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Another look at Windows 7

December 25, 2009 2 comments

Windows 7 comes with revamped software, faster performance, and features to speed up your work.

Those of you who’ve been visiting the blog for a while may remember that I tested out the Release Candidate of Windows 7 back in June. At the time, it was running on a virtual machine inside Windows XP. I was impressed, but not blown away. However, I’ve now grabbed the final release, thanks to the hefty student discount that I’m entitled to thanks to the good chaps over at Software 4 Students. Since it’s now all up and running and I’ve been using it for a few days, I thought I’d share my experiences of upgrading, and pick out a few features that I’m rather liking.  

I opted to do a clean install rather than an upgrade since I have a nasty habit of installing too much software and having too many files, which ends up slowing down the operation of my PCs. This was a nice excuse to clean out all the junk and start afresh with a shiny new operating system. After popping the disk in, I had to opt for either upgrading – which would mean that all my files and software would be kept – or a clean install – the route that I chose. This process was simple enough, but I did have to choose the drive to install it on – so if you’ve got multiple disks or partitions, you’ll have  to have a quick look through the options to choose the one that your current OS is installed on. I fear this might prove a bit tricky for some; I can imagine my Mum calling for help if she were forced to make a decision as to what section of the drive to install her snazzy new OS on.  

The disk then whirred about for a while as the installer worked its magic, extracting the files from the disk, restarting, expanding files, and copying them. I was concerned in the final stages of installation that something had gone wrong; it sat there for a good 20-30 minutes in the last stage, which were the final preparations, but it sorted itself in the end, and was ready for me to put in the usual information that is demanded; software key; computer name; user name; keyboard layout; time-zone and so on. After that, it restarted once more, and was then ready for me start using it.  

A pleasant surprise was the fact that drivers for hardware and devices all sorted themselves. When I’ve installed and reinstalled XP on my desktop, I’ve gained some strange enjoyment from hunting down and installing drivers. However, I didn’t need to do this with Windows 7; everything worked fine – even the laptop’s built-in web-cam functions, which helps to save time and ensures that users who aren’t quite so sad as I am don’t have to waste time with drivers, or calling for their resident IT person, concerned that nothing seems to be working.  

I only encountered one problem, and that was with McAfee. The first thing I do with fresh installs is to load on McAfee Security Centre software, but during the process of doing so, Windows popped up a disconcerting message that slapped me in the face and reported that the driver for McAfee firewall was incompatible, and had therefore been disabled. Naturally, my first reaction was rage at McAfee. Thankfully, the software then set about updating itself to a more recent version, and after a few updates and restarts, it got to a version that had made friends with Windows 7, and the two played nicely together thereafter. I was then met with a barrage of Windows updates, which is fine by me. One of them seemed to get stuck – the malicious software removal tool for December, so I cancelled this, allowing the others then kick in and sort themselves. The failed update can be beaten into submission by forcing it to try to reinstall again if I desire.  

Something else that I was surprised to see was that during the install Windows grabbed all my files from Vista and plonked them into a new folder on the C: drive called ‘Windows.old’. This meant I didn’t have to restore back my important files from my off-board hard drive. However, it’s best not to rely on this feature though, since something might go wrong during the install and your files could vanish in a puff of metahporical smoke. Aftering nabbing my important stuff from this folder, I deleted it using the disk cleanup wizard, since it was taking up over 60GB (!) of space, which is a fairly hefty chunk out of a 250GB Hard Disk.  

I’ve only installed two other software packages: Office 2007, and Adobe CS4 – incidentally, both of which I got a massive discount on from Software 4 Students – I love that company! As expected, they both installed without hitch and work absolutely fine.  

Having previously gone into more detail about features in my Release Candidate review, I won’t babble on much about the new features, but I’ll just pick out two or three favourites and briefly write about them.  

Hovering on an item will show a live preview

The new and improved taskbar is likely to the first thing that you notice has changed about Windows. Large icons are now used, which has the positive effect of creating more space for programs. Each icon then contains all instances of that software open: so multiple Word document would all be accessed from that one icon, and all your open Internet Explorer tabs and Windows would be shown when hovering on it. Previews of open windows were first used in Vista, but these have been improved in Windows 7 by making them larger and clickable, as well as causing the window to float to the front of the screen when hovered on its thumbnail. In addition, the item on the taskbar are clever enough to change their appearance

Right-clicking on an item on the taskbar brings up a selection of useful tools.

depending upon what the software is up to. For instance, when copying, moving, or deleting files, the Windows Explorer icon gains a green background that moves along, similar to a status bar. This saves you opening the window to see the progress, as well as allowing you to keep a beady eye on it to make sure it’s doing what you’ve told it to. 

