Windows 7 Impressions (It’s a keeper!)

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My Windows 7 desktopI’m an operating system geek. I find the challenge of designing environments that must facilitate all kinds of unpredictable, complex and varied interaction intensely intriguing. I test drive way too many Linux distributions to be healthy, and I happily alternate between Windows XP, Vista, Mac OS X and Ubuntu on an almost daily basis.

So it’s no surprise that when Microsoft announced their Windows 7 Release Candidate wouldn’t be crippled until March of next year, I was on it. And after a few days’ use, I’m happy to suggest a new slogan for Microsoft’s Redmond overlords:

Windows 7: Seriously, it doesn't suck this time

And I mean it! Windows 7 is actually quite nice to use. To give it a good stress test, I installed it on my Lenovo X61 Tablet. If this operating system can handle the tablet features, fingerprint scanner, screen rotation and proprietary ThinkPad buttons, I figure it can handle just about everything.

I initially encountered some driver/software compatibility weirdness with a fresh installation, but upgrading from Vista did the trick and everything worked flawlessly thereafter. If you’re using a machine that requires a lot of system-specific drivers, I highly recommend upgrading over a clean install until vendors introduce explicit Windows 7 support.

The Good

Performance! Startup time is now reasonable, and my PC has around 250mb more RAM available at startup than in Vista. Everything is perceptibly snappier and more responsive.

The redesigned taskbar came together beautifully. It combines the simplicity and customization of the Mac OS X dock with the emphasis on window negotiation that was always Windows’ strong suit.

Window 7's taskbar, thumbail and "peek" featuresSpeaking of window negotiation, Microsoft really excelled in this area. You can still click icons in the taskbar (now simplified into large, dock-like icons), but the addition of quick, clickable thumbnails fanning out from the encompassing symbol has sweetened the deal. Furthermore, a feature called “Aero Peek” allows you to hover over any thumbnail to see that window full size. It may sound superfluous, but in execution it’s very natural, only taking effect if you linger a moment longer than usual. You can also close any window from this preview, allowing you to clean house swiftly and easily.

The windows themselves now support several gestures which eventually become second nature. Shaking a window will cause all other windows to minimize; shaking again will restore them. Drag any window to the left or right and it will “snap” to the edge and resize to 50% of your display, while dragging to the top will maximize. Keyboard junkies can take advantage of the same features by tapping Win+Right, Win+Left and Win+Up. Even cooler, all windows remember their previous size and position when you’re done snapping them. I found these shortcuts extremely useful for tasks that required a lot of drag-and-drop, or when I had to refer to a web page while writing source code in a text editor.

Small Windows 7 taskbar and improved start menuThe user interface has been greatly streamlined. The “Shut Down” button does what it’s supposed to this time around (avoiding the much-maligned “Sleep” debacle of yesteryear), all third-party system tray icons are hidden by default, even the black gradient behind Vista’s sidebar has been removed. The Aero Glass theme no longer blackens when windows are maximized, allowing your desktop wallpaper to “theme” your experience by shining through every aspect of what you do. It’s as superfluous as ever, but the success of the taskbar’s new transparency versus that of the Leopard menu bar is finally debatable. Furthermore, customization options are rich; tweaking the taskbar to use smaller icons (or even act more like Vista) is a straightforward affair.

Tablet features have been improved, with the virtual keyboard/handwriting dialog (which usually “docks” to the left-hand side of the display) disappearing entirely when you aren’t using a tablet input device. Handwriting has become more sophisticated, with shorthand supported for joining words or deleting characters.

Windows 7 introduces “Libraries,” each a virtual folder used to aggregate similar files regardless of their actual location. If I wanted to be able to access my Dropbox music directory in tandem with my iTunes Music directory, I would simply include it’s location in the Music Library settings and “voila!” One virtual location for all my music, no shuffling of files or hacking required, easy as pie.

Because Windows 7 is essentially a souped-up Vista under the hood, compatibility is impressive. I was able to install and use all the applications I’ve been accustomed to (including the Adobe CS4 suite, Corel Painter X, Firefox and Office 2007) without any significant issues. The only oddity I’ve witnessed so far would be that Adobe AIR apps cause the taskbar to flicker on first run, a minor issue.

The Bad

Windows 7, regardless of the hype it's received so far, is still a lot like Vista. I would conservatively say that 90% of the interface is close to identical. As someone who felt Vista was a worthy upgrade soured by a laundry list of perceptible obstacles, this doesn't bother me. But if you were troubled by the Aero Glass theme, the redesigned Explorer, or the "Administrative Action" popups, you'll find no relief in Windows 7.

win7_power-saverWhat I found most strange were the differences in the activiation of power plans. One of my favorite features in Vista was that it would intelligently switch between “High Performance” and “Power Saver” plans depending on whether or not my laptop was plugged in; the result was that I enjoyed roughly 6 hours of battery life on a full charge. While Windows 7 retains those plans, they seem to have killed this feature, requiring you to manually switch your plan. Needless to say, this gets extremely annoying if you alternate between the battery and power cord on a regular basis.

The Verdict

While only an evolutionary step from Vista, Windows 7 manages to expose many of the best features of it's predecessor by streamlining the experience and removing obstacles. The result is an operating system which performs with the strength of two consecutive versions. Those anticipating Microsoft's answer to the unity and elegance of Apple's OS X will likely still be disappointed; Windows 7 still feels Windows-y. But if the power plan issue is fixed, and if users embrace this operating system with greater enthusiasm than they had for Vista, I predict this will be received as the best version of Windows yet.

Now if they could only streamline that product version nonsense