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A Quick Tour of Windows 7

LAS VEGAS--The Microsoft keynote that opened CES this year was all over the map --- one tech-news site called it outright "schitzophrenic" -- but it did break one morsel of news between the video montages and the demos of unreleased products.

That news is this: Windows 7, the company's successor to Windows Vista, is available now as a public-beta download (or will be once its servers recover from the initial demand).

Yesterday afternoon, two Microsoft reps walked me through some of the changes Windows 7 is supposed to bring to the Windows experience. Most dealt with managing one of the busier elements of Windows computing, managing multiple open windows and applications.

In 7, the taskbar, that blue strip at the bottom of the desktop, looks and acts a lot more like the Dock in Mac OS X. It lists open and favorite applications as buttons labeled with icons, not names, and provides "jump lists" -- access to some oft-used commands and recently-opened documents -- that pop up from each button with the right click of a mouse. Hovering over each taskbar button brings up previews of windows open in that program, or in Internet Explorer 8, each tab open in that Web browser. You can also rearrange the order of taskbar buttons by dragging and dropping them left and right.

(Play the video clip to see Microsoft product-management vice president Mike Nash demonstrate some of these window-management options.)

Windows 7 also brings some new gesture-based window-management tricks. Dragging a program or document window up against the top of the screen maximizes that window to fill the screen; slapping it against the left or right side fills the left or right half of the screen with that window (which allows easier side-by-side comparisons of two documents or Web pages). A click on the bottom right corner of the screen reduces every open window to a transparent outline, allowing you to see what's behind them on the desktop. To hide every other window besides the one in the foreground, grab that window with the mouse (or, on a touch-sensitive monitor, your finger) and shake it, then shake it again to bring back the other windows.

Finally, in Windows 7, users can control what programs put icons in the "tray" -- the junkyard of inscrutable icons at the right end of the taskbar that Microsoft labels the "system notification area." I know, XP was supposed to allow that, and then Vista renewed but couldn't keep that promise; this time, Microsoft's Nash said that Windows directly governs this part of the screen instead of allowing individual programs to handle things.

Windows 7 also revises one of Vista's least-beloved features, User Account Control. It allows the user to select four levels of system oversight, with the default bringing up this continue-or-cancel dialog when programs try to change Windows settings but not when you do the same yourself.

Music and video playback in Windows 7 seems to borrow a little more from Apple: Its Windows Media Player 12 program presents music libraries shared on other copies of WMP on the same local network, and a "Play To" command sends an item to another device on the same network. Nash demonstrated this by playing a song from WMP to a Roku SoundBridge wireless media receiver, then playing a video from the program to an Xbox 360 game console.

Another Windows 7 component, the "device stage" module, aims to improve working with devices like phones. When they're updated to provide the right data to the system, Windows 7 will read their capabilities when you plug them in, then present the appropriate options, such as offering to sync your calendars or contacts or copy over your music.

Nash also demonstrated how a beta copy of Windows 7 correctly took a Dell laptop in and out of sleep mode without any hesitation at either end: The machine woke up in a second or two after I pushed the power button. (Tapping the keyboard didn't have any effect.)

He said that while the public beta of Windows 7 isn't missing any features Microsoft plans to add, the company will not provide an estimate of when Windows 7 might ship: "We don't know when Windows 7 is going to be done." Instead, it plans to collect feedback from users of the beta to see what needs to be fixed first.

I wonder what that feedback will be like. Most of the Windows 7 features I saw demonstrated yesterday represent promises that Microsoft made when shipping earlier editions of Windows--in some cases, like getting standby mode to work right, in more than one past release. How does a company pitch a product to users when its selling points can be translated as "forget what we told you the last time or two, now we really mean it"?

I'm coming home from CES with a copy of Windows 7, which I'll put on a review laptop on Monday. Have you done the same with the public beta? Tell me how it's working out in the comments.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  January 10, 2009; 2:15 PM ET
Categories:  CES 2009 , Windows  
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Micro-soft should take a page from Apple and
build the OS Kernel around Open BSD Unix or
Linux and then spend their efforts on the GUI and
the Apps.

