After the disappointment - perceived or otherwise - of Windows Vista, many are pinning their hopes on a revival with Windows 7. And from our first impressions of the pre-beta code, that's exactly what they can expect.
We were among the first journalists to get their hands on the Windows 7 Beta code and have been testing it. Here, we've ranked the 30 best features we've found in Windows 7 so far, ranging from minor tweaks of the user interface to a full replacement for virtual private networks.
Windows 7 should now be feature-locked, though some changes will appear in the release candidate in late 2009, so this is your best guide to the new Operating System.
The top 30 best features of Windows 7:
1. Don't need a new PC
Windows 7 will become the first major Windows release that any of us can remember that doesn't require better hardware than its predecessor. In fact, it might even run on systems that struggle with Vista, especially netbooks.
Our real-world benchmarks show that the performance difference between Vista and Windows 7 is zilch. Our Office benchmarks and video-encoding tests completed in precisely the same time, regardless of which OS was installed on our test machine. However, there's no doubt that Windows 7 feels faster. Applications open in a snap, and there are fewer instances of the whirly waiting wheel that afflicts Vista.
Better still, it runs happily on netbooks. Although we've seen a few netbooks such as the HP Mini-Note 2133 pre-installed with Vista Basic, most resort to Windows XP. However, we installed Windows 7 on an MSI Wind, with an Intel Atom 1.6GHz processor and 1GB of RAM, and it performed spotlessly.
The Aero interface is smooth, menus responsive, even Media Center works with commendable polish. What's more, it goes from power off to booted and ready to use in around 50 seconds - only ten seconds slower than Windows 7 boots on a Dell M1330 laptop, with a Core 2 Duo T9500 running at 2.6GHz and 3GB of RAM.
2. Big-screen support
Large, high-definition displays are much better catered for in Windows 7. First, there's no more fiddling around in the Control Panel to make your desktop appear on an external display - pressing Windows + P brings up a pop-up menu with options to duplicate, extend or transfer your desktop on to the second screen.
There's also good news for those who've been squinting at the mammoth LCD panels connected to their PCs. The telemetry from Microsoft's Customer Experience Programme revealed that only half of Windows users are running their PCs at native resolution, with others artificially reducing the resolution as they're struggling to read the text.
Consequently, there's a new option to boost the text and other onscreen items to 150% of their normal size. We tested this feature on a 30in widescreen display and it instantly made the text more readable, although you obviously have to sacrifice some screen real estate - which is the main reason for choosing a bigger screen in the first place.
The art is finding a reasonable compromise. If you simply want to zoom in on a small portion of the screen, the Mac-like magnifier allows you to smoothly zoom in and scroll around the screen.
3. Start button search
The Start button search facility introduced with Windows Vista has been given a spruce up that makes it a genuine timesaver. Instead of merely hunting for exact filename and application matches, the search is more intelligent.
Search for "disk" for example, and not only do applications such as Disk Cleanup and Disk Defragmenter appear as they would in Vista, but also Control Panel tasks such as "Create and format hard disk partitions" and "Create a password reset disk".
It isn't a straight keyword search, either - "Use tools to improve performance" comes up when you search for "processor", for instance. It's a clever way of making hard-to-find Control Panel features more accessible.
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4. BitLocker To Go
With USB sticks responsible for many recent security scares, Microsoft has decided to tackle the issue head-on with Windows 7. BitLocker To Go effortlessly encrypts any external USB drive by right-clicking on the drive's icon and entering a suitably secure password. You're given the option to save and print out a recovery key, which can be used to access data on the drive should you forget the password.
The USB drive can also be automatically unlocked on your mainPC, to save entering the password every time, although this obviously makes it less secure. Microsoft promises that BitLocker To Go will offer read-only support on older versions of Windows - for now, encrypted disks appear as full, inaccessible drives on Windows XP and Vista.
IT departments running the forthcoming Windows Server 2008 R2 can set a group policy that forces employees to encrypt the drive before they can copy company data to the disk, which should help prevent data leaks and the need for more drastic security measures, such as locking down USB ports.
Microsoft has boosted BitLocker support for internal drives, too, with PC hard disks also encryptable at the right-click of a mouse (Windows 7 will automatically create the hidden boot partition). Whether BitLocker will be restricted to Enterprise and Ultimate versions of the OS, as it was with Vista, remains to be seen.
5. Document libraries
Microsoft has taken a whole world of pain out of locating and searching for documents in Windows 7. The new Libraries function in Windows Explorer allows you to add network folders, SharePoint documents, and pretty much any folder you choose to your Documents Library, meaning even files that are tucked away within the nether regions of a server can be accessed within only a couple of clicks.
