What if Microsoft waved a magic wand and everything people hated about Windows Vista went away? You might have an operating system that you liked--and that's what Microsoft appears to be striving for with Windows 7. We checked out an early beta of the future OS, and though at this point many features are either missing or works in progress, the improvements to everything from user interface to memory management look highly promising.
Along with several dozen other reviewers and analysts, we got our first real look at the OS, preinstalled on loaner notebooks, over the weekend at a workshop on the eve of the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference. Microsoft planned to hand out installation discs later Tuesday, after the head of engineering for Windows and Windows Live, Steven Sinofsky, delivers his scheduled keynote formally introducing Windows 7 to PDC attendees. (We'll report on our experiences upgrading PCs from Vista to 7 later on.)
Of course, some of the promised features are things that Microsoft has pledged--and failed to deliver--before. Wasn't Vista supposed to be faster than its predecessor? We won't be able to test performance (and other under-the-hood features) for some time, obviously, but we can share with you what Microsoft is saying to back its claims.
On some details, Microsoft has said very little. As of Monday, the company had offered no new word on when the OS will ship--the official target date continues to be early 2010, but some insiders say that the actual date may move forward by a few months. Likewise Microsoft hasn't said anything about editions (and pricing) other than to indicate that they probably won't mirror the Vista lineup.
Microsoft has said all along that Windows 7 would refine (but not rewrite) the Vista kernel. However, some of the anticipated changes depend on support that Microsoft may not be able to control. For example, a number of cool network features will work only if your employer installs Windows Server 2008 R2 (also handed out to reviewers). Other new features require cooperation by hardware vendors, though this time their contribution won't extend to rewriting drivers. Still other changes involve slimming down the code by offloading applications (such as e-mail and photo management) that were once bundled with the code. With Windows 7 you'll get them either as downloadable apps or as Web services.
But the OS that remains tries very hard to please users by addressing some of the biggest gripes people had about Vista, and by generally making everyday tasks accessible and easy to perform. To the extent that these efforts are visible in our early beta, they look pretty good.
The Interface: A Kindler, Gentler Windows
Windows Vista's interface makeover emphasized style over substance: Among its most-hyped new features were the Aero user interface's translucent window frames (woo-hoo!) and the Flip 3D window switcher (flashy, but not particularly useful). It didn't do much to repair Windows' reputation for being annoying; in fact, the in-your-face tactics of the new User Account Control security feature made Vista more aggravating. And much of what was new in Vista, such as its desktop search, amounted to Microsoft playing catch-up with Apple's OS X.
Windows 7 takes a strikingly different approach. Its interface contains plenty of tweaks, but they're relatively subdued and they emphasize everyday efficiency rather than sizzle. Several of the changes aim specifically to get the OS out of your way so you can work without distractions. And virtually none of what's new feels like warmed-over OS X.
The changes start with the Windows Taskbar, a core component of the Windows experience that has changed very little since it debuted in Windows 95. With Windows 7, it undergoes its biggest remodeling job ever: The familiar bars containing the name of a running application and a tiny icon are gone, and in their place are unlabeled, jumbo icons that represent running applications. The icons look like gargantuan versions of the tiny icons in the old Taskbar's Quick Launch toolbar--as well they should, since they supplant Quick Launch in W7. (The new Taskbar also looks a bit like OS X's Dock, though it doesn't behave like the Dock.)
Vista's Taskbar introduced thumbnail-size previews of windows that would appear when you hovered the mouse over an app in the Taskbar. They were fairly handy, but if you had multiple windows of an application open--say, several browser windows or several word-processing documents--you could see only one of them at a time. In Windows 7, thumbnails for multiple windows appear onscreen simultaneously, in a ribbonlike horizontal strip. Hover over a thumbnail, and you get a full-size preview of the window; you can also close windows from the thumbnails.
Click on an icon in the Taskbar--or on a program in the Start menu--and you get a "jump list," a new Windows feature that's a twist on the context-sensitive menus that the OS has had for years. Jump lists provide one-click access to various tasks associated with an application--Play All Music for Windows Media Player, for instance, or a list of recently opened files in Word or Excel.
Not every jumbo icon in the Taskbar represents a running application, however. In Windows 7, the Taskbar can include icons for devices you've attached to your PC, too. Hook up a digital camera, for example, and an icon for it will appear in the Taskbar; click its icon, and you'll move to the Device Stage, a new control center for activities involving peripheral devices.
Unfortunately, most of what makes the new Taskbar intriguing isn't yet ready for beta--let alone prime time. The preview version of Windows 7 distributed to reviewers and PDC attendees this week has the old-style Taskbar. Still, judging from our brief hands-on time with the new Taskbar, it could make life in Windows more pleasant in meaningful ways that Vista's splashy effects never did.