Thursday, October 22, 2009

Is 7 Lucky for Microsoft? Changes You'll See in Windows 7

Windows 7 becomes widely available today, and it's big. How big? On Amazon UK, more people have pre-ordered Windows 7 than pre-ordered Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I haven't had the chance to actually try Windows 7, but I've been editing a lot of articles about the new OS at work. After reading a bunch of Windows 7 how-to's, I'm kind of excited about the new Windows. At least as excited as someone can get about an OS upgrade. Here are some of the changes you can expect to find:

New Win7 Features to be Happy About

Aero Shake. Grab a window and shake the mouse, and all the other windows minimize. Shake it again, and they all pop back up. It sounds like a great way to unclutter your desktop, and also to quickly hide what you were really doing when your boss walked into the office.

Aero Snap. Drag a window all the way to the left or right, and it automatically resizes to cover half the desktop. You can place any two application windows side by side now!

Slide Show Wallpaper. Can't decide which picture of your kids to plaster on your desktop? Select them all, and the desktop wallpaper will flip through them like a slideshow.

Expanded calculator. It seems kind of backward that it has taken so long to make the built-in calculator as powerful as some TI handheld, but there it is. The calculator noew does unit conversions, date calculations, statistics, and number system conversions (e.g., decimal to hexadecimal), as well as, well, adding, subtracting, and the like. These improvements will make someone, somewhere happy.

Adjustable user account settings. One might describe Windows Vista's security as, well, paranoid. Any time anyone does something that remotely looks like it will affect the system, an annoying UAC security window appears. Sometimes twice. Windows 7 lets you customize how, er, paranoid the Windows lookouts are.

The Sidebar is gone. All those gadgets that you added to the right side of the Windows Vista desktop — from weather alerts and stock price tickers to xkcd cartoons and virtual strippers — have now been cut free from their anchors. Place your gadgets wherever you want to on your desktop and they'll stay there. ('So what?!' say Mac owners. 'We've been doing that forever!')

The return of the Disk Defragmenter. Microsoft really wants you to automate this maintenance process, but I guess enough people complained about its disappearance in Windows Vista that Microsoft brought it back in Windows 7. To some, it's an important maintenance tool; to me, it's just a neat-o visualization tool.

Stability and speed. By all accounts, Windows 7 fixes most or all of the major problems apparent in Vista, making it more secure and less prone to falling to the BSOD. Plus, the new search feature is expected to work with Google-like speed to find documents on your hard drive.

Win7 Changes I'm Not So Sure About

The Scenic Ribbon. Microsoft expanded on the Ribbon interface that was introduced on Office 2007 and took it into a number of other programs, rebranding it as the "Scenic Ribbon." Most notably, you'll find the Ribbon in MS Paint and Wordpad, but Microsoft has released the API for the Scenic Ribbon and is encouraging developers to incorporate the Ribbon into their programs.

The Device Stage. Vista switched around the Control Panel, and now Windows 7 is redoing how you interact with hardware. In the long run, this may prove to be a good change, but there'll be a learning curve here that'll slow you down in the beginning.

Fewer parental controls. Microsoft cut down on the parental controls in Windows 7, but they ramped up the parental controls in Internet Explorer 8. (Of course, I use Firefox . . . )

Win7 Changes to Grumble About

Where's Windows Defender? I haven't been able yet to verify this claim, but I have read that Windows Defender, though it's still built into the system, is more difficult to find. It isn't where it used to be. Although I don't interact directly with Windows Defender very often, it is quite good at telling me what programs are launching automatically when I log in.

Fewer built-in freebies. If you upgrade to Windows 7, you might be surprised to find that you no longer have the Movie Maker, e-mail, an Instant Messenger, and a few other things. Some of the mainstays of Windows have been removed from the installation disc (probably because of a lawsuit or the threat of one). You can, however, download the Windows Live Essentials pack. It just makes installation that much longer and more tedious.

No Ink Ball! That fun (ish) new game that appeared in Windows Vista has been axed. (It has, however, been replaced by online, multiplayer versions of backgammon, checkers, and spades.

Then there's the new desktop, which acts a lot more like a Mac desktop. (Is anyone surprised?) It'll be a change, but, like using the Ribbon, it'll just take time to get used to it. The toolbar offers more useful features than it has in the past. Buttons now have jump lists that pop up showing related documents that you pin there, or recently used or frequently used documents (you can tell Windows which you want to see). These really do sound like navigational improvements rather than bells and whistles . . . time will tell.

If Windows 7 is all it appears to be, the days of those last XP holders-on are numbered. That, of course, depends on Microsoft keeping its promises and avoiding stupid choices, both of which have been problems in the past.

One last bit of info that I want to share. It came up in my forays through windows 7 info, but it's something you can use now, in XP and Vista.
I don't know why it never occurred to me that this might be the case, but there are cheats built into the windows games, specifically, in Minesweeper, Free Cell, and Solitaire. Follow those links and get the lowdown. (Anyone know any cheats for Hearts?)

(Full disclosure, those are links to the Web site that I get paid to help maintain.)

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