Better still, if the drive containing your documents fills up, you can simply change the default save location and add that new location into the Documents view. No time-consuming file copies required.
There's also a new concept of Search Connectors. Add an email search connector into the Documents view and, when you type a search term in the box at the top-right, it will search your email, too.
6. Nag-free System Tray
Your antivirus software is out of date! Wireless networks detected! The woman at number 43 has just turned on her oven! Vista's System Tray spewed out so many pop-up warnings that you couldn't see the wood for the trees. Windows 7's revamped System Tray, on the other hand, has been blissfully gagged.
Windows warning messages are now concealed in the "Windows Solutions Center" - a small lighthouse icon that sits silently in the System Tray and delivers warning messages only when you click on it. In fact, it could even be argued that Microsoft has gone a little too far.
Hidden warnings that the security software is switched off, for example, won't bother most PC Authority readers, but the average consumer would probably appreciate the heads-up.
The modern-day habit of every application barging its way into the System Tray has also been curtailed. The System Tray now consists of only three key Windows icons, with the rest banished to a new overflow area. Users have complete control over which icons appear in the System Tray, so if there's a particular app you need to keep an eye on, you can promote it.
7. Drag and snap windows
Today's large widescreen displays are perfect for comparing documents side by side, but resizing two Windows to fit on the same screen in XP or Vista is a faff. Windows 7 makes it a cinch: drag one window to the far left, the other to the right, and the two fit snugly together like old ladies on the bus.
Windows can be dragged into action in other ways, too. Pull a window to the top of the screen and it's automatically maximised. Pull it back down from the top, and the window returns to its original size. Such gesture-like controls quickly become second nature, practically sending the "maximise" and "restore" controls to the dole queue.
8. Location-aware printing
Anyone used to ferrying a laptop between work and home will be familiar with the tedium of thoughtlessly pressing <Ctrl+P> in the office, only to find Word struggling to find the home inkjet that's set as default. In Windows 7, the PC automatically detects when you're at home and at work when you connect to the network, and automatically selects the relevant printer. It's the little things...
9. UAC silencer
Windows chief Steven Sinofsky has admitted that Vista's User Account Control had proved as popular as the village serial killer. The show-stopping interruptions are now completely under user control, with a sliding scale of UAC setting that ranges from turning the security "feature" off completely, to notifications every time a piece of software raises an eyebrow at your settings.
10. Media streamer playback
Windows Media Player now includes the option to play back music on other networked devices in the home, not only the PC you're sat in front of. So, for example, you could be sitting in the lounge with a laptop and select a music track to play back through a media-streaming device with its own dedicated speakers, instead of your tinny laptop affairs.
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11. Revamped Taskbar and jumplists
Replacing the Taskbar window tabs with large, chunky icons isn't big, clever, nor particularly innovative - Apple's Mac OS X Dock and the KDE interface have been doing this for donkey's years.
Sometimes, however, ‘borrowing' ideas from others is better than attempting to reinvent the wheel, and our hands-on tests with the new Windows 7 interface at the Professional Developers Conference (the user interface isn't incorporated into the Windows 7 build Microsoft has released for testing) showed that Microsoft was right to flatter its rivals with a little imitation.
Not only are the bigger icons more finger-friendly for those running Windows 7 on a touchscreen PC, they also conceal the new "jumplists".
Accessible through a right-click (or an upwards swipe of the finger) on the Taskbar icon, the jumplists spring out to reveal a bevy of handy shortcuts that are tailored to that particular application. These might be recently opened documents in Word, music player controls in Windows Media Player, or a link to open the privacy mode in Internet Explorer, for example.
Jumplists are also available from programs listed in the Start menu, with a pop-up box appearing to the right. And, at long last, Microsoft has finally made it possible to drag and drop the Taskbar icons into the order you wish, without having to download the TweakUI PowerToy.
With the average household now containing multiple PCs according to Microsoft, home networking is heading towards the mainstream. HomeGroup should help make it easier. After setting up your HomeGroup on your first Windows 7 PC, any new Windows 7 machine that's connected to the home network will be automatically detected and enrolled into the HomeGroup.
This means a new Windows 7 laptop can instantly share the printer connected to the desktop PC in the study, for example. It also allows any PC on the HomeGroup to share documents, photos, music, video and other files across the network. Files on other Windows 7 PCs can be searched for as if they were stored locally, using the new Libraries function in Windows Explorer.