Given Microsoft's real issues with security, reliability and
customer distrust, they need a fresh start.

If Windows 7 fails as badly as Vista, i expect Microsoft will
find themselves falling into a niche player status.

Sad really.

Posted by: patb | January 10, 2009 4:39 PM | Report abuse

Here's hoping Win7 meets with the same disdain and avoidance the public gave Vista. M$ barely avoided a well-deserved death penalty in 2001 when Ashcroft's Justice Dept. declined to break them in two. (They were, after all, found guilty of numerous violations of the antitrust laws.) Since then it's been a long and accelerating decline. The price of Windows keeps rising while the cost of the hardware drops. The majority of net-tops have bowed to this fact and use Linux, the free operating system. M$ is a dead man walking and the sooner it falls the sooner a cheaper, more secure internet will arrive.

Posted by: hairguy01 | January 10, 2009 6:34 PM | Report abuse

when will microsoft develop a worthy browser that actually works with web developers instead of against them?

why does a large part of my job require that we make special style rules for Internet Explorer and all its failed versions and then another style sheet for all other proper-performing browsers?

I hope they address these issues in their next release

Posted by: lelesimeon | January 10, 2009 9:07 PM | Report abuse

Rob - Is the Windows 7 Beta polished enough for a technically savvy consumer (not an IT professional) to install on a laptop if the primary use for that machine is e-mail/web browsing/document creation-revision? (Will it boot substantially faster, work with Office 2007, AVG, and (ideally) Firefox?) Or are Windows betas likely to be such a pain to configure that I should suffer with Vista for the year(s) remaining til commercial release?
Signed - Shoulda bought a Macbook as a 2d computer, not an Lenovo X200.

Posted by: longtimedem | January 11, 2009 6:57 AM | Report abuse

First, thanks for the candid review. I downloaded and installed Windows 7 on Saturday morning. I found it to be everything that Vista should have been. And since I already paid for Vista, I will resent paying for it again.

That said, I really wish Microsoft could have done something really big. I really would have loved to see the incorporation of the MinWin kernel. Unfortunately, Windows 7 provides only incremental improvements to the core architecture. The improvements are needed, but I wish for more - especially in a product I'll be paying extra to install.

Finally, the beta is Windows 7 Ultimate. I would really like to know what is in Ultimate. Will the "home" system include remote control capabilities? And what will the prices be for the various "flavors" of Windows 7? I sure hope that the various versions become simpler. The notion of seven different levels of the OS is patently absurd.

Posted by: LorinOlsen | January 11, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

It's always funny to read Apple fanboys' comments about why Microsoft should be broken up. For the very same reasons that they love Apple so much for:
Proprietary apps.
"Expensive" software made at dirt cheap prices.

Posted by: franglais | January 11, 2009 5:59 PM | Report abuse

I'm evaluating my company's application on it, and it looks rock solid so far. One small issue, not Microsoft's fault: I'm testing under VMWare Fusion 2 on a MacBook, and when I configured the VM starting with Vista defaults, it initially enabled DirectX 3D graphics. With that setting, the VM locks up solid fairly regularly. When I realized that was the problem and disabled 3D graphics, everything worked perfectly.

Posted by: jimdouglas | January 11, 2009 6:24 PM | Report abuse

I installed the 32 bit version of Windows 7 in a VMWare Fusion 2 virtual machine running on my iMac Intel 2.0, 4 GB RAM. The installation was flawless and completed in less than 20 minutes. To my surprise, it seems more responsive than XP or Vista. IE8 is also faster than IE7 on XP. The only bug I encountered was in Windows Live Mail. It kept crashing when I tried to add my gmail account.

Posted by: ETM059 | January 12, 2009 9:25 PM | Report abuse

I just installed Win7 using Virtualbox on my XP machine. Looks great..just like vista...Eye candy
Keep supporting XP M$.
No reason to upgrade..again

Posted by: ronaldr321 | January 14, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

I installed mine on a new partition, and am now dual-booting with Vista.

Although really all I've been using is 7. I have had no problems, and love all the new UI tweaks, especially the option for custom slideshow wallpapers.

Posted by: TheEmcee | January 15, 2009 9:06 PM | Report abuse

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