Devices and Hardware
Since Windows 7 is more of a major refresh than a departure from Vista, it doesn't require new drivers for peripherals: If something works with Vista, it should work with Windows 7. Nevertheless, Microsoft has instituted some changes to help people use connected devices such as cameras, cell phones, media players, and printers with their PCs.
Instead of the Auto-play window that appears in Vista and XP when you hook up one of these peripherals, you'll now get--if vendors play along--a more useful Device Stage window that shows not only a photorealistic rendering of the device but also a list of associated services and tasks. For example, with a multifunction printer you might see an icon for launching the scanning software--and you'll almost certainly see a link to the vendor's site for toner or ink supplies.
Other options might include a link to a PDF of the manual (which would save you the trouble of having to track it down on the Web) or, in the case of a cell phone, software for syncing Outlook contacts (even with a non-Windows Mobile handset).
To make these services readily accessible once you've installed a device or peripheral, Windows 7 lets you create a device icon that acts much as taskbar application icons do: The image of the peripheral appears on a taskbar button; and when you hover over it, the services in Device Stage appear as a jump list.
The Device Stage for a peripheral exists only if the vendor creates an XML document based on a Microsoft template; in order for this to happen, the vendor would have to get Microsoft to sign off on the document (Microsoft says that this prerequisite is necessary to ensure quality control). It's not clear at this point whether the overhead involved will discourage vendors from participating, but Microsoft says that the OS will download such documents whenever they're available (using the same Windows Metadata Services technology that transparently downloads cover art for albums in Windows Media Player).
Device Stage has the potential to help vendors integrate their hardware with Windows more successfully and save money on tech support (since, if you have the manual handy, you may not need to call in). The technology also gives vendors a marketing opportunity: They can prominently display their logo next to the rendering of the device on the upper half of the Device Stage window.
Another hardware-related innovation is the ability to go beyond adjusting the font size on a high-DPI (dots-per-inch) display, which you can already do in Windows Vista, and use a new Magnifier feature to enlarge a part of the display--for example, if you need to read a small block of tiny type.
Windows 7 will also pack some easy-to-use tools for adjusting external displays--specifically, to help people connect a notebook to a projector.
Networking Made Easier
Networking features in Windows 7 address a number of problems that arise from the use of corporate PCs on noncorporate networks, particularly by workers who take their laptops home after work and on weekends. If you've ever spent hours trying to print on a networked home printer from a laptop tied to a corporate domain, you'll appreciate the W7-given ability to associate your notebook with a HomeGroup for easy access to printers and files on other PCs--without any tinkering with your IT department's carefully applied domain configuration settings. We haven't tested this capability yet, but Microsoft says that HomeGroup will also prevent other PCs on your home network from accessing any of the (potentially sensitive) corporate data on your laptop.
But wait: There's more. Microsoft says that Windows 7 will be smart enough to recognize when you're at home and when you're at your office. As a result, if you print a document, the OS will choose the appropriate printer to use. And a new federated search capability will let you sift through files on PCs across the network, and apply filters to your results. This means that you can do a keyword search and then refine it by specifying a specific file type.
Windows 7 promises easier Wi-Fi network and Bluetooth peripheral setup, too, though we weren't able to test either on the early beta software. Hovering over the Taskbar icon for these network adapters produces a jump list of available networks (or devices, in the case of Bluetooth); then you merely click the one you want to connect to (or pair with, in the case of a Bluetooth peripheral).
Another improvement is wake-on-wireless-LAN, the ability to bring a Wi-Fi-connected PC out of sleep mode remotely (just as you've long been able to do with ethernet-connected systems).
Back at the office, other networking improvements only apply if your company installs Windows Server 2008 R2 and your IT department allows them. For example, you might be able to click a link in a corporate e-mail message to launch an application behind the firewall--without having to make a VPN connection first (Windows 7 will transparently handle the security arrangements).