Certain types of documents and folders can be excluded from the HomeGroup if you wish to keep those private, and companies can lock down the HomeGroup functions to prevent business data being shared when an employee fires up their laptop at home.
The obvious downside is that all the other PCs on the network will need to be left on if you wish to search their files, which still makes a NAS/Windows Home Server device a more sensible option for sharing data in the home.
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13. New User State Migration tool
Vista's User State Migration tool allowed a new OS to be installed while retaining the user's data, but it physically moved the data from one place to another on the hard disk, slowing down the process.
Windows 7 accelerates the process with ‘hardlink migration', which leaves the data in the exact same place on the hard disk, and uses a series of redirect links to help Windows 7 find the files. Microsoft demonstrated a PC being upgraded from Vista to Windows 7 in a little over 25 minutes using the new migration tool. Something of an improvement on the three hours it took for us to perform a regular upgrade installation of Vista to Windows 7 from the DVD.
14. iTunes support in Windows Media Player
In a promising sign that Microsoft is prepared to stop playing silly buggers with proprietary formats, Windows Media Player now offers support for the iTunes AAC format. Not only does this mean you don't have to open up iTunes on your PC to play those tracks, but you can also play back iTunes libraries on other PCs over the network without having the Apple software installed on your system. DRM-protected files remain off limits, of course. AVC and H.264 video are supported, too.
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15. Show Desktop
Power users will be familiar with the frustration of having to minimise countless open windows to take a quick look at newsfeeds or other gadgets on the Windows desktop. The revamped Show Desktop button - which now occupies the few remaining pixels between the System Tray Clock and the right edge of the Taskbar - makes all open Windows transparent when you hover the mouse over the icon. Ideal for a quick peek at the football scores before ploughing on with work.
16. Touch controls
Multitouch is the feature that's most likely to divide the Windows faithful. Some will see it as the next stage in an evolution that was rapidly accelerated by the iPhone; others will cling to keyboard and mouse and dismiss it as needless frippery.
Touch support and the new Taskbar haven't been included in our test build, so we can only form an early judgement on the hands-on trials we sampled at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference. In our view, Microsoft hasn't gone far enough to accommodate hands-on controls.
Yes, the new larger Taskbar icons make it easier to select apps, and Microsoft has cleverly allowed programs such as Word to benefit from touch-based scrolling, zooms and pans, without doing any work to the application itself.
But in our experience, touch only works when the UI has been specifically designed for the purpose, as with the iPhone or HP's TouchSmart PCs, which put a separate touch overlay on Vista. There's nothing to stop the likes of HP doing the same with Windows 7, but we can't help thinking that pushing the onus of UI design on to PC manufacturers isn't the path to mainstream adoption.
Unless third-party developers can create compelling touch-based apps, we suspect multitouch will go the same way as the Tablet PC - a niche within a niche.
DirectAccess promises to take much of the hassle out of remote working by providing access to the corporate network without having to tunnel in via a VPN. Using IPv6 over IPsec, DirectAccess encrypts data sent over the public internet, allowing remote workers access to the company network, intranet, shared folders and all the other data they'd have access to in-house.
PCs logging in via DirectAccess are managed in the same way as office-bound machines, meaning they can be constantly updated with security patches and subject to the same group policy rules as office machines, giving IT departments a much more secure, "always managed" infrastructure.
DirectAccess also allows internet traffic to be separated from access to the company's network, so workers can surf the web without adding to the company's network congestion.
18. Sensor support
Touch isn't the only new way to interact with a Windows 7 PC - the operating system also includes support for various sensors that will detect location, movement and light among other variables. We put this to the test with a prototype Freescale board sporting a three-axis accelerometer, an ambient light sensor and a proximity switch array.
The test applications that came with the board allowed us to zoom in and out on documents by moving the board back and forth, while another allowed us to tilt a marble across the screen in true Super Monkeyball style.
It's conceivable that such sensors will be embedded in laptops and UMPCs, as well as dedicated peripherals such as gamepads, opening up all manner of potential applications: panning around Google Earth by tilting a laptop, for example. This is definitely one to watch.
IT managers who want to prevent employees installing unauthorised software will benefit from the tighter controls afforded by AppLocker. This group-policy feature allows IT departments to specify installations right down to the version of the software concerned.
Companies might decide to allow employees to install only Flash version 9 and above, for example, to guard against security flaws in less secure versions. Conversely, they might want to prevent employees installing the latest version of an app until it's been subject to internal testing. Such publishing rules are based upon the application's digital signature, which is easier than writing a new rule for each version of an application.
