Windows 7 gets its first outing at the Professional Developers Conference, and attendees receive the pre-beta software : Tom’s Guide got a chance to try it out in advance. Listed here are the features we think matter most.
Microsoft claims Windows 7 takes the Vista aero interface and streamlines it, although it’s nothing like rumors of a new interface with a ring of commands on screen. Instead, there’s a new Taskbar that combines buttons for applications you often use with icons for applications you’re actually running, so you don’t have to go back and forth between the taskbar, the Start menu and the Quick Launch toolbar. You can drag icons on and off from the Start menu and choose what order you want icons in no matter what order you open applications in. The pre-beta ‘milestone 3’ version that Microsoft is giving to developers attending the Professional Developer Conference this week doesn’t have the new Taskbar, but it’s in a newer internal build that we’ve also seen. Arranging windows is easier ; drag a window to the top of the screen and it maximises ; drag it to the edge and it snaps to fill half the screen so it’s easier to copy and paste.
Taskbar's Full Screen Previews
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Windows Vista introduced live Taskbar previews, which showed a thumbnail view of an application at work. Rolling a mouse pointer over a Taskbar entry would bring up the preview – though you could only get a hint of just what was happening. All the previews were the same size, so a full screen application had the same size preview as a progress bar.
Windows 7 takes things a lot further. Applications get their own spot in the Taskbar, and you can now hover over a thumbnail to see a full screen preview. If you don’t want to use a window anymore you can close it from the preview – without having to switch to the application. Internet Explorer tabs also get the same treatment, with separate views for each tab.
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A new feature in Windows 7, Jump Lists make Taskbar icons more productive, extending the recent documents feature from XP and Vista and tying it to specific applications. Right-clicking on the Word icon shows the most recent documents you’ve edited. There’s no need for Word to change – this all comes out of Windows 7. Icons in the Taskbar have jump lists, as do applications in the Start Menu.
Where applications have been written to work with Windows 7, Jump Lists become even more powerful. Media Player gets the option of restarting playlists, while Internet Explorer shows its history and the most frequently visited Web sites.
Previews with Lightweight Media Player
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Media Player’s been a staple component of Windows for many years. Vista and XP have had much the same user experience, with a heavyweight processor-intensive application that takes a lot of screen real estate and memory to play a few simple tunes.
Windows 7 takes a new approach, with a lightweight miniplayer that you can drive from a Taskbar icon, replacing the mini-toolbar in XP and Vista. You can use this to preview movies or photographs, or control audio that’s playing on your desktop. If you’re connected to a HomeGroup you’ll be able to use the miniplayer inside Explorer when looking for music in a music library.
Jump from the Start Menu
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The Windows 7 Start menu goes back to the two panes of Windows XP and if an application uses the standard ‘Most Recent Documents’ feature, it automatically gets a Jump List in the Start menu as well as on the Taskbar. So Paint and Internet Explorer have Jump Lists, but Outlook doesn’t. You won’t need to use Explorer as much, goes the Microsoft theory, because you’ll get recent documents from Jump Lists, but if you do you can go right to the folders you use the most (under Frequent) or the folders you’ve used in the last few days (under Recent).
Quick Wireless Connections from Systray
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The jump list idea is also used as part of the new View Available Network connection feature. Instead of using multiple connection dialogues to hook up to a wireless network, you can quickly choose a wireless network from the systray wireless connection icon.
All you need to do is choose the network you want to use and click the Connect button. If you need to fill in a network key you’ll be presented with the appropriate dialogue, and if you need to log in via a web page, you’ll be taken straight there. The same list lets you connect to mobile broadband networks via a 3G modem or to corporate VPNs.
Your Own Style and Glass
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Almost everyone who uses Windows changes their desktop background ; according to the tracking data Microsoft gets, 95% of users change the picture and over 40% of us change it at least once a month. Windows 7 renames Themes to Styles, adds more of them and makes them easier to change. You can choose from 16 glass colors rather than the 8 in Windows Vista, there’s a slider to choose how intense that color is in the glass and if none of those are quite right you can also open the color mixer and pick your own hue, saturation and brightness. You can also change the screen resolution much more quickly ; it’s an option when you right-click on the desktop rather than being buried in the Display Options dialog.
