The Best New Features in Windows 7

Windows 7, in all of its various flavors, won't be available in stores until October 22. But, Microsoft announced the availability of a 90-day free trial of Windows 7 Enterprise. That gives you an almost 2 month jumpstart to either start taking advantage of new features of Windows 7, or to test out Windows 7 to decide if you want to make the switch when it becomes available.

Here are a few of the top new features that I think make it worth your time to take advantage of the Windows 7 90-day trial.

Action Center. Microsoft introduced the Windows Security Center feature in Windows XP. Windows 7 renames it as the Action Center and expands the scope of information provided. The Windows 7 Action Center notifies you about security-related issues, but also provides a one-stop-shopping view of system status and maintenance concerns.

Blu-Ray support. In case you haven't gotten the memo, the hi-def DVD war is over and Blu-Ray won. Blu-Ray drives aren't ubiquitous just yet, but more and more PC and laptop manufacturer are including Blu-Ray players and recorders in systems. Windows 7 provides native support for reading and writing to Blu-ray discs.

Device stage. Adding new hardware is often a frustrating and confusing exercise with Windows. Windows 7 includes a feature called Device Stage to simplify the process. Device Stage provides a single console for managing devices such as printers, webcams, and mobile phones. Device Stage can be customized by the device vendor, so the information and functionality available for a given device will vary from one vendor to another.

BitLocker-to-Go. Microsoft introduced BitLocker Disk Encryption in Windows Vista .The initial version could only encrypt the drive volume that housed the Windows operating system, but with Service Pack 1 Microsoft extended BitLocker so that other drives and volumes on the system could be protected as well. With Windows 7 BitLocker goes one step farther by adding BitLocker-to-Go for encrypting data on USB thumb drives and other removable media.

Aero Peek. At first I thought this was just silly eye candy. After using Windows 7 for awhile I have discovered just how useful Aero Peek can be. Rather than fishing through all of the tabs on the Taskbar trying to find the program or instance you need, you can view thumbnails of open instances by simply hovering over the item on the Taskbar. Moving the mouse to hover over a thumbnail image brings that instance up to full screen view for closer inspection. It may be a little thing, but it's a little thing that helps me work more efficiently.

Aero Snap. The same thing goes for Aero Snap. My initial response was ‘cool gee-whiz factor, but who cares?' Now I find it invaluable for working with programs. I can quickly maximize and minimize windows just by dragging them. The part that really helps me is the ability to automatically resize a window to occupy only the left or right half of the screen by dragging it to one side or the other. I frequently work with two windows side by side and used to have to manually resize the windows to accomplish the same thing.

Jump Lists. Windows users are probably familiar with the concept of Recent Items. The Recent Items link is in the Start Menu and provides quick access to the last 10 or so files that had been accessed. I relied on Recent Items so I could easily re-open documents I was actively working on without having to navigate to them the long way. Recent Items only displayed certain programs or file types though and files would quickly cycle off of the Recent Items list. Jump Lists takes the Recent Items concept and applies it on a program by program basis. Now I have an easily accessible list of recently opened files for Word, Excel, Quicken, Windows Media Player, etc. Definite timesaver.

DirectAccess. I haven't had a chance to play with this one personally, but I think it is a huge feature and arguably the most compelling reason for businesses to look at Windows 7. DirectAccess provides a bi-directional connection between the internal network and roaming Windows 7 clients as long as they have a live Internet connection. That means the user can access system resources, and IT admins can manage remote systems as if the Windows 7 system was on the internal network and without the need for a VPN connection. DirectAccess requires Windows Server 2008 R2 as well, but organizations that might be interested should take advantage of the 90-day trial to see what DirectAccess can do for them.

Tony Bradley is an information security and unified communications expert with more than a decade of enterprise IT experience. He tweets as @PCSecurityNews and provides tips, advice and reviews on information security and unified communications technologies on his site at tonybradley.com.

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