Windows 7 Beta review


Shortly after Windows Vista launch, first gossips about intensive work on a new OS appeared – codenamed Windows Vienna. Seeing the blast that Windows Vista made in delivering completely new user interface, compared to XP, everybody thought that next Windows will have even more differences and will be completely revolutionary. Years passed, Microsoft released first Service Pack for Vista, renamed Windows Vienna to Windows 7 and we all started to wait for the first information about new OS. Now, when Windows 7 Beta is publicly available, we must say that it IS a big step forward: not revolutionary (like Vista after XP), but evolutionary. After all piles of garbage that were thrown at Vista during its lifespan, it is pleasing to see that Windows 7 is not a completely new OS – it is Windows Vista made how it was meant to be. In this review we’d like to describe some new features, compare it to the previous version, and warn users about possible bugs and glitches in Beta.

After Windows Vista launch, so-called “first screenshots of upcoming OS from Microsoft” appeared. Majority of them were fakes, some of them were just concepts. People started to think that Microsoft will totally revamp User Interface so it will be completely different, and many of them were shocked when first real screenshots hit the web. They were completely indistinguishable from Vista – UI was almost completely the same! There were many differences in the inside, but on the outside it wasn’t different from Vista. To prevent people from disappointment, Microsoft launched big press conference, dedicated to the upcoming Windows 7, where all the features were carefully presented and explained. It created big rise of interest, many were anticipating announced “feature complete” Beta. Microsoft plans for admitting only 2.5 million of Beta testers were overthrown with huge amount of users interested in trying new OS, so they stopped the counter and released their Beta for everyone who wants to test it. Of course, we got interested in it too, so we installed it on our spare HDD. Configuration of our test machine is:

Intel Core 2 Duo E7200 @ 2.53GHz
2 GB DDR2 RAM @ 1033 MHz
NVIDIA GeForce 8600GT 256 MB
Samsung HDD 230 GB SATA2

So, let’s begin our test.

First impressions

After the installation process, which was fast (approximately 25 minutes), we noticed that Microsoft at last made an attractive Boot Screen. After the poorly done Vista loading bar, Windows 7 animations during the boot time are very pleasing. Modern OS must be modern in anything, so this change, while not so significant, shifts the impression from the OS to the positive side. After attractive animation, desktop showed in. After Aurora theme in Windows Vista, made in green / yellow colors, Microsoft shifted to the blue theme. Logon screen looks like water, with rays of light shining from the surface. Thoughts about water confirmed when default wallpaper showed in – it got a pretty fishy in its center. Famous SuperBar, one of the most hyped features of Seven is here, we’ll return to it later. Aero effects are the same, same transparent glass window borders, same Windows Flip 3D animations. Icons look a little refreshed; they seem somehow less glossy and more serious. Overall, the UI speed was increased, Windows 7 feels much more responsive than Vista, on the same machine and in the same conditions. But what’s new in the next installment of Microsoft OS compared to Vista?

New features

One of the most hyped and anticipated feature is Microsoft’s evolution of Windows taskbar, where all open windows minimized to. Now it is called Superbar and it works similar to Mac OS dock. For better understanding, imagine that quick launch panel got combined with taskbar. You still have big application launch buttons, but when you open application, it minimizes into its button. If that application has several minimized windows, they will all minimize to one button, making button look like a pile of icons. Clicking on that pile will bring menu, very similar to that window thumbnails that was shown in Vista while hovering an item in taskbar, with a significant difference – you can close and activate windows by clicking on them. Hovering the mouse over one of them will bring that window to the front, making other windows fully transparent, and it will return to the previous state when mouse pointer leaves thumbnail’s position. This feature is called Aero Peek and is very useful in deciding which window must be maximized, or, as name tells, for brief look on the page contents.

Other interesting function of Superbar is Jump List, quick menu that is accessed via right clicking an icon. It is unique to every application, and contains some useful elements, which can be selected before launching application. It can be the “recently opened” file list, or some special functions like history of visited web pages or quick access to bookmarks in IE8. Unfortunately, at this moment such jump lists are available only on the built-in applications like Internet Explorer, but it is only a matter of time before such lists will appear in other applications. Some of the applications, like Internet Explorer or Windows Explorer can display progress bars right on the icon, so user can always see the progress of downloading or copying. These functions improve the friendliness of user interface and greatly increase effectiveness of work.

System tray was also greatly reworked. From the pile of unneeded and useless icons it became a fully customizable panel. From now on, user can configure behavior of every icon, show it always or show only notifications. Unneeded icons hide in handy box menu, which is way more comfortable to use than old “arrow-styled” method.

In Windows 7 Microsoft introduced new way to organize windows on the desktop, which is called Aero Snap. It includes many functions, which make window management much more efficient. When user drags a window to the edge of the screen, transparent borders will show what position that window will take, if dropped. Dragging window to the right side maximize it to the right side of your screen, same with the left, dragging to the upper side maximizes window to full screen. Very handy when you need to compare something or when working with several open documents! Shaking the window while dragging it will minimize all other windows to Superbar – an interesting function, when you need to quickly hide all other windows except the one you work with.

Windows Sidebar, while keeping its name, is no longer a sidebar – gadgets are now a part of desktop, and can be placed everywhere on it. Of course you could do that in Vista too, but now they are completely standalone, and can be accessed by right clicking the desktop. Also, very useful feature of new gadgets – they are no longer minimized when you press “Show desktop” button or WIN+D. Unfortunately, not every Vista gadget will work in the new OS, some of them experience unpleasant graphics issues while some are not working at all.

