A while back I installed Windows 7 on my work laptop so I could give it a real trial. Since installing it I’ve been using it to some capacity almost daily and now after a couple of months I thought I’d write out a few of the things Windows 7 gets right and a few of the things that could use some fixing.
What Windows 7 Gets Right
Windows 7 is a big improvement over Vista. It boots quicker, introduces a remixed taskbar, better window management, fixes a number of interfaces issues that Vista had like managing wireless networks and it makes Windows Explorer much more useful. And, while there are a lot of tests out there that show Windows 7 isn’t actually faster than Vista, Windows 7 certainly feels faster and that is arguably much more important.
Start Up and Shutdown
Improved start up and shutdown speeds have been a selling point of most Windows releases since Windows 95 but no release has ever really delivered on that promise. If anything, better start up and shutdown speeds have been because of hardware improvements over the years, not the OS. Vista promised to bring with it improved start up and shutdown as well but it would seem the engineers had trouble actually delivering on that promise once again. Instead, Vista cheated by using sleep and suspend to mask the amount of time it took the OS to start up and shutdown. So, once Vista had been booted up choosing shutdown would put the computer to sleep or suspend. To truly shutdown or reboot the computer the user had to visit a secondary menu.
Of course, Windows isn’t the only operating system promising better start up and shutdown speeds but it wasn’t until this year that someone was finally able to really deliver on the promise of faster start up and shutdown. When Ubuntu 9.04 arrived, it shattered the status quo delivering start up times that seemed much more inline with the amount of power modern computers offer. While Windows 7 doesn’t seem to quite match Ubuntu’s speed it does seem that Microsoft was able to actually improve things enough that they no longer had to rely on the tricks that they used in Vista. Clicking shutdown now causes the OS to actually shutdown.
The Windows taskbar isn’t something I’ve felt was an issue. In fact, I’ve always thought it was just fine. I’d typically expand the bar so it was a bit taller and put the quick launch icons under the application buttons. In Windows 7 however Microsoft has dramatically changed how it works and the end result works very well. It is clearly superior to the taskbar model it replaces by offering real time previews of running apps or even Internet Explorer tabs by simply hovering over a running application’s icon. From there you can hover your mouse over a preview and Windows will make all other Windows transparent so you can see the full version where ever it might be on your monitor. You can easily pin new applications to the taskbar by dragging them or right clicking the icon of a running application and choosing “pin to taskbar.”
There are however a couple of issues worth pointing out, both of which could probably be fixed in an update or service pack. Installing an updated version of an application will break the icon on the taskbar. It simply won’t work until you remove the old icon and place it there again. The other problem is that using the taskbar beyond it’s obvious functions is difficult to discover. Clicking the application icon always displays the running application, but what if you want a new window? The secret is to hold down the shift key while clicking the application icon. This will cause a new instance or window of the application to launch instead of simply showing the running version. If you want to launch an application and run it as Administrator, hold control and shift while clicking the application icon. Microsoft would do well by providing some way to educate the user on how to use the new taskbar.
Microsoft is always being accused of stealing features and ideas from Apple and sometimes I believe they do. The new taskbar for instance is very dock like but does add an innovative new twist to the idea. But in the case of window management Microsoft has, for once, truly one upped Apple and Apple should really consider implementing a similar if not exactly the same set of features.
Windows 7 introduces several new ways of sizing windows automatically. A user has always been able to resize a window by dragging it bigger on any corner or side of the application window. Windows 7 however now allows you to simply drag the entire window to a sort of hot spot to resize it. Drag a window to the top of the screen and Windows 7 will maximize the window. Drag it to the left or right and Windows will resize it to the full height of the screen but only 50% of the width. This makes it extremely easy get two applications side by side on a single monitor.
One of the things I simply couldn’t get over in Windows Vista was how poorly implemented the wireless network interface was. In fact, the entire networking interface was overly complicated. While most of the networking interface is just complicated as it was in Vista, the part that you’ll use the most is much improved and now works exactly as it does under OS X or Linux. You simply click the icon and choose an available wireless network.
The Explorer was another item in Vista I found awful. It was cluttered and confusing. Windows 7 again seems to have taken one from the Apple playbook and Explorer is now much more usable. A number of sensible default shortcuts are available on the left side and you can easily add more. Over all, Explorer feels much less confusing and cluttered.
What Windows 7 Gets Wrong
Despite all of the things Windows 7 gets right, there are a few things that simply don’t work or just aren’t useful. Below I’ve listed a couple of my biggest Windows 7 gripes.
Aero Peek and Show Desktop
Of all the new features of Windows 7, Aero Peek is arguably the most pointless. Placing the mouse in the lower right corner causes Windows to make all of the windows translucent so that you can see through them and see the desktop. This is great, except now that I can see the desktop I want to be able to access what is there. Moving your mouse away from the bottom right causes all of the windows to become opaque again. In order to actually access what is on the desktop you have to click the bottom right corner. This causes all application windows to simply go away, as if they’re minimized. Why bother with Aero Peek at all?
Also, show desktop is still a broken feature when compared to Exposé on OS X. Clicking show desktop causes all application windows to go away. If you click it again all application windows will, usually, appear back where they were with the right application in focus. If you click an application icon before clicking show desktop again, the whole “set” is lost. You can’t return your desktop they way it was unless you now manually click each application icon.
Another new feature is Aero Shake. Aero Shake mimics an OS X feature that allows you to hide all other Applications. The problem with Aero Shake is that it is an awkward gesture. You activate Aero Shake by clicking and holding on the Window you want and then shaking it for a bit. In theory it seems sound and simple, in practice it feels awkward.
Another issue with Aero Shake is that it reveals a key difference between Windows and OS X. Under OS X, an application is NOT the same as the window. It’s entirely possible (and very useful) for an application to be running but not have any visible windows. When an application has focus in OS X you can hide that application by pressing command+H or by choosing “Hide ApplicationName” from the application menu where ApplicationName is the name of the application. The opposite of that is similar to Aero Shake does. From the same menu you have the option to hide all other applications, leaving any windows that belong to that application still visible.
Windows however doesn’t differentiate between a window and an application because in Windows, the window IS the application. This makes Aero Shake, aside from the goofy gesture, less useful in my opinion.
Windows 7 is what Windows Vista should have been. If you’re Windows fan then Windows 7 is something to truly be excited about. If you’re an XP user and you’ve been hanging on to it because of all the bad things you heard about Vista, wait no more. Especially if you bought a Vista “capable” or “ready” machine and then downgraded to XP. If you truly need XP for compatibility be sure to pick up at least the professional version and then download the XP mode package from Microsoft. XP mode is a preconfigured Windows XP system running in Microsofts VirtualPC and the end result is fantastic. You can upgrade to a modern Windows system and still run apps or hardware that will only work under XP.