Several Windows 7 applets, including Paint and WordPad, now sport a Ribbon interface, like the one that debuted in Microsoft Office 2007 and is being carried over into the prerelease of Office 2010. In addition, Vista's Windows Sidebar, which let you use a number of desktop gadgets, has been dispensed with; gadgets can now live anywhere on the desktop.
The Start button no longer protrudes across the top of the taskbar, and it glows with a more noticeable light than in Vista. The associated Windows Shut Down button has been improved: Click an arrow to the button's right, and you get a list of shutdown options, including switching to a different user.
There are similar changes sprinkled throughout every level of the operating system, giving it a more polished feel than Vista.
Finally, in Windows 7, Microsoft seems to have found its inner bizarre artistic self, because in addition to the usual high-resolution photographs and nature scenes that the company includes for use as desktop backgrounds, there are oddly compelling images that are a mix of psychedelia, Hieronymus Bosch, Disney characters, Japanese anime and flat-out weirdness.
Surprise! UAC is usable
Quick, what is the most reviled feature of Windows Vista? As far as I can tell, it's User Account Control (UAC), Microsoft's method for keeping your computer safe. Unfortunately, many users felt that UAC was so inconvenient that they turned it off entirely.
In Windows 7, UAC finally gets out of your way and strikes the right balance between security and usability. Far fewer prompts appear, and the ones that do appear pop up only for good reason. Want to do something really weird and wild, like, say, change the date and time on your PC? With Vista, you'll get a UAC prompt. In Windows 7, you can make the change without the prompt.
Also, UAC is now customizable. In Vista, UAC was either on or off. With Windows 7, you have some control over how it works by using a slider to change to one of four settings:
Always notify me when: This is in essence UAC Classic, and it works like Vista's UAC. When you make changes to your system, or when software is installed or when a program tries to make a change to your system, a prompt appears.
Default -- Notify me only when programs try to make changes to my computer. As the setting says, this is the Windows 7 default. You get a UAC prompt only when a program tries to make a change. As part of that prompt, your desktop goes dark, just like it does in Vista.
Notify me only when programs try to make changes to my computer (do not dim my desktop). This is identical to the default, with one change: When a UAC prompt appears, your desktop doesn't go dark. You'd use this setting if it takes a long time for your desktop to recover from going dark and you don't want that delay.
Never notify me when: In this one, UAC is completely turned off.
Windows Vista users will find one aspect of the new UAC confusing. Windows 7, as with Vista, displays a small, multicolored shield icon next to any selection or setting that spurs a UAC prompt under the most restrictive UAC settings. In Windows 7, that shield stays there no matter what your UAC setting is. So if you keep the Windows 7 default UAC setting, you'll still see the shield next to many settings, such as the one for changing your system time or date. But when you click, no prompt appears. This takes some getting used to. It would be better if Windows 7 grayed out the shield when the UAC will not generate a prompt.