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Windows 7 RC Review

June 30, 2009 3 comments

I’ve been testing out the release candidate (RC) of Windows 7 in a virtual machine on my desktop PC. Therefore from the outset I’d like to point out that it won’t be performing as well as it could due to the limitations of the type of install used. However, I have still been able to use the operating system; sample its new features; and make a decision as to whether it’s worthwhile upgrading.

The software I’ve been using is Sun Virtualbox, a review of which should be coming soon.  This is free software which allows you to run operating systems inside others. I had to assign a certain amount of RAM and video memory which the machine could use. The limitations of this resulted in me being unable to sample the visual Aero features (which mostly just  makes things looks pretty) of the operating system, but the functionality was still intact. I’ve split the article up into sections. Within each is a commentary of what has changed and my observations and comments about the changes and features.

The Taskbar

Programs of a similar type are automatically merged into one icon.

Programs of a similar type are automatically merged into one icon.

The taskbar has been the same for yonks. Since Windows 95 very little has changed. XP brought with it taskbar grouping for when you had lots of the same window, and Vista added pretty little previews. Windows 7 goes further, and by default overhauls the taskbar. The most noticeable change is that the items now show as only icons. This saves on space. In addition, windows and tabs of the same application are rolled into one icon. For example, if I have ‘Documents’ ‘Music’ and ‘Pictures’ open at the same time, they’ll all be rolled into one icon which represents Windows Explorer. Hovering or clicking on the icon will result in a list of the windows contained within that icon. Had I been able to use Aero, shots of the windows would have appeared, making it easier to identify each. I would then be able to click on the image of the window to blow it up to full size. This is especially useful for web browsing, when you’re likely to have many tabs open. These are all available from the one icon on the taskbar.

Right-clicking on an item causes a program-specific list of documents or functions to appear.

Right-clicking on an item causes a program-specific list of documents or functions to appear.

Jump Lists is another addition. Right-clicking on a running or pinned item on the taskbar will result in a menu with common options and recent documents appearing. For example, right-clicking on Wordpad results in a list of recently saved documents, for Internet Explorer, it results in my most commonly visited webpages, and a couple of common options which are predetermined – ‘new tab’ and ‘inprivate browsing’. This addition saves time by cutting out the step of having to load or maximise the application, and then perform the action – you can perform it directly from the taskbar. Whilst this may sound unimportant, the time saved should begin to add up as the new features become ingrained in your work-flow.

I also found great excitement in the fact that when downloading a file in Internet Explorer, the icon changes its background to a moving status-bar, showing you how the download is progressing without the need to open IE’s download dialogue. The same also applies when copying or moving files. A minor addition, but a spiffing and potentially time-saving touch.

The Start Menu

A search for "Mouse" shows much improved results

A search for "Mouse" shows much improved results.

The Start Menu has also improved. Its now sports a much more accurate and fast search box, which makes finding things much easier. For instance, searching for ‘Mouse’ in vista would result in a single link to the mouse properties settings, followed by any documents related to ‘mouse’. In Windows 7, various other options are given, such as help topics related to

Commonly used websites and predefined features are listed for IE.

Commonly used websites and predefined features are listed for IE.

troubleshooting problems with your mouse; related windows options; and tasks related to the mouse. Searching was incredibly fast despite the limitations of the virtual machine, so it should be even faster on a properly installed operating system.

Another new feature in the Start Menu is the quick access. This works in a  similar way to the aforementioned jump-lists which are used on the taskbar. A small right-facing arrow appears next to applicable applications. Clicking this shows a list of recent documents and/or common tasks. Again, this saves you extra clicks by putting the most common actions there for you. It also prevents you having to remember the name of and find the files you’re looking for, since they’re listed there for you. You can also pin documents to the list. This allows you to retain quick access to files you’re using often.

Document Libraries

An example library containing contacts, favourites, and downloads.

An example library containing contacts, favourites, and downloads.

I must admit that I was a bit confused by this feature when I first looked at it. On the surface, it doesn’t look much different from the ‘Documents’ ‘Pictures’ ‘Music’ etc directories which have existed from XP onwards. However, there is a difference and it’s a great addition to the OS. The library features allows you to group in other folders without them actually being there. So I can create a library which contains a folder for my contacts, and all my outgoing emails. They won’t actually exist within the library, but you’ll be able to see all the content. You could do this yourself by copying over every file that you want to be there, but libraries keep track of the specified folders and link to the content within without you having to do anything.

You can view the documents within each folder added to the library without actually opening the folder. That’s spiffing because it saves you browsing through a bunch of folders and subfolders to find the file you’re looking for. You could have it tucked away in a chain of dozens of folders, but if you specify that folder or a parent folder to be listed in a library, you’ll always be able to access to the files quickly and easily. A good use for this might be when working on an extensive project or piece of work. You might have lots of different folders for this project, but you can group them all and see all the files in a library for your work. The implementation of libraries could be better though. The process of creating one could do with some simplification, since it involved creating a library then changing its properties to add in folders.

Redesigned Applications

The ribbon has been added to Wordpad, making it nicer to use.

The ribbon has been added to Wordpad, making it nicer to use.

Windows has come with built-in applications such as Wordpad and Calculator since the 95 and 3.0 respectively. In that time very little changed, but they’ve received a bit of an overhaul in Windows 7. Wordpad got jealous of the ribbon feature of Microsoft Office 2007 and swiped it for itself. Whilst its functionality is still very limited when compared to fully-fledged word-processors, it’s much nicer to use now and will suffice for quick lists and notes.

