Yesterday at CES, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced the public availability of the Windows 7 beta release. At PC World we've been running our own evaluations of the forthcoming replacement to Microsoft's much-derided Windows Vista for some time now, and we just couldn't wait to take this new version for a spin. Here's one editor's take on the latest Windows 7 user experience.
This being an early beta release, I won't get persnickety about the performance issues and minor functionality glitches I experienced during my first day with Windows 7. Let there be no doubt, however, that in the weeks and months to come the PC World Test Center will continue to put the new OS through its paces to see what it's made of.
Back in late October of 2008, PCW senior editor Yardena Arar and former PCW editor in chief Harry McCracken took an early look at some of the new features you can look forward to in Windows 7. Rather than reprising their excellent coverage here, I'll delve into the question of how 7's new features work, and I'll take a look at some other enhancements that struck me during my early hours with the OS.
For more great PC World coverage of Windows 7 news as it emerges, visit our Windows 7 infocenter.
As Yardena and Harry noted in their earlier preview of Windows 7, the new OS's Desktop interface is even glassier than Vista's. So if you're not a fan of Aero, prepare yourself for Aero overload. That said, the new glassy Taskbar simplifies your view of running apps by using a unique icon--instead of the program's name--to represent each one. The revamped System Tray is as unhelpful as ever, unfortunately, but having the option to hide some icons and turn off notifications from apps and utilities that you don't care about certainly reduces the aggravation factor.
One interface tweak I already love is the elimination of Windows Sidebar--a a resource-hogging nuisance that I routinely disabled on every new Vista machine I encountered. Without more-extensive performance testing, I can't say for sure that the Sidebar-free gadgets in Windows 7 will be less detrimental to system performance than Sidebar was, but my first impression is that they're not quite as bad. Of course, they're no more useful than the old gadgets were, either. In fact, they're the same.
One striking interface update comes in the included Paint and Word Pad apps, both of which now sport a Ribbon interface à la Office 2007. Though the jury is still out on whether the Office '07 Ribbon menus constitute an improvement over previous menu layouts, the Ribbon format works exceedingly well for minimalist apps like these, putting all of the most useful features within easy view. For instance as I was grabbing and snipping screen shots for this article, I found Paint infinitely easier than Snipping Tool to work in because the selection, resizing, and cropping tools were readily accessible from the Home menu bar. Thanks to the Ribbon, many users may discover that these two throw-away apps have gained a new lease on life. Go figure.
A feature that we noticed during our earlier trial of the beta but weren't able to try out first-hand was the Jump List. Fully functional in the public beta, jump lists add a handy submenu to many applications, so you can see items that you recently worked with in a given app, or look at further options you have for starting new documents or accessing often-used features. In my trials, the jump lists helped me get more out of the apps I worked with. But if this feature is to become even more useful, developers must embrace them in upcoming versions of new programs.
Another improvement in Windows 7's interface compared to Vista's is the simplified Shutdown control on the Start Menu. Gone is the unhelpful icon; in its place are clear, concise textual menus that tell you exactly what will happen when you click on them. So you no longer have to reconfigure your Start Menu to determine whether your PC will shut down entirely or merely go into hibernation when you click the button.
A new addition to Windows 7 is the Action Center, which pulls a variety of security and maintenance features together in a single menu for simpler management. Though it's unlikely to wow many advanced users, the Action Center's clearly labeled options should make it easier for beginners and intermediate users to set their system security preferences with confidence, manage backups, and troubleshoot minor performance problems or return to a previous restore point if things go awry.