IT IS almost here. Microsoft will launch Windows 7 on Oct 22 (available in stores the next day) and it’s the operating system that will finally put the venerable Windows XP to rest.
Even though Windows 7 is not an entirely new OS, it is basically Vista with the nips and tucks done right. Practically all the annoying bits have been removed while tons of new handy features have been added.
For one, the Shutdown button on the Start menu — now clearly labelled — actually shuts down your PC, something which Vista didn’t do.
But this is just one of the many improvements Microsoft has implemented in Windows 7 that makes the OS miles ahead of the much maligned Vista.
Less is more
With every new version, Windows has become more and more bloated. Windows 7 bucks this trend by leaving out apps that most of us won’t miss.
Windows Mail (formally known as Outlook Express), Windows Movie Maker and Windows Photo Gallery have been given the boot. Users who still need these applications can get them as a free Windows Live Essentials download from live.windows.com.
All other apps that remain have been jazzed up, some with new features and others with a better interface.
Windows Media Player 12 gets much needed support for new formats — it now plays AAC audio files, H.264 high-definition movies, and DivX videos.
The wide array of support for new formats makes Windows Media Player ideal to stream videos and songs to other machines, which it now can.
The Backup and Restore app has also been bolstered so users can now back up individual files and folders. However, backing up to a network is only available in the Ultimate version of Windows 7.
Windows 7’s main user interface (UI) changes are in the Taskbar, which is twice as fat and a lot more functional now.
PEEK-A-BOO: Hovering a mouse on a live thumbnail preview of a window will bring it to the foreground while making the other windows disappear.
The taskbar groups all open programs as a single large icon so that there is no clutter. Programs that are accessed often can be pinned to the taskbar so that you don’t have to rummage through the Start Menu for them.
Hovering the mouse pointer over any of the icons will give a live thumbnail preview of all the open windows. Pointing at the thumbnail will bring that window to the fore while banishing all others, a handy feature when you have many windows open.
JUMP TO IT: Once you pin an app to the Task Bar, you are presented with a handy list of shortcuts to recently opened files and other functions.
Right-clicking on any of the taskbar icons will present you with a Jump List, which shows recently opened files (or webpages if it’s a browser) and the functions specific to the programs. Windows Media Player, for instance, will allow you to resume, pause or skip tracks.
The Aero interface also has a few new snazzy features that will come in handy for owners of widescreen monitors. Aero Snap allows windows to be minimised, maximised or resized by just dragging-dropping it to the corners of the screen.
Just drag a window to the left of the destkop and it will snap to the corner and take up just half of the screen. Do the same by dragging a window to the right and you will have two open windows lined up nicely, which is perfect for browsing the Net and doing work.
Dragging any of the windows to a different position will return it to its original size.
Keyboard jockeys will appreciate the new keyboard shortcuts for better desktop navigation. Hitting Win + Left/Right arrow will dock the window to the respective side of the monitor.
Pressing Win + Up arrow will maximise the active window and pressing Win + Space will make all windows transparent for a clear view of the desktop.
to personalise the desktop, Windows 7 packs a number of neat themes that include various wallpapers — the usual landscape photos and much more.
And while the OS no longer has DreamScene, which allows a video to be set as the desktop background, you can now make it switch wallpapers at a set intervals.
With huge-capacity hard drives getting cheaper by the day, it’s getting even harder to organise folders, especially if they are located on several different drives.
To the rescue is a new “folder” type in Windows 7 called Library which allows you to group folders from different hard disks so you can access all of them from one central location.
Windows 7 also includes an upgraded search engine for hunting files on local and network drives. It also now includes a preview pane so users don’t have to launch an application to view a particular file.
A tamer UAC
User Account Control (UAC) was the bane of Vista. In order to prevent the OS from being tampered by malicious software, the OS kept prompting the user to approve any tasks it found suspicious.
Vista was unusually naggy and most users found it a lot easier to just turn UAC off.
Windows 7 doesn’t do away with UAC but rather makes it more manageable. By default, it will no longer prompt you if it detects that the action is being performed by the user.
Plus, you now have complete control over it in the form of a slider switch (with four levels of control) that will determine how fussy it can get.
In the few weeks we had the chance to tinker with the OS, we have taken a liking to the Aero improvements for managing open windows, and the Library view for organising files.
Windows 7 also has proven to be a lot faster and more stable than Vista, hardly ever crashing on our test machine even when playing games.
Overall, there is a lot to like about Windows 7, namely the better performance, a more functional interface, a less fussy security system, and an improved search engine.
The only catch with installing Windows 7 is that you cannot upgrade from Windows XP (only Vista gets that privilege).
IMHO, it’s always better to do a fresh install when setting up a new operating system.