Whether you upgraded just the operating system, or purchased a new computer with Windows 7, odds are good that you are making the switch from Windows XP. While the differences between the user interface in Windows Vista and Windows 7 may be minimal, Windows XP users will have a little bit of a learning curve to understand the new features and conventions of Windows 7.
Some of the functions and capabilities of Windows 7 will depend on the version of Windows 7 you end up using. Judging from the systems available from retailers like Best Buy, the Windows 7 Home Premium edition is apparently the de facto standard for consumer-oriented systems. We'll ignore features like BitLocker or DirectAccess, and focus on features that most users can expect to encounter.
Windows XP users are used to being able to add commonly used programs to the Quick Launch toolbar. When I ran Windows XP I actually expanded the Taskbar to double the normal height to make more room for applications in the Quick Launch toolbar as well as more real estate for open programs to be minimized to the Taskbar.
When you fire up Windows 7 you will find that the Quick Launch toolbar is gone. Good news though-- it has been replaced with something better: pinning. You can right-click any application and choose to ‘pin' it to the Start Menu, or the Taskbar, or both. Pinning an application to the Taskbar places the icon there where you can easily click on it to launch the program just as you used to do with the Quick Launch icons.
Another concept that Windows XP users are familiar with is the idea of My Recent Documents. The My Recent Documents folder appears on the right side of the Start Menu and maintained links to the most recent files you accessed whether they were Word docs, Excel spreadsheets, MPEG movies, etc. The My Recent Documents folder only catalogued certain file types though, and I open and work with so many files that documents I was looking for would frequently already have cycled off of the list.
Microsoft took the My Recent Documents concept and both expanded and enhanced it in Windows 7. It is expanded because each application now has its own version of My Recent Documents called a Jump List. An arrow appears next to the programs in the Start Menu that have a Jump List and hovering over the arrow displays the most recently accessed files for that application.
It is also enhanced because you can right-click items in the Jump List and pin them to the list so they won't cycle away. I have a few Word docs that contain boilerplate text I use frequently, and a few Excel spreadsheets I use for tracking that I have pinned to the list and now I can access them in a couple clicks rather than navigating through folders trying to find them each time.
Windows XP users are used to the idea of files and folders. Microsoft developed Windows XP with the premise that users would put their documents in My Documents, pictures in My Pictures, music files in My Music, etc. Theoretically, the concept of organizing data in this way makes some sense. It should make it easier to locate files and easier to backup data because important data would only be stored in these designated locations.
Unfortunately, things don't stay that clean and organized for long. You might create a new folder outside of My Documents that contains important Word files, or maybe your hard drive reached capacity so you add a second drive and start storing additional documents and music files on the new drive. However it happens, data tends to start being disorganized and scattered across the drive.
Windows 7 introduces Libraries to help you view and work with that data in one place, even if it is scattered. Rather than looking at a specific storage location on the drive, Libraries allow you to aggregate folders from anywhere on your drive or network into a consolidated view. The other cool thing is that the Libraries default to displaying the information in the manner most appropriate for the content. For example, the Pictures library will display thumbnail images because that is the view that makes the most sense for pictures.
This is only the tip of the iceberg of what's different, but mastering these three things will help you transition from Windows XP to Windows 7 and give you a jumpstart on the Windows 7 learning curve. There are other cool things like the way you can move and resize windows using the Aero Snap feature, or the way you can see what's running with Taskbar thumbnail previews, but we'll save those for another time.
Tony Bradley is an information security and unified communications expert with more than a decade of enterprise IT experience. He tweets as @PCSecurityNews and provides tips, advice and reviews on information security and unified communications technologies on his site at tonybradley.com.