20. Gadgets are go
Desktop gadgets have been let off the leash in Windows 7, with the sidebar condemned to the scrapheap and gadgets allowed to roam freely across the desktop.
They can also be resized, allowing you to give due prominence to favoured applets, and easily view them with the new Show Desktop button (see number 15). Microsoft says that "it's also easier for the applications you use to install helpful companion gadgets". Let's hope those gadgets turn out to be as "helpful" as billed.
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21. Remote apps that feel like a desktop
Although we've been unable to verify such claims, Microsoft promises that running applications via Remote Desktop will feel just like the real thing. "Users can more easily connect to remote applications and remote desktop sessions from any Windows 7 PC, whether in the office or on the road," Microsoft boasts. "Applications launch, look, and feel just like they do when running locally.
New applications that IT professionals make available automatically appear on the Start menu, so that users always have access to the latest programs."
DeviceStage has the potential to become incredibly useful... or Windows 7's UAC. This feature sees Microsoft create specific "homepages" for devices such as digital cameras, smartphones and printers, and hand them over to the device manufacturer.
Aside from glossy pictures and logos linking to the manufacturer's website, the pages will (theoretically) contain links to applications and services specifically tailored to that device, such as a link to a website selling ink cartridges for that model of printer or extra software downloads for a mobile phone.
The problem with the DeviceStage concept is that it relies on the integrity of the hardware manufacturers. Will they use it to genuinely add value to their products, or will it be abused as a cheap marketing tool for extra subscription services and crapware? We can only hope it's the former.
A quick peek in the revamped System Tray reveals a new Bluetooth icon. Windows 7 adds support for Bluetooth 2.1, making it easier to discover and pair devices using a simple wizard. Our test Nokia E71 smartphone was paired within seconds, although the drivers failed to install properly on the phone, meaning we could send photos to the phone, but not vice versa. Hopefully, such niggles will be ironed out before launch.
24. Problem Steps Recorder
IT support staff will need a new form of exercise, as the Problem Steps Recorder might mean fewer trips up and down stairs in big offices. The troubleshooting feature takes screengrabs of the user's PC as they run through a process that's causing them problems - a botched installation or driver failure, say.
The screengrabs are then forwarded on to IT support, packaged with a batch of telemetry from the user's PC, hopefully allowing the technician to diagnose and even fix the problem from their desk, using a Remote Desktop session.
25. One-click Wi-Fi
It's one of those features that's so obvious you wonder how it took Microsoft so long to cotton on, especially since it's been a feature of Linux distributions for years, but new Wi-Fi networks are now only a click away.
A simple click on the wireless network System Tray icon produces a pop-up of available networks, rather than having to delve into the separate View Available Networks option that was found in XP and Vista. A small but worthwhile change.
26. Internet Explorer 8
Internet Explorer 8 isn't unique to Windows 7, with a beta already available for Vista, but in terms of usability there's no comparison between the two. On Windows 7, it's a revelation: not only does it launch quickly, but the pages render in a flash. Considering that performance was our main criticism of IE8 when we compared all the major browsers recently (see December 08, page 16), this bodes well for its future.
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27. Wireless USB and Blu-ray write support
New operating system, new technologies to support. Ultra Wideband (UWB) and Wireless USB (WUSB) have rather stalled in the blocks, but should the wireless alternatives to USB cables ever take off, Windows 7 will support both. Also included for the first time is native support for burning Blu-ray discs.
In a bid to help office workers struggling with limited bandwidth, Microsoft is introducing BranchCache. The idea is that content from remote file and web servers is cached locally in the branch office - either on a server or distributed across Windows 7 client PCs.
This means, for example, that if one employee spends two minutes downloading a large PowerPoint presentation off the company's intranet, the next person in the same office will have access to the cached version of the file within seconds. BranchCache will work with any app based on the HTTPS and Server Message Block (SMB) protocols, but requires the company to have rolled out Windows Server 2008 R2.
29. Colour calibration tool
Although it definitely isn't a replacement for spectrometers, the new Display Colour Calibration wizard should help make colours look more natural and text sharper on LCDs.
It tells you how to adjust the parameters available through your monitor's onscreen menus to perfect contrast, brightness and sharpness. It also calibrates the ClearType text for LCD panels.
30. Toggle Windows features
Switching off unwanted Windows features used to involve an uninstall. Now, such features can be simply toggled on and off, with the files remaining on the hard disk should you decide to use them later.