Making Windows 7 Quieter
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Windows XP and Vista let you choose what icons you want to keep in the system notification area, but any applications you install can add more notifications and you have to take the time to get rid of them. In Windows 7, when an application adds an icon to the systray it automatically goes into this small overflow area ; if you want to see it you can drag it out into the systray yourself.
Windows 7 doesn’t get to bother you with as many messages either ; instead of the balloon notifications in Windows XP or the popup messages in Vista, all the messages for security problems, solutions for previous crashes and problems, backup notifications go into a new Solution Center.
Painless User Account Control?
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Running as a limited user in Windows XP is almost impossible, because applications won’t install properly and you can’t install a printer or change the time, but if you’re logged in with admin rights you’re much more vulnerable to viruses. Windows Vista has a limited user account that can ‘elevate’ to admin when necessary but the User Account Control dialog that greys out the whole screen can be very irritating. Windows 7 will have fewer dialogs, but you’ll also be able to choose four settings for notifications from always being notified to never being notified, including only getting warnings when software is installed.
Put Desktop Gadgets Anywhere
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Windows Vista introduced a sidebar that could host gadgets, simple graphical applications used to deliver information. It took up a lot of space on a laptop screen, and also limited the number of gadgets you could see at any one time. You could drag them onto the desktop, but most users kept them on the sidebar.
Windows 7 dispenses with the sidebar, and gadgets now live anywhere you want on the desktop. This means that you’ll need a quick way of showing them, and Window 7’s new Peek function lets you quickly make your desktop windows transparent by rolling over the bottom right hand corner of the screen – showing all your gadgets.
Libraries of Folders
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It’s easy to make folders in Windows XP and Vista, however it’s not so easy to associate two or more folders of photos or music – or remember where you put things a year ago. Windows 7’s Libraries are one way around this problem. You can just add a folder to a Library, and its contents will be indexed ready for search.
If you’re using a HomeGroup, library folders on one machine are automatically shared with the rest of the group – so all your photo folders are accessible no matter if they’re on your desktop, your laptop, or the Media Center PC in the den.
Finally new folders can be quickly created using a New Folder button in Windows 7’s Explorer, something that’s been hidden in a context menu for years.
Network Home PCs in a Home Group
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Windows has supported peer-to-peer workgroup networks since Windows 3.11. Now we have so many PCs at home, home networks have become more and more common – and they’re not particularly easy to manage. Sharing files and printers can be complex, and working with a work laptop at home can expose sensitive data to the outside world.
HomeGroups are Windows 7’s answer to the problem. Creating a new HomeGroup is as simple as using a wizard. The first machine creates a password that all subsequent machines need to use to connect to the network, and the connection wizard shares folders and printers with the rest of the HomeGroup. A group policy on a domain can keep specific folders from being shared in a HomeGroup, protecting corporate information.
Search Network PCs From Your Desktop
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Windows’ desktop search tools have simplified finding files with Windows XP and Vista. They’re easy enough to use, but unless you’re familiar with the ways of version 4.0, searching across multiple machines is almost impossible – and it’s even harder to work with documents stored in SharePoint servers.
Windows 7 lets you share searches across the members of a HomeGroup. Library indexes are shared automatically, and a search query is spread out across the network, finding photos and music on the machines in your home network. Business users get similar tools, with the ability to search specific server stores – including content stored in SharePoint.
Tablets: Manage Photos With Touch
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There are more than 40 pen gestures built into Windows Vista for use on tablet PCs, but very few people remember what they are. Windows 7 has some simple touch gestures ; swipe your finger left or right to flick through photos in Windows Live Photo Gallery, swipe it up and down to scroll through a Web page or a Word document – and when you get to the bottom of the window ‘bounces’ on screen to show you can’t go any further. Drag one of the icons on the Taskbar up with your finger to get the Jump List, which is 25% larger when you use touch so it’s easier to hit the button you want. The buttons in Calculator are bigger too, so it’s easier to press them with your fingers on a touch screen.
The multi-touch features only work with two fingers and they’re also simple ; pinch or stretch your fingers to zoom in or out, twist your fingers round to rotate an image or right-click by putting one finger on the button any tapping next to it with a second finger.
Tablets: Better Handwriting Tools
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If you use Windows XP with a tablet PC, it gives you better handwriting recognition by scanning the words you use in your emails to work out what you might be writing. Windows 7 adds predictive text, so you can write just a few letters and then pick the word you want. It also learns from the corrections you make and the words you use the most.
There are buttons to split and join words, because the gestures that did this in previous version were often detected as ink. Start correcting a word and Windows 7 will change the word it’s suggesting to match, so you often don’t have to rewrite all the letters it gets wrong.
There’s also a special Math Input Panel for writing complex equations ; lasso any expression that isn’t recognized correctly to choose an alternative.
Basics Like WordPad Get Upgraded
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Accessories like WordPad and Paint haven’t really changed in years. The versions that will come in Windows 7 have new features, and the ‘Scenic Ribbon’ interface from Office 2007. WordPad lets you highlight and indent text, format it with bullets and insert pictures into a document. Paint gets the same basic shape tools that were in Word 2003 and natural media brushes like watercolour, pencil and crayon. The control on the Paint ribbon are designed to be used with touch, so you can choose shapes or ‘paint’ with the new brushes using one or two fingers.
Networked Music Around the House
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Your TV might come with an Ethernet port on it, but getting media on screen from your PC means buying adapters and running extra software with Windows XP or Vista. If you want to play music on a media adapter like a Sonos ZonePlayer, you have to carry the remote control around or run the Sonos software on your PC. Windows 7 lets you pick music or video from any PC you can access in your HomeGroup and right-click on it to see all the devices you can play it on, which is anything that supports DLNA v1.5. Your TV doesn’t need to have the DiVX codec on it; Windows Media Player will transcode the file into a format the receiver can work with – and Windows Media Player now comes with codecs for DiVx, XVid, H.264, the HD ABC format of the latest HD camcorders and even iTunes AAC (although not DRM-protected iTunes FairPlay files)
You can add extra tracks to a playlist from Explorer and control the playback – and the volume - from this simple window.
"Device Stage" Helps Multitasking Gadgets
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Windows XP and Vista treat devices in much the same way. Printers live in a printers folder, and everything else ends up somewhere in the Explorer, controlled with Autoplay menus with a confusing list of options. Multifunction devices don’t work well like this, whether they’re printer/scanner/fax/card readers or high-end phones with a music player and address book.
Device Stage tries to bring all the functions associated with a device into one place and they’re all in the new Printer and Devices folder. Each Device Stage is written and branded by the device manufacturer with buttons to common tasks, services and applications – along with links to online services and customer support if the manufacturer wants to add tem.
Battery Life and Performance: No Promises
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Microsoft isn’t talking about system requirements for Windows 7, or about how many different version there will be or what they will cost, and there’s no firm date for when it will be available apart from ‘three years after Vista. There are no promises about performance either, but Microsoft is aiming to make sure any system that can run Vista can also run Windows 7—and faster. Another priority: to have any notebook that runs Vista get better battery life on Windows 7.
A new Energy Troubleshooter will warn you about setting, apps and problems that might reduce battery life. Booting should be faster because Windows 7 loads fewer services when it starts and loads more devices in parallel, although the apps you run will slow that down and you may just end up waiting for services to load later. The more windows you have open in Vista and the larger the windows are, the more memory the Desktop Window Manager uses; Windows 7 will use much less memory for windows on screen.
Windows Live Essentials: Accessory Updates
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Windows 7 won’t come with a new version of Windows Messenger, Movie Maker, Mail, Calendar, contacts or Photo Gallery and Microsoft isn’t going to ask users to pay for unknown ‘Ultimate extras’ either. Instead those apps become part of Windows Live Essentials, along with the Writer blogging tool, Family Safety security software and an Outlook Connector that syncs email, appointments and contacts into Outlook from almost any Web mail or service. That means that Windows 7 applications can be updated a lot more quickly than the planned 3 year refresh for Windows, although major changes mean the next version of Movie Maker won’t come out of beta fora long time. There are beta versions of the ‘wave three’ Live applications now, but there will be some big announcements on 12th November.