Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Windows 7 Build 6956 Review

When you think Microsoft Windows, do you think Windows XP, or Windows Vista? Keeping with the unbiased approach that I talked about in my prior blog post, it’s hard to not think about the disappointment that some Microsoft employees felt with the reception of Microsoft’s latest OS. Windows Vista was hit with a lot of driver and software incompatibility, by lagging hardware companies. nVidia was one of them, as well as Creative. They have since learned from their mistakes and now Windows Vista drivers are top notch and comparable to Windows XP’s drivers at Service Pack 1. So where are we now? We’re a good couple of years into the life span of Windows Vista, with Windows XP still in the forefront, due to the simple fact that many companies will not upgrade to Vista and wait it out until Windows 7, which is what this article is in fact about, the next generation OS from Microsoft.

Windows 7 – The UI

This review will not completely cover all of the features of Windows 7, simply because the OS is in pre-beta, and will not be feature or even possibly UI complete. This is a review of the latest build released, which is currently build 6956.winmain.081122-1150, the build released at WinHEC China 2008. The most noticeable thing in the included screenshots, the taskbar, what happened to it, you might ask. Microsoft wanted to streamline the Windows user interface by creating what’s called the SuperBar. Designed for ease of use and accessibility, the Windows SuperBar features larger icons, raising the size of the taskbar up a bit, and no text in the taskbar by default, they are also grouped together automatically by default. Icons that are not launched, will appear, but not have a selection or active button graphic over-top of them, replacing the Quick Launch by infusing it into the Superbar. When you mouse over the active, and launched superbar buttons, a Window Preview will appear, grouping the active Windows, minimized or not, into the preview. The most impressive thing about this feature is Aero Peek. Mouse over the Window in the preview, and it will focus or show that Window on your desktop, again, minimized or not. If you have a group of Windows on your desktop already, it will clear out all other Windows with a visually pleasing Glass effect, meaning you’ll only see your window you mouse over, and not the others.

This is an effort on Microsoft’s part, to again, streamline the user interface and allow better accessibility. Right clicking some buttons will reveal a new menu, with icons such as Explorer featuring a “Frequent” section of the menu. The menu also gives you the option to “Pin” the application to the taskbar, for faster access. Again as covered earlier in this paragraph, closed applications will just appear as icons in the superbar. You can also move a window towards the right hand side of the screen and a clear glass like preview window will appear, showing you what it will look like when you snap your window to the side of the screen.

Microsoft took note to the complaints of users that remnants of older OS’s appear in various places, breaking the consistency of the desktop. This in mind, Microsoft went through Windows 7 and gave everything a facelift. From MSPaint, to Calculator, from the Appearance section, to even the base icons. Everything has been revamped, and so far, it really helps with enhancing the desktop experience with Windows 7. Unsure at this point of isolated, hardly used icons have gotten the face lift yet or not, but through reviewing the latest build, I could not find any. The start button and start menu also received a face lift, as well. Some icons have expansion menus when appearing on the left hand side of the start menu; you’ll easily spot this with a small icon near the middle of the start menu, facing the right. Click this little arrow and the left hand side of the start menu will expand to cover the entire start menu, and feature recently opened documents as well as additional options. In one of the screenshots, you’ll see how the “Getting Started” option will have this feature, and how it will expand onto the rest of the start menu with more options such as, “Learn about Windows 7”, “Personalize Windows”, “Transfer your files”, and so on.

Other UI enhancements, such as the movement of various customization features in Windows 7, to display options, received the face lift as well. Moving Display to the Desktop’s right click menu, and calling it Screen Resolution, with the addition of the Gadgets option, which I will get to later in the review. Choosing Personalization will give you a neatly organized customization section, broken down into several parts. The main section showing Themes, which you can pick from a selection of already included themes, or create and customize your own themes. The options are not as complete as changing desktop elements such as the Window border or start button, but are more expansive than Windows Vista’s customization features. Below the themes box, you have Desktop Background, Window color, Sounds, and Screen Saver. After tweaking your theme, you can then save your theme and use it later; saved themes will appear in the Themes box above those options.

Screen Resolution right click option is pretty straight forward, showing a picture of your screen, with the usual monitor recognition number. It also shows Display, Resolution, and Orientation, with drop down menus next to each. You can also mess with Advanced Settings. Clicking advanced will give you advanced display settings similar to the one found in Vista. The sidebar is also gone, replaced, by desktop gadgets. Microsoft listened to individual complaints about the sidebar in Vista, and got rid of it, allowing you to freely move your gadgets about the desktop. As far as I could see in the latest build of Windows 7, it featured the same gadgets as in Vista, and will likely change when RTM approaches.

Microsoft also got rid of some of the “bloat”, by removing previously built in applications, and moving them to the Windows Live “Wave 3” suite. These applications include Windows Movie Maker, Windows Mail, and a few others, breaking with a tradition that has lasted more than 15 years. Surely this will be a welcome change, as it cuts down on the size of the OS, and allows you to install them as you please. The Windows Live “Wave 3” suite is due to be released fairly soon. Explorer has also been changed a bit, featuring a more streamlined favorites bar, and the exclusion of the Folders navigation bar. The change also includes the Library bar, as well as Homegroup, and Network. Not 100% sure on what the Homegroup is, but it could very well be a home oriented answer to Workgroups, whether Microsoft will rework Workgroups is at this point, unknown.

This review just barely scratches the surface of what can be found in this build, as more reviews will be written as publicly available builds will become available. The direction of Windows 7 is promising, as it seems they finally get what the user wants, ease of access, with a fresh user-interface. It amazes me how much they listened to the chatter of their user base and followed through, offering fixes to frustrations such as the break in Maximization, and the black out of Aero Glass when maximized. I’m really unsure of when this will be available, the general consensus is “sometime in 2009”, with a beta approaching very, very soon. I’d rather not write main details, without significant proof, then post what I “think” will be the release date of Microsoft’s next-gen OS.

Screenshots - Flickr

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