By this point most of you will know that Microsoft have just released Windows 7. It should be appearing in the shops within the next couple of weeks, and by some accounts is already available in some places. I have been using it for the best part of half a year I think, and I find it to be far better than Windows Vista from many perspectives. This has left me in a very unfortunate position, as I actually had to go out and purchase copies instead of getting them free. You see, Microsoft gave me a free copy of Vista Ultimate for taking part in the beta test for that version, but I didn’t get invited to the beta test for Windows 7. At least I’m not alone in that, and there were many complaints at the start of the beta test from people who expected to get invites not receiving anything. Rather then doing a large-scale beta like previously, they released two builds to the public; an early beta, and the first release candidate. Like those of you adventurous enough, I had to download both of these, and have been using it mostly without problem since.
So, what’s new? Well, the UI has been tweaked a little since Vista, and a lot since XP. The Start button is different enough that I’m going to have to get a new tattoo. When you click it, you see something similar to the Vista start menu, albeit one where the search function is taken to a whole new level. For example, when opening Visual Studio, instead of clicking Start… All Programs… scrolling down to Microsoft Visual Studio 2008 and then clicking on Microsoft Visual Studio 2008, I simply click Start… type “vis” and hit Enter. The results are shown on the left (click the picture to show a full-size version), and you’ll notice that this is really just an illustration as I have Visual Studio pinned to the task bar at the bottom of the screen. It is a highly visual illustration of just how much the search feature in Windows 7 has been improved over previous versions.
The next great part of Windows 7 is connected, but a little separate. The taskbar (the bit down the bottom of the screen to the right of the Start button) has undergone some subtle changes. First and foremost, you can now “pin” documents and applications to the taskbar, which has been missing from Windows for a very long time. Don’t get this mixed up with the "Quick Launch” toolbar from previous versions. It is the same, but also so much more. Applications that are pinned can have what are called Jump Lists. An example of a Jump List is seen if you right-click the Media Player icon. Instead of the usual Copy/Paste etc options from previous versions, this click now brings up a special menu for Media Player containing a list of previously played media, which can be clicked on to re-play. Its an incredibly useful (when you remember that it can be done!), that I find myself using more frequently than I had expected. Also on the taskbar, the notification area to the right has been cleaned up and organised a lot more than before. MDI or multi-window applications now have a great feature added to them. Instead of switching to the application as an entity and then looking for the document within that application, you can now switch directly to the document. If you look at the image to the left you’ll see that I have the mouse cursor hovering about the internet explorer icon, and an image has appeared of each of the open web sites. I can switch to a specific one just as easily as I would switch to a different application.
The general desktop experience is far better than Vista. In addition to a bunch of new features such as Aero Peek which allows you to look at the desktop and widgets without minimising everything else, several features have been added or enhanced. Task switching with alt-tab is now much better. When you press Alt and hit tab you see a new window appear with an image of each open window that you can switch to. Additionally, after about a second, all of the other windows fade into the background (like the image on the right) with only the selected window showing in its true colours. Its a simple and exceptionally handy feature that makes it incredibly easy to obtain information from another window without taking your fingers off the alt-tab keys. There are a bunch of improvements such as these in Windows 7 which I’m not going to go into in detail, for a couple of reasons. Firstly it would take too long to write, and secondly if you really want a good review you should check out some of the better written versions on the net.
One of the biggest problems with Windows Vista was that it was slow, at least before the first service pack was released. A lot of the speed issues were perception rather than reality, simply because Vista was so much more complex than XP. When SP1 came out, it really came into its own with regards to speed, and that increase was carried forward to Windows 7 too. If you compare fresh installs of Windows 7 and Windows Vista on the same hardware, Windows 7 is faster. I believe that the same is true of a fresh install of Vista with SP2 slipstreamed into it too, but I haven’t verified that for sure. In any case, while there’s a definite increase in speed, there’s also a significant perception of a speed increase. This is partly because your first indication that things have changed is with the startup speed. In comparison to Vista, its blinding.
I didn’t intend to go on about it as long as I have, and I’m going to stop now because I don’t really want to actually write a significant review of Windows 7. Suffice to say I like it, and I bought it for all of the machines in the apartment. Its going to be all over the place soon, so if you get a chance to score a demo copy then do so and give it a try.