March 5, 2009

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Lucky number 7?
Vista’s successor looks a bit better

By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

The release date of the next Microsoft desktop operating system is shrouded in mystery, but appears to be absolutely no earlier than the very end of 2009. Curious users, however, have been putting the thrillingly-named Windows 7 through its paces by downloading a beta version.

If you’re familiar with the Vista interface, Windows 7 will be utterly unshocking to you. The bubbly Start button is the same, the Start Menu itself has the same double-paned appearance and, if your graphics hardware is awesome enough, you can take advantage of some 3-D eye candy when you’re shuffling windows around. The fancier look of some of Vista’s control panels is retained as well.

On the other hand, if you’ve been switching back to the “classic” interface since XP came out in 2001, you’re in for a bit of a rude awakening. That interface — the dull gray taskbar, the square buttons and non-rounded window corners — is still an option, but a few aspects of the genuine Windows 95 experience have disappeared. There’s no classic Start menu, the kind with just a single column of items. Instead of all your applications being displayed in one or more columns hanging off the “Programs” submenu, you get a single column that you must scroll through.

In fact, the whole taskbar is just different enough to be maddening. The Show Desktop icon is now to the right of the clock in the system tray. The handy Quick Launch toolbar, which cordoned off an area of the taskbar for program-launching icons, is now gone in favor of “pinning” those icons directly on the taskbar itself. Those icons take up more space than they used to, and when you click on one, it becomes a full-sized tile — indicating that the program is running — right in the middle of your other pinned icons. (It’s easier to simply create a new toolbar to emulate the Quick Launch toolbar.) The one improvement in the taskbar is the ability to drag and drop tiles and icons at will, a function that has required a third-party program until now.

There are a few things to like as well. The new “Libraries” feature ties together the growing number of media files currently stored in My Documents, My Music, My Pictures and My Videos directories. Those folders are still there, but Libraries acts as a shortcut for managing all those files and adding new types yourself. My Holograms? My Smell-O-Visions? Whatever you like. The nicest part of the new feature is that you can ignore it if you don’t like it.

One of the biggest annoyances of Vista is toned down too. User Account Control (UAC) was supposed to make our PCs more secure by preventing wayward programs from altering our systems without our knowledge. Unfortunately, the method Microsoft chose — throwing up a dialog box any time something the least bit suspicious happened, even when you consciously clicked that something — prompted many folks to just turn UAC off. That doesn’t help security much. In Windows 7, you can adjust UAC’s paranoia between four different levels, rather than just On and Off.

Keep in mind that everything mentioned here is based on Build 7000 of the beta, so it could all change by the time Windows 7 is actually released. Downloads have ended for now, but if there’s an update to the beta it’ll be available at www.microsoft.com/windows7.