Now that Microsoft's Windows 7 has reached the release to manufacturing (RTM) stage, it's time to take a close look at all the features of the upcoming operating system.
You might think that, because there are so many similarities between Windows 7 and Windows Vista, Windows 7 is essentially just a big Windows Vista service pack. But in reality, Windows 7 is a solid, well-performing operating system, free of many of the glitches that bedeviled the launch of Windows Vista. Speed improvements, interface enhancements and easier ways to manage your documents make this a new operating system in its own right, and one that's well worth the upgrade.
Installation and performance
In order to examine all the pros and cons of the new OS, I installed Windows 7 RTM on a Dell Inspiron E1505 notebook with 1GB of RAM and a 1.83 GHz Core Duo processor.
I performed a fresh install, rather than an upgrade, which took approximately 45 minutes (including the usual restarts one has come to expect from Windows installations).
The install was largely uneventful, with two minor anomalies. After Windows 7 installed, it did not recognize my video card and used a generic VGA driver. This was problematic on my laptop, because the display cannot use the full 1280 by 800 resolution. However, Windows 7 soon resolved the problem itself: It automatically downloaded the proper driver via Windows Updates. After a reboot, all was well.
I've found similar problems with every prerelease version of Windows 7 I've tried, including RC1. RTM is a slight improvement over RC1 in this respect, because with RC1 I had to manually find and update the driver myself. In RTM, Windows 7 did it by itself. Still, clearly it would have been better if the initial Windows 7 installation used the proper driver. We'll have to wait and see when Windows 7 hits retail shelves whether this becomes a common issue.
More problematic was a blip that I also had with several prerelease versions of Windows 7. I was unable to get Windows Aero to work, even after the new driver downloaded. So I turned to the Control Panel Troubleshooting applet and clicked "Display Aero desktop effects," and Windows discovered the problem -- the Desktop Windows Manager was disabled. The troubleshooter enabled it, and the problem was permanently fixed.
On the earlier versions, the problem was back each time I rebooted, and I had to run the troubleshooter each time. Although RTM is an improvement, this is not how an operating system should run on installation.
On the plus side, performance, even on my aging Dell, was surprisingly zippy and certainly superior to that of Windows Vista on the same machine. Aero worked like a charm, windows and dialog boxes appeared quickly, and I experienced no slowdowns. The Control Panel and its applets opened nearly immediately, without the delays common in Windows Vista.
Checking out the new taskbar
At first glance, Windows 7 doesn't look much different from Windows Vista -- but spend a few minutes with it, and you'll find some significant changes.
The most noticeable is the new taskbar, which replaces both the old Quick Launch bar (for launching applications) and the old taskbar (for switching among running windows). The new taskbar combines the two features, doing double-duty as a task launcher and task switcher, similar to the Mac OS X Dock. In general, it succeeds admirably.
Large icons on the taskbar are used to launch applications, as well as to switch to different windows running in those applications. As with the old Quick Launch toolbar, you click an icon to launch the associated program. If you've already launched the program and have more than one window open in the taskbar, the application's icon changes to show multiple icons stacked against one another.
For example, if you're running Microsoft Word with three open windows, you'll see a stack of three Word icons. Hover your mouse over the stacked icons, and thumbnails of all the open windows appear above the taskbar. Hover your mouse over any one of those thumbnails, and it displays at its full window size. To go straight to any window, click any of the thumbnails or windows. You can also close any window directly from its thumbnail by clicking a small red X that appears on the upper-right portion of the thumbnail.
Internet Explorer, Windows Explorer and Windows Media Player all have icons permanently pinned to the taskbar by default. You can pin any other application to the taskbar by dragging its icon to the taskbar.
What happens if you've got an application with too many open windows to fit as thumbnails across the taskbar? That's when "taskbar thumbnail overflow" takes over. When you hover your mouse over the application's taskbar icon, a list of files appears rather than individual thumbnails. The list still works like the thumbnail view -- highlight any file on the list, and it appears at its normal size, just as it would in a thumbnail view. You can also close any window by clicking a small X, just as in thumbnail view.
It may take longtime Windows users some time to get used to the new taskbar, but when they do, they'll find it a significant productivity boost, particularly when multiple applications with multiple windows are open. When this happens in Windows Vista, the taskbar soon gets cluttered with too many icons, and it is quite difficult to find the window to which you want to switch. In Windows 7, you can find the right window almost immediately by hovering your mouse over the proper application's icon.
In fact, it's superior to the Mac OS X Dock, from which it takes its inspiration, because in the Dock, you don't get a thumbnail view of all your open windows in an application. Of course, the Dock and Mac OS X Exposé have plenty of nifty tricks that the new taskbar doesn't, such as a quick way to see all of your open windows arrayed nicely against the desktop. In the next version of Windows, Microsoft would do well to steal some ideas from Exposé.