Calculator has also undergone some changes. It still looks basic from the outset, but now has options which let you add additional functions such as unit conversion or common calculations – such as leases.

Homegroup

I don’t feel it’s worth going into detail with this feature, but I will discuss it very briefly. The reason I don’t think it’s worthwhile spending a long time on it is that it’s not compatible with XP or Vista PCs. Homegroup is a feature added with Windows 7 designed to make it easier to share files and media with other computers on your network. It also tries to increase security by generating a unique password which must be given to those who you wish to allow to join your network. This acts as a double-layer of security in that anyone who wishes to join your network must first have the encryption key, and then they’ll need the Homegroup password. Unfortunately, XP or Vista computers in your home won’t be able to connect to a homegroup. I think it’s a shame that they haven’t made it compatible, as it would improve home networks and alienates those of us who will still want to run computers using older operating systems.

Snap

Two windows snapped to the sides of the screen.

Two windows snapped to the sides of the screen.

You may often find yourself working with two windows side-by-side, such as writing a Word document whilst researching a topic on the Internet. To put these two next to each other in XP or Vista you’d need to restore them and then manoeuvre them manually untill they’re nicely placed. Windows 7 introduces Aerosnap which fixes this. You can drag an application to the left or right hand of the screen, and it’ll automagically fill that half. Dragging the title-bar to the top of the screen will cause it to maximise. You can drag them back away from these positions to make them jump back to the way they were before.

Improved User Account Control

Users can set their own UAC level.

Users can set their own UAC level.

One of the biggest gripes associated with Vista was User Account Control (UAC). Many find it obtrusive and annoying with its constant nagging about changes that you’re trying to make to your PC. This resulted in some users switching it off completely, potentially leaving themselves less secure. Windows 7 improves upon this by allowing the user to choose the level of security which UAC applies. It implements a slider which can be moved up and down to increase or decrease how active User Account Control is. By default, it’s set to alert you when programs try to make changes, but not when you try to change something.

Summary

Is it worth upgrading? Whilst there’s a plethora of new additions which add up to make Windows 7 worth the investment, and there are other features which I could have also reviewed, such as the ability to emulate Windows XP so you can still run your older applications (Ultimate only), the improvements are only quite small small, so it may not be worth upgrading your Vista or XP machine unless you can’t bear them any longer.

I’ve been testing out the release candidate (RC) of Windows 7 in a virtual machine on my desktop PC. Therefore from the outset I’d like to point out that it won’t be performing as well as it could due to the limitations of the type of install used. However, I have still been able to use the operating system, sample its new features, and make a decision as to whether it’s worthwhile upgrading.

The software I’ve been using is Sun Virtualbox, a review of which should be coming soon.  This is free software which allows you to run operating systems. I had to assign a certain amount of RAM and video memory which the machine could use. The limitations of this resulted in me being unable to sample the visual aero features (which mostly just  makes things looks pretty) of the operating system, but the functionality was still intact. I’ve split the article up into sections, within which is a commentary on what has changed and my observations and comments about the changes.

Redesigned taskbar

The taskbar has been the same for yonks. Since Windows 95 very little has changed. XP brought with it taskbar grouping for when you had lots of the same window, and Vista added pretty little previews. Windows 7 goes further, and by default overhauls the taskbar. Windows and tabs of the same application are rolled into one icon. For example, if I have ‘Documents’ ‘Music’ and ‘Pictures’ open at the same time, they’ll all be rolled into one icon which represents Windows Explorer. Hovering or clicking on the icon will result in a list of the windows contained within that icon. Had I been able to use Aero, shots of the windows would have appeared, making it easier to identify each.

Jump Lists are another addition. Right-clicking on a running or pinned item on the taskbar will result in a menu with common options and recent documents appearing. For example, right-clicking on wordpad results in a list of recently saved documents, for Internet Explorer, it results in my most commonly visited webpages, and a couple of common options which are predetermined – such as ‘new tab’ and ‘inprivate browsing’. This addition saves time by cutting out the step of having to load or maximise the application, and then perform the action – you can perform it directly from the taskbar. Whilst this may sound unimportant, the time saved should begin to add up as the new features become ingrained in your workflow.

I found great excitement in the fact that when downloading a file in Internet Explorer, the icon changes its background to a moving status-bar, showing you how the download is progressing without the need to open IE’s download dialogue. A minor addition, but a very nice and potentially time-saving touch.

Vista Service Pack 2 on its way

February 28, 2009 Leave a comment

Windows KeyOh, poor Vista. It’s had a lot of bad press – it seems to be presented as XP’s younger brother who has special needs. However, Vista is a very different beast to what it was when first released: Service Pack 1 fixed many of the problems that had plauged it. Whilst nowhere near perfect, it’s much, much better than it was at its release. Like it or loathe it, it did a great deal to push Windows forward to be something more modern and user-friendly.

Now, as Vista gets ready to step aside to make way for the much-talked-about Windows 7, what is likely to be its final service pack is almost ready for release. Now in its final stages before release, developers are being allowed to sample it in an early download before its expected release in early to mid March. Blue seems to be very much a focus of the update: two of the main features added are the ability to record to blu-ray disks and support for the new 2.1 blue tooth technology. The new version of Windows Search – Version 4 – is also included, which should spell more accurate and faster searching when looking for your files. It also wraps up all previously released updates, so if you’ve missed any, you can get the whole lot at once.