It’s finally here. Nearly three years after Microsoft unleashed Windows Vista unto the world, crippling otherwise competent computers with obscene system requirements and feature bloat, Microsoft has returned for redemption with Windows 7, otherwise known as “what Vista should have been.” Though not as revolutionary in appearance as its predecessor, Microsoft has promised a slew of long-awaited refinements, including better performance, a powerful universal search, and better driver and hardware compatibility. We popped our freshly minted RTM copy of Windows 7 into the favorite office testbed – HP’s Firebird – and put the new OS through its paces to see whether Redmond can deliver on its promises when Windows 7 hits the streets on October 22.
Check out our Window 7 video review.
Not surprisingly, the installer for Windows 7 looks uncannily like Windows Vista’s: pop in the disc, navigate through a few questions about where you want it installed, then let it grind out the rest. Amazingly, it took only 17 minutes after finishing up the brief question period to landing on the Windows 7 desktop – a pretty impressive feat.
After launching for the very first time, Windows 7 transparently dealt with all our Firebird’s hardware except the video card, which we had to right click on under device manager and ask it to pull new drivers for. After a short automated search and install process, we had month-old drivers on the machine without so much as having to open a browser – though we did find slightly fresher drivers on Nvidia’s site.
The New Desktop
While Windows 7 retains the same glassy window style, icons and many other holdovers from Vista, more users will immediately notice that the taskbar has changed dramatically. Most notably, Microsoft has stripped out the clutter. A slightly taller taskbar now accommodates large, squared-off icons (rather than rectangular labels) in the bar, making it in some ways similar to Mac’s OS X dock. Every open program gets an icon, but you can also pin your favorites to hang out on the bottom even when they’re not in use, similar to the quick-launch area in previous Windows. This helps reduce the visual untidiness that comes from stringing out program titles in the taskbar itself. And really who needs them? If you do decide to revert to the old ways, Windows 7 will allow you to turn off the icon-based system, and also shrink the taskbar back to its original size.
Since icons alone don’t tell you what’s going on with your desktop at any given time, Microsoft has implemented its new Aero Peek feature to fill in the necessary details. Hovering over any icon (or clicking if you’re in a hurry) will show the separate thumbnails for each window within any given program, like different Firefox windows, along with labels (Yahoo, Digg, Downloads, etc.) above them. Hovering over a thumbnail will take the details a step further by hiding every window and showing just the one in question to clarify which you’re dealing with. You can also right-click on any of the taskbar icons to get Jump Lists, which are basically shortcut lists pertaining to the programs. For instance, IE will present shortcuts for your last visited sites and tasks, like opening a new tab, while Windows Media player will let you pause or skip forward through playlists without actually opening it to full screen.
With many users now sporting enormous widescreen monitors, Windows 7’s new “snaps” feature turned out to be one of the most unexpectedly smart additions to make the most of all that real estate. Grab any window, drag it to the right or left edge of the screen, and it will automatically resize to half the screen. This makes it easy to browse on two screens at once to compare, type in Word with a browser window next to it, and so on. When you’re done, dragging the window to a new position automatically returns it to the old size. Additional options for snapping (akin to those the freeware AllSnap offers) would still be appreciated, though.
For those who immediately look at a Windows desktop and want to get to work making it their own, Microsoft has made that easier, as well. The new personalization menu features a wide array of attractive built-in themes, plus the means to switch them up by swapping backgrounds, screensavers, and even picking a custom color from a mixer for menus and using a slider to determine its opacity. This isn’t quite a WindowBlinds level of customization, but it’s easy, and 99 percent of users will probably be thrilled with the results.
A revamped device management window takes much of the confusion out of connecting new gadgets. Simple devices like hard drives, thumb drives and webcams will mostly be automatically detected, and show up under this pane alongside other connected items like mice, keyboards and Wi-Fi adapters. Although we didn’t witness it in our demo, manufacturers will also be able to customize the windows with specific images and custom interfaces.