Multimedia: Incremental improvements
Windows 7 is certainly not a multimedia powerhouse, but it does include some incremental improvements over Vista.
In previous versions of Windows, you could use a stripped-down version of the bloated Windows Media Player that was accessible from the player itself. Now there's a stripped-down version available from Windows Explorer's Preview pane as well. Just select the file you want to play, click the Play button, and the small media player operates within the pane. You don't get all of Windows Media Player's other capabilities, of course, but it's a great way to sample music or video.
The biggest change is that you can stream media among networked Windows 7 PCs via Windows Media Player. Again, though, that requires you to have only Windows 7 PCs in your network; it would be better if you could stream to and from earlier versions of Windows. And Windows Media Player can now handle a wider variety of formats, including the AAC audio format used by Apple's iTunes.
Windows Media Center now has a feature called Internet TV that at first sounds like a very big deal. I was hoping that there would be a way to tune in to all the various TV shows that are now available online from inside Windows Media Center, without having to jump from site to site. I was hoping you would be able to do that using the very nice interface, searching capabilities, etc., of Windows Media Center -- things that a site like Hulu.com doesn't have. I was also hoping that Microsoft might make deals with various networks, cable outlets, etc., to provide content for Internet TV.
Alas, that is not the case. Instead, you'll find canned TV segments, each of which is several minutes long, many of them quite old. Looking for the latest sports news? You may be shocked to discover via Internet TV that the New York Jets have fired head coach Eric Mangini (which happened back in December 2008). Clearly, this feature needs some work.
Windows Media Center also has something called Internet TV Beta 2, which one would expect to be a more advanced version of the default version of Internet TV, especially because it requires a download. But it's basically the same content in a nicer-looking interface.
Microsoft does not want to relive the many hardware problems that plagued the launch of Windows Vista. This time around, the company says, Windows 7 will be able to use the same drivers as Vista, which means that it should work with most hardware purchased in the past several years. But it also means that some older hardware won't work with Windows 7.
In my testing, Windows 7 worked with several printers (including a network-attached printer), a DVD burner, and my older Dell laptop (although as I pointed out in the installation section, it had to download a driver before the video display worked properly). There's a new Devices and Printers folder that has the potential for finally making hardware easier to manage -- although at this point, it is only a platform-in-waiting (waiting for peripheral makers to provide the appropriate software).
The folder will hold icons representing each device; the icons can be created by the manufacturer to make the icon look like the device itself. A new technology called Device Stage will let hardware makers create an interface for managing the devices using features specific to that device. This interface will replace Windows' usual near-incomprehensible menus and boxes for managing hardware. It will only be useful, though, if the manufacturers actually create those interfaces.