Icon Clutter Begone
Windows 7's Taskbar still contains the Notification Area, also known as the System Tray--a feature that has traditionally packed more aggravation per square inch than any other area of Windows, since it tends to bulge at the seams with icons for applications that you don't remember installing and that often pester you with balloons alerting you to things you don't care about. In Windows 7, Microsoft finally supplies tools you can use to tame the mess. For each app, you can choose to display or hide its icon, and to show or suppress its notifications. The overflow area--where icons that don't fit in the Notification area live--remains, but it's far less unwieldy: It now pops up, rather than shoving applications in the Taskbar to the left, and you can move icons between it and the Notification area by dragging them from one place to the other.
At the far right of the new Taskbar you'll see a little rectangle of what looks like unused real estate. Click it, and all open windows will minimize so you can see the desktop. This feature duplicates an icon in the now-defunct Quick Launch toolbar, but if you're a fan of the desktop applets known as Windows Gadgets, you may use it more often. That's because the Sidebar, which formerly housed Gadgets, is gone, and they sit right on the desktop. (Microsoft says that users complained that the Sidebar ate up too much precious on-screen real estate, especially on laptops with no pixels to spare.)
Microsoft has also introduced a couple of easy-to-use window management features that users may find helpful: If you want to work in two windows side-by-side, dragging the second window to either side of the screen snaps them both into place so that each takes up half the screen. If you drag a window to the top of your display, it snaps to the top, taking up the width of the screen.
UAC: Let's Try That Again
Windows XP's reputation for shaky security stemmed in part from the scary possibility of hackers worming their way into your PC and launching applications or changing settings at will. In Vista, Microsoft responded with User Account Control, a safeguard which tries to protect you by asking, in effect, "Are you sure?" before executing a wide variety of system actions. The problem was that those actions are intentionally initiated by the user in the vast majority of instances. Telling Vista that you know what you're doing gets old quickly. But Vista's UAC essentially has only two settings: on and off.
Windows 7 still lets you opt for full-tilt UAC or no UAC at all. It adds two useful intermediate settings though: One notifies you to attempts to install software or change settings without making you click to continue, and the other notifies you only when a program tries to change settings. Both of these options provide a happy medium--you'll be alerted when potentially-dangerous actions transpire on your PC, but your work won't grind to a halt nearly as often as it does with Vista's version of UAC.
The new UAC settings reside in a new Control Panel section called Windows Solution Center, which replaces Vista's Security Center. It's home to a bunch of features for adjusting security settings, using Windows Update, and backing up data. And it also lets you turn off various Windows notifications, such as the ones that warn you about security settings. Turn off every nagging notice that Windows 7 lets you disable, and you could wind up with the least intrusive edition of the OS in a long time.
Did we say that Windows 7 is longer on substance than style? For most part, it's true. But the new features for applying Themes to the Windows interface are nicely done. As before, they let you choose collections of wallpaper, color schemes, sounds, and screen savers that provide Windows with an instant makeover. Windows 7's version lets you see a full-screen preview of a Theme's effect on the OS with one click, however, and it's easier to create and save your own Themes than with Vista's antediluvian Theme controls. (Microsoft, incidentally, says that Themes will be renamed Styles before Windows 7 ships: That's a classic example of the company renaming a familiar feature without any clear purpose.)