees the influence of Apple in the functionality and look and feel of the Taskbar. "I've loved it ... ever since I saw it at the Mac show last year," says Santori, a consultant with Rocconet.

A Better UAC
If there's one thing that rankled Vista users-besides compatibility problems and poor performance-it's the sheer intrusiveness of UAC. Microsoft is taking these beefs to heart and has radically revamped UAC. There are now four choices of levels of notification. The default setting is to only notify when a program is trying to make a change. You can also choose always notify, never notify and notify when a program is trying to make a change -- but not have the monitor dim.

Redmond readers appreciate the changes. "UAC is much improved over the Vista version. I like that it's a slider bar now with different levels of notifications. It's not as cumbersome as the Vista version, for sure," AnazaoHealth's Birchfield says. "I can keep some security turned on without having the screen dim and receiving the prompts after every install and change."

City of Kingsland's Carreira is jazzed about controlling UAC settings. "I really like that the OS asks for an administrator password to install software inside a user's desktop. This helps with having to log out and log back in as the administrator. The UAC has been completely revamped and is awesome," he says.

The real difference is that UAC no longer stands in the way of computing. "There's minimal UAC prompting. Once confirmed, it leaves you alone. It's much improved, and I didn't even find UAC all that annoying before," says Indiana University's Wagner.

Favorite Feature
While some see Windows 7 as just a new and vastly improved release of Vista, it's far more. There are substantial new features that Redmond readers were more than happy to brag about.

Wagner enjoys the control Windows 7 offers. "I like the way one can select new themes visually from one screen, and backgrounds can be grouped and 'shuffled' between," he says.

Kingsland's Carreira loves libraries. "I like the library approach to the file structure; it will help alleviate file-structure problems with filing your files, if that makes sense," he explains. "I also like the XPS viewer and the Snipping tool."

Tester Bill Bates, business analyst for Minneapolis-based Microsoft Gold Certified Partner Penchant Software Inc., is jazzed about USB. "The USB transfer is the most exciting part. I can't believe how fast it is compared to XP. Since I don't have Vista, I can't compare the USB transfer to and from the USB drive," Bates says.

Windows 7 also gets along well with Microsoft's Web services tools. "I installed all of the Live apps and connected the machine to Live Mesh," says Redmond reader Patrick Dunlap, a client configuration manager. "Everything worked as expected. I like this format of OS enrichment better than pre-bundling. I was able to connect via Mesh to my Windows 7 machine at home and from my Vista machine at work. I have my favorites synching between the two."

Innovative or Mac Redux?
The Holy Grail of computing is true innovation. So far Windows 7 looks great, and there's visible excitement. But IT veterans are reluctant to call anything innovative unless it's truly mind-blowing. As sweet as it appears, Windows 7 fails the "mind-blowing" test. In fact, the perception strongly remains that in desktop operating systems, the company from Cupertino is innovative, while the powerhouse from Redmond isn't.

"Windows 7 is not terribly innovative, but is a big step in the right direction. It still looks like Vista in many places," Aflak says.

Birchfield is on the same page. "It's more like a refined version of Vista. I also see several desktop and Taskbar items that resemble similar features in the Mac OS," he says.

The best line, and the one that really stings, comes from Rocconet's Rocco Santori: "I wouldn't call it innovative. The best feature was copied from a more innovative company," he says.

Figure 1
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Figure 1. Refined Windows 7 gadgets have little impact on system performance, even when set to different opacity levels.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes
IT experts don't like having new technologies thrust upon them. Rather, they want to be part of the creation process and have their voices heard. Here's what Redmond readers are asking Microsoft to tackle before Windows 7's final release.

"The only thing I'd change is reducing the number of reboots during installation. As a network administrator, I'd be frustrated with the setup process," Birchfield says.

Hibernation and power management need a tweak or two, as well. "Someone needs to fix the shut down/sleep/hibernate button. It's the same as in Vista. It's a tiny button next to the shut down button with six options assigned to it. You can barely hit it correctly with the mouse," Aflak says.

The way Windows 7 suspends PCs needs some tuning, as well, at least according to one beta tester.

"It starts up quickly and without issues, and it's the same for shut down," reader Dunlap says. "But I have the same problems with suspend as with Vista. The screen goes blank as if it's suspended, but the hard drive is still cranking and will continue for about a minute longer. Windows has 'suspend envy' for Macs.

"More than once I put a machine I thought was suspended in my backpack to find a baked potato when I opened my bag again," he adds.

As much as the user interface engenders praise, it's far from perfect.

"I wouldn't waste so much space between icons on the left side of the Taskbar, which are more widely spaced than they are on the right side," advises Wagner. "I'd also default to smaller icons everywhere. The default icon sizes on the desktop, Taskbar and Start menu are reminiscent of the days of 800x600 screens, not the 1280x800 or the 1440x900 screens we see today."

Figure 1
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Figure 2. Microsoft updated UAC with more granular reporting.

Training
A new OS may be the hottest thing since the microwave oven, but if it differs significantly from its predecessor, the training costs can be astronomical. Redmond readers report that Vista shops will have a fairly simple training experience to move to Windows 7. This is one reason Microsoft is pushing IT to move to Vista first and then to Windows 7.

"As Windows 7 is essentially built from the Windows Vista base, its usability and interface are similar and far removed from any of the ways you navigate and use XP," UX Evangelist blogger Chapman says. "Luckily, XP users should find the stability and performance in Windows 7 that was lacking with Windows Vista -- though any XP drivers and XP-only programs still won't work at all in Windows 7."

The built-in apps are another concern. "If you're not used to the ribbon interface, there may be some necessary training because Microsoft is adorning many of its applications with it these days," Chapman adds.

Carreira sees few problems, as well: "When we shifted to Windows XP, we had to go over it with all of our users. I suspect that it won't be that extensive because most of our users have computers at home with Vista, so they'll be used to the look," he explains.

But a good interface can help reduce training. "Most users will find Windows 7 easy to navigate and use. The Taskbar is a feature I think users will eventually find very useful. It's different than what they've used in the past, but once they understand how the applications are opened and minimized, they'll find it [to be] time-saving," Birchfield notes.

Nearly Done?
The million-dollar question -- actually, the multibillion-dollar question -- is: When will Windows 7 ship? Microsoft indicates an early 2010 date, but also hints it could be released sooner. Based on Redmond reader feedback, it could well come out this year.

"I think it's very close to being done," Birchfield believes. "It really is more like Vista R2 than a whole new OS. Microsoft has tweaked and refined the rough spots found in Vista to create Windows 7. I have to think that, with the positive response they get back from users, they'll try to release it soon. With the negative backlash received from Vista, this product could turn the perceptions around quickly."

Carreira predicts a 2009 release. "If Microsoft works on this product aggressively, it will be ready by the end of the year, as it's based on the Vista kernel and just needs to be refined," he says.

Wagner is more specific -- and bolder. "It's extremely close," he argues. "I expect Windows 7 will move from beta to release candidate within 90 days and released to manufacturing [RTM] within 90 days after that. I expect Windows 7 to ship by the end of this year's third quarter."

Blanchard has a harsher overall view of Windows 7. "Based on what I'm seeing, it's not close at all," he says. "This is definitely a beta. It has a long way to go before an RTM version can be released, much less 'go gold.'"

Figure 1
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Figure 3. Dialog boxes in Windows 7 can be customized to support Aero-style transparency effects, or provide a more basic look and feel.

Implications
Based on the new interface, stability, performance and compatibility, many in IT are itching to move to Windows 7. That's just as true for Vista shops as for those that so far have stuck with XP.

"We avoided going to Vista as a company due to application issues related to UAC, compatibility and performance," Birchfield says. "When Windows 7 releases, we'll move our desktops over because it seems to be stable and faster. I'll push to upgrade our 150 desktops to Windows 7 once it comes out for full release. Windows 7 will be received in a more positive light and will be an easier sell to management."

Many more will leap over Vista. "I'm going to skip Vista altogether and go from XP to 7," Carreira says. "With some extensive work on Microsoft's part, this will be what Windows XP is today."

Blogger Chapman believes Windows 7 will be a monster success. "The migration to Windows 7 in just its first year will outdo the entire migration to Vista," he predicts. "Windows 7 will quickly do away with Windows Vista and once again boost Microsoft's market share. If Microsoft fine-tunes performance while alleviating bugs and many of the driver issues that still plague Vista, we'll see a lot of excitement and a positive buzz."

"It will be a hit," Ron Rosenthal, an IT supervisor, adds. "Hopefully it won't have the vulnerabilities that have plagued XP and Vista, but I'm a realist about that. It's impossible for humans to create something that doesn't have flaws."

Figure 1
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Figure 4. In Windows 7, bundled applets like Microsoft Paint enjoy a makeover.

Migration
Based on the positive feedback, IT is already eyeing the move. "When it's released, we'll probably roll it out to a few test users and then deploy it by departments. It'll depend somewhat on vendor support, but if our testing finds that it works with applications, we'll probably do a full migration within a year," Birchfield says.

Carreira is also looking at a staged rollout. If the testing shows good results, the migration will begin as soon as the OS ships. "When I buy a new machine, it will have

Windows 7 on it. Then, as we roll out new machines, we'll load them with Windows 7," he says. "After that, we'll do one department at a time via upgrades. I'll need to test the upgrade feature extensively before deciding to do an upgrade or a clean install."

Wagner is even more aggressive. "I'll move to Windows 7 on non-essential machines, probably using dual-boot, as soon as I can, and I'll jump in with both feet as soon as RTM code is available," he says. "I'm in higher education, and many of my colleagues will move to Windows 7 on a similar time frame, though perhaps not as quickly as I will. Our production computing environment for students went to Vista during summer 2008. A production Windows 7 environment most likely won't be ready before the summer of 2010."

The good Windows 7 news is bad news for Vista, Wagner believes. "Demand for Vista will dry up as soon as Windows 7 hits the market, and the few XP zealots who haven't made the jump will move to Windows 7 as well," he predicts.

Others are taking Microsoft's advice and moving to Vista first and Windows 7 soon thereafter. "I think it's 95 percent done, hopefully more," Rosenthal says. Rosenthal plans to move to Windows 7 "six months to a year after it's released. We may go to Vista this month; the images are ready and so is the hardware."

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