First Look: Windows 7

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Windows 7 First Look: A Big Fix for Vista

The Magic Touch?

One major area of change in Windows 7's interface won't mean much to most PC users at first blush: Only a handful of current machines, such as HP's TouchSmart PC and Dell's Latitude XT laptop, support multitouch input; but in theory this feature would let you operate a touch-screen-equipped Windows 7 computer as if it were a massive iPhone, using your fingertips to launch applications, shuffle windows around, and enlarge and shrink photos by grabbing them with both hands. Not surprisingly, Microsoft hasn't yet enabled all of this functionality. Using a TouchSmart PC at the Windows 7 workshop, we could fingerpaint with two fingers in Paint, but we couldn't perform two-fingered photo manipulations that would be a lot more useful in real life.

Microsoft promises that Windows 7 will ship with more touch features. The company is also working to make the OS smart enough to figure out whether you're using a mouse or your fingers so it can adjust itself accordingly. For example, if you tap the Start button with your fingertip rather than with the mouse pointer, you'll get a slightly larger Start menu that requires less finesse to navigate. And you don't get a mouse pointer when you touch the screen with your finger--which makes perfect sense, since your finger servers as its own pointer. Instead, you get a momentary puddling effect to indicate that you've made contact with the screen.
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Will the touch interface that makes the iPhone cool work on a notebook or desktop system? We're skeptical, but Windows 7 lays the software groundwork that will allow PC manufacturers to give it a try, at least.

Performance Enhancements

Some of the biggest criticisms of Vista relate to performance, and Microsoft appears to have made addressing these a priority. In our brief experience with the early-beta code, boot time seemed fast. Of course, we won't be able to make a fair comparison until we can test identical machines with the same bare-bones installations in Vista and W7, but Microsoft did identify a couple of steps it has taken to speed things up. First, Windows 7 initializes many services in parallel; and second, it has fewer services to initialize.

Microsoft engineers are working on several areas to improve general PC performance. One focus is to change the way the OS allocates memory to new windows. In Vista, the amount of memory allocated per window goes up as you add windows, to the point where the system often shuts down Aero because application windows are soaking up too much system memory. In Windows 7, each new window will be allocated the same amount of memory, and as a result adding new windows won't impose a prohibitive burden on system resources.

Other changes are designed to make the OS less crash-prone. Fault-tolerant heaps, for example, are designed to address memory management problems without crashing the problem application; at the same time, process reflection reduces crashes by allowing Windows to diagnose and (maybe) repair process problems without crashing the application involved. Microsoft says that its new OS "sandboxes" printer drivers so that problems stemming from poorly written drivers won't create problems for other drivers or for the system as a whole.

Microsoft is also working on ways to prolong notebook battery life by reducing power consumption. Examples of this endeavor include enabling notebooks to cut back on background activities, to perform intelligent display dimming (similar to technologies used with cell phone displays), and to play back DVDs more efficiently.

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