In addition, further functions are accessible for some software by right-clicking on the icon. This will pop out a list of common functions or documents, allowing you to access them without having to open the window first. For example, the Internet Explorer icon gives access to recent sites and such features as ‘New tab’ from its context menu. In addition, the taskbar can also act as a dock – meaning you can pin icons there to quickly launch software, like the old quick launch toolbar, but more useful. 

Some software includes an area that expands, giving you access to features or files.

Similarly, the Start Menu has been improved. Most noticable are the menus that slide out from some programs when hovered on. This can help to speed up the process of opening recent documents, and gives you quick access to common features. Software that supports this feature can have items pinned to keep them there permanently – you might like to use this for a commonly used template, or you can remove items that you don’t want listed. In addition, the search feature that Vista users will be familiar with is now much faster and more efficient, allowing you to find files, programs, and Windows settings & tools super fast. 

Multitasking is also sped up by the ability to snap windows to different sides of the screen. Dragging a window to the left  edge makes it fill that half of the monitor, and dragging one to the right does the opposite. Moving it to the top makes it maximise. This simple feature comes in handy by saving you moving and resizing windows when you’re doing such things as trying to read a website whilst making notes in a separate document. 

Overall, my impressions of Windows 7 have been very positive. However, I would say that if you’re not able to get a discount on it, there’s no real reason to rush out and grab your copy. It’s a good improvement over both Vista and XP, but I don’t know if it’s enough to justify spending your hard-earned money on. Having said that, if you’re looking to purchase a new PC any time in the future, you should definitely make sure that it’s coming with Windows 7 – there are a number of small but useful features that help to save you time. If you’re currently stuck with Vista, you’ll probably find that Windows 7 is a big improvement in terms of performance – especially if you do a clean install; but if you’re still using XP and it works fine for your purposes, I see no reason to bring yourself up-to-date until you get around to buying a shiny new computer. 

All that remains is to wish you an enjoyable festive season – hopefully you’ve received some nifty new software, games, or gadgets from friends or family.

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Has Firefox burnt out?

It seems like it’s everyone and their dog’s favourite bit of open-source software. It’s been the choice of both basic users who were pushed to change, right up to professionals who know that it’s better then Internet Explorer. However, with a horde of new browsers released recently, and a lack of updates and new features from Mozilla, is it time we doused the flames of our firey chum?

Version 3.1 might be released by the time I’m using a zimmerframe and moaning about children being on my lawn. But I wouldn’t bet on it. There’s been setback, after setback on this release, and even when it is released, no features which are not currently available in other browsers will be added. With Mozilla’s interface designer, Beltzner, now saying there will need to be fourth beta (fourth!), surely it’s time for all of us to reconsider our choice in browser?

With other browsers offering more features and faster browsing, has Firefox lost is spark?

With other browsers offering more features and faster browsing, has Firefox lost is spark?

Chrome is faster, Safari is faster, Opera 10 is faster. The only thing slower is the elephant desperately masquerading as a browser: IE8. Speed is a key issue for many users – we’re all obsessed with it: if we can’t get there in the blink of an eye, we’re not interested. 3.1 is set to have a massive speed increase, but with current alternative browsers, or at least reliable betas, in the case of Safari, offering a massive speed increase, Firefox certainly can’t cling onto users due to its speed.

Firefox’s betas aren’t approachable to the ordinary user: it’s not linked to or even mentioned on the homepage, and the whole beta testing process at Mozilla appears to be geared towards those with an IQ higher than that of Stephen Hawking: with all the jargon and incessant technical babble, it’s difficult for an ordinary user to find the download, let alone help to improve it.

Speaking of which, Firefox isn’t targeted enough towards consumers. This is epitomized by the lack of a new tab button being present by default. When I get friends or family to switch browser, I always add a new tab button to the toolbar, and/or install an extention which adds one in a sensible location: to the right of open tabs. If users are switching from IE7, they’ll want the same simple tab functionality as they were accustomed to: they simply won’t be interested in fiddling around to add buttons or installing extensions to do something that was so simple in their previous browser. Simply adding a new tab button to the browser by default would make the whole thing more approachable to a typical convert.

Addons have long been a key reason for users sticking with Firefox. However, the average user neither knows about nor is interested in addons. Again, I draw the example from my friends and family: they only know about or use addons if install them for them, and then they just create an extra hassle due to Firefox’s cumbersome addon update methods. Certainly some users love addons, I use a fair few in my Firefox, but they’re on their way to Google Chrome, where I can get both a faster, easier browsing experience, plus addons very soon.

Mozilla hasn’t done anything new or innovative with their browser in a long time: all the new features coming in 3.1 have already been implemented by other browsers. By contrast, the newest contender, Safari 4,  released many new innovative features. I think we could well see Firefox’s browser share dropping soon unless the snail that Mozilla has become recently makes a turnaround. Fast.