Windows Fixta or Windows Fixed Ya?

With some controversy, Microsoft’s latest OS offering, Windows 7, has recently been released to the public for beta testing.

Always curious, I decided to take the plunge and see for myself if Windows 7 is indeed Windows Fixta, the Vista that should have been, or an actual step forward in OS design.

Overall Impressions

After the less than stellar reception of Vista, Microsoft has a lot to prove with Windows 7. Vista was complicated, bloated and has become an albatross that Microsoft will likely have to carry for some time. Windows 7 is a massive step in the right direction, combining slick usability with quick response, an experience that I believe will be able to rival the Mac’s OSX.

Windows 7 addresses many of the usability shortcomings that plague Vista as well as some of the resource hogging problems that kept it from being effective on less powerful computers.  But, while it definitely adds a slick new look and feel, I can’t shake the feeling that this is Vista SE.

“Under the hood” Win7 is still largely Vista, meaning you’ll still be working with things like the registry, UAC (albeit improved), and the aging NTFS file system. Still, it’s smooth, slick and very intuitive menus will make for a very rewarding experience for those who decide to upgrade to it.

If Microsoft can continue to focus on usability and user experience, rolling out fun to use products like Win7 and the Surface computer, I believe they will be able to finally shake off their boring ”John Hodgeman office guy” image.

Features Overview

To begin, I installed Windows 7 to a squeaky clean desktop computer (my computer has 4 GB ram, 500 GB hard drive, and a 2.5 GHz AMD processor.)

For what it’s worth, the installation process has been improved; installation screens look better and the whole process requires much less entry from the user (all I had to enter to get going was the serial number). Startup seems significantly swifter, averaging a little over a minute from the restart command until booting back to the ready. Keep in mind that I only have a few programs running/installed, so this may be misleading. As a personal note: I’m glad they finally replaced the god-awful loading screen while starting up in favor of some nice swirling lights that form the Windows logo.

The most noticeable change to the Windows GUI is the redesign of the taskbar. Relatively unchanged since the days of Windows 95, the taskbar undergoes a significant transformation for Win7. In fact, MS no longer even calls it a “taskbar,” rather the new interface has been termed the “superbar.” (Not to be confused with the defunct-but-delicious Wendy’s “SuperBar.”)

Shiny icons indicate which apps are open

Shiny icons indicate which apps are open

The Quick Launch area of the task bar has been removed in favor of more real estate for applications and shortcuts. The extra space comes in handy as you can now “pin” any application or folder to the bar, similar to the Mac OSX dock. This places an icon that allows you to execute or switch to (if running) the app at any time. For more on this, check out Gizmodo’s excellent post here.

The only downside to losing the quick launch bar is the loss of the “Show Desktop” shortcut, which I use quite a lot while programming. Thankfully, it still exists, now residing as a as a small rectangle on the opposite end of the superbar. Just clicking on the rectangle gives the desktop the focus!

Windows also adds a featured called ‘Aero Shake.’ Now, “shaking” any open window minimizes all windows revealing the desktop (shaking it again brings the windows back).  This will be especially useful for touch screen interfaces and tablet computing and shows some forward thinking interface design.

One last thing to note about the superbar is the small change to the system tray (where the clock and application icons are held). The superbar makes it much easier to select which icons are shown all the time, and which will display only when trying to notify you of an event. Any items you don’t want to show continuously, are placed in a kind of “refuse tray,” where they remain accessible but will never pop up (unlike in Vista or XP where the tray would sometimes expand for no reason).

Refuse tray with non important icons, and regular system tray with "important" icons

Refuse tray with non important icons, and regular system tray with "important" icons

Start Button/Menu
Microsoft largely maintains the Start button design from Vista, adding slight usability tweaks. For users coming from Vista, this represents a small upgrade; program menus, layout and functionality are almost identical. A user upgrading from XP might be confused by the new layout, though the transition is about as difficult as it was from XP to Vista. While it would be nice to have a “classic” option to revert to an XP style menu system, I wasn’t able to find that option anywhere.

Recent Items
One area of disappointment is the loss of the “recