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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.