Windows Vista added useful option for virtual folders in User folder – in Windows 7 they moved even further. Microsoft introduced Libraries, so every virtual folder is not a single folder anymore, but a compilation of folders you like. At last they do not limit user to using only one folder for music and one for video – now you can make compilations from whatever folders you like, which leads to greatly increased content management.

Other convenient feature of Seven is Home Group, tool that simplifies network sharing of media files. With it enabled user can easily manage what content should be accessible from other network computers, and what permissions to give. Of course, it can be done manually, however it is much easier with automated tool. It also protects user from accidentally leaving security holes in his network, so only multimedia folders will be shared. Speaking of network features, Windows 7 also simplifies selection of Wireless networks, which are now easily accessed right from network tray icon.

Another hugely hyped feature of Windows 7 is Device Stage, a useful tool to manage external devices. Unlike to previous Windows versions, where external devices needed some third party applications to be recognized in Windows, this time all that work should be done inside the OS. With the especially designed drivers, it should be possible to work with every of your devices in one especially designed for that device window. Microsoft representatives gave an example with mobile phone, which was recognized by Device Stage and had its own control window, which showed basic information about the device (battery state, signal strength) and all the actions that can be made with it, i.e. synchronization etc. Let’s hope that every manufacturer will support this feature, because it seems very useful and interesting.

One of the most annoying features in Windows Vista was User Account Control, aka UAC. It was announced like one of the main features of Vista, but it turned out to be a real pain for the users. It asked your permission for doing almost everything, including going to Control Panel or installing / uninstalling applications. It was intended for security purposes, and it indeed helped to make working with PC safer, but many users turned it off because it annoyed them. Folks in Microsoft understood that, and improved UAC a bit. Instead of on / off switch as before, it has a slider that adjusts the “security meter” from total paranoia to complete shutdown. There are four positions, so you can carefully adjust this level for every user.

Interesting option appeared in the User Management, called Safeguard PC. It can be used on simple User accounts by checking the appropriate checkbox. After that, if this user makes some changes during his session, after log off all files and settings will be restored to initial state – very useful for small children that may mess up your computer accidentally changing some options.

Interface and appearance improvements, while some are major, like redesigned taskbar, others are minor, but noticeable. Menus in Control Panel are sliding in and out, which makes it feel way smoother than on Vista. “Computer” screen has an useful option to hide all empty drives, so multi-format card readers will not make a huge list of empty drives – they will appear only if card is inserted. At last that useful Remaining space colored bar show the remaining space on removable drives too, not only on hard disks – very strange that they haven’t done it earlier, now it seems much more logical. Other minor improvements were made to the Customization menu, which now is tuned to make customization way easier than on Vista. Some will find useful new wallpaper slide-show feature, which can change wallpapers from selected list in a set time intervals. Good side of all this is that all customization functions, like theme, wallpaper, screensaver and sound scheme settings are brought in one place. Overall the looks of new OS feels much more polished than on the Vista, and this is a very positive sign – Microsoft at last gave attention to the small details, which, when combined together, influence the overall impressions about the OS.

Found bugs

In the process of our testing we found several bugs and glitches, some of them are simply annoying, some were a little more serious. Amazingly, no critical bugs were found – system showed very good stability for the first Beta. In any case, we would list them, to warn all possible users of Windows 7 Beta about them.

The most significant bug is hidden inside the Windows Media Player. If your MP3 files have images written in tags, such as Album Art, WMP chops the first 5 seconds of the file. Unfortunately, this change cannot be undone, so backup your library before synchronizing it with Media Player. Shortly after first reports about this problem showed in, Microsoft released the KB961367 hotfix for this problem, so it is already fixed.

Fortunately, other bugs are much less critical as never so destructive as the first one. If UAC is disabled, gadgets are not working – they work only in Administrator account. So if you use User account and you hate UAC, the only solution is to adjust the UAC level so to the second position, leaving it working on the lowest setting possible. Or wait for MS to fix it in final version; it’s all up to user.

Another small and insignificant issue is the size of context menu, which sometimes gets very wide if some context menu options have images. Customization menu sometimes hangs when opening folder with many pictures in it, and sometimes themes are “stuck” so only system reboot will fix them. There exist some other small glitches, but they don’t deserve to be reviewed as they are very insignificant.

Conclusions

It is amazing that the amount of critical bugs in Beta is minimal, previous Betas from Microsoft suffered from many critical errors and were very unstable. This time Microsoft did a good job in releasing polished Beta version that is working faster than stable version of Vista – even in the same conditions. Of course, not all software is compatible with Windows 7, however due to it using the same kernel as Vista, almost every program that worked in Vista can be launched in Windows 7 – directly or with help of Compatibility Wizard. In the process of testing we found that almost all software worked, problems occurred with drivers and hardware-based applications only. Developers will need some time to release Windows 7 compatible drivers and programs, and this is normal – all the hard work will be done before the public release of Final RTM version. It is curious that Windows 7 will work on every PC that supported Vista and won’t ask for an upgrade, it works better than Vista on the same hardware – amazing results, Microsoft! For now, we have an excellent example of how people should learn on its mistakes – Windows 7 looks and feels like a very polished Windows Vista. It delivers many new features that make the work with OS pleasant quick and comfortable. So let’s wait until the end of 2009 to see the final version of this interesting OS.

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