Windows 7 Review

Windows 7 Review

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Applications: The Fewer the Merrier

Here's a startling indication of how different an upgrade Windows 7 is: Rather than larding it up with new applications, Microsoft eliminated three nonessential programs: Windows Mail (née Outlook Express), Windows Movie Maker (which premiered in Windows Me), and Windows Photo Gallery.

Users who don't want to give them up can find all three at live.windows.com as free Windows Live Essentials downloads. They may even come with your new PC, courtesy of deals Microsoft is striking with PC manufacturers. But since they are no longer tied to the leisurely release schedules of Windows, they are far less likely than most bundled Windows apps to remain mired in­­definitely in an underachieving state.

Still present--and nicely spruced up--are the operating system's two applications for consuming audio and video, Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center. Windows Media Player 12 has a revised interface that divides operations into a Library view for media management and a Now Playing view for listening and watching stuff. Minimize the player into the Taskbar, and you get mini­player controls and a Jump List, both of which let you control background music without having to leave the app you're in. Microsoft has added support for several media types that Media Player 11 didn't support, including AAC audio and H.264 video--the formats it needs to play unprotected music and movies from Apple's iTunes Store.

Media Center--not part of the bargain-basement Windows 7 Starter Edition--remains most useful if you have a PC configured with a TV tuner card and you use your computer to record TV shows à la TiVo. Among its enhancements are a better program guide and support for more tuners.

The Backup and Restore Center in Windows 7 gives users greater specificity in selecting files to back up than Vista did, but most versions of Win 7 can't back up to a network drive.
Windows Vista's oddly underpowered Backup and Restore Center let users specify particular types of files to back up (such as ‘Music' and ‘Documents') but not specific files or folders. Though Microsoft corrects that deficiency in Windows 7, it deprives Windows 7 Starter Edition and Home Premium of the ability to back up to a network drive. That feels chintzy, like a car company cutting back on an economy sedan's airbags. It also continues the company's long streak of issuing versions of Windows that lack a truly satisfying backup utility.

The new version of Paint has Office 2007's Ribbon toolbar and adds various prefabricated geometric shapes and a few natural-media tools, such as a watercolor brush. But my regimen for preparing a new Windows PC for use will still include installing the impressive free image editor Paint.Net.

The nearest thing Windows 7 has to a major new application has the intriguing moniker Windows XP Mode. It's not a way to make Windows 7 look like XP--you can do that with the Windows Classic theme--but rather a way to let it run XP programs that are otherwise incompatible with Win 7. Unfortunately, only Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate offer it, and even then it comes as an optional 350MB download that requires you to have Microsoft's free Virtual PC software installed and that only works on PCs with Intel or AMD virtualization technology enabled in the BIOS.

Once active, XP Mode lets Windows 7 run apps that supposedly aren't compatible by launching them in separate windows that contain a virtualized version of XP. Microsoft clearly means for the mode to serve as a security blanket for business types who rely on ancient, often proprietary programs that may never be rewritten for current OSs.

Device Management: Setting the Stage

Windows 7 offers you numerous ways to connect your PC to everything from tiny flash drives to hulking networked laser printers--USB, Wi-Fi, ethernet, slots, and more. Devices and Printers, a new section of the Control Panel, represents connected gadgets with the largest icons I've ever seen in an operating system. (When possible, they're 3D renderings of the device; the one for Sansa's Clip MP3 player is almost life-size.)

More important, the OS introduces Device Stages--hardware-wrangling dashboards tailored to specific items of hardware, and designed by their manufacturers in collaboration with Micro­soft. A Device Stage for a digital camera, for instance, may include a battery gauge, a shortcut to Windows' image-downloading tools, and links to online resources such as manuals, support sites, and the manufacturer's accessory store.

You don't need to rummage through the Control Panel or through Devices and Printers to use a Device Stage--that feature's functionality is integrated into Windows 7's new Taskbar. Plug in a device, and it will show up as a Taskbar icon; right-click that icon, and the Device Stage's content will at once ap­­pear as a Jump List-like menu.

Unfortunately, Device Stages were the one major part of Windows 7 that didn't work during my hands-on time with the final version of the OS. Earlier prerelease versions of Win 7 contained a handful of Device Stages, but Microsoft disabled them so that hardware manufacturers could finish up final ones before the OS hit store shelves in October. The feature will be a welcome improvement if device manufacturers hop on the bandwagon--and a major disappointment if they don't.

Even if Device Stages take off, most of their benefit may come as you invest in new gizmos--Microsoft says that it's encouraging manufacturers to create Device Stages for upcoming products, not existing ones. At least some older products should get Device Stages, though: Canon, for instance, told me that it's planning to build them for most of its printers. And Microsoft says that when no full-fledged Device Stage is available for a particular item, Windows 7 will still try to give you a more generic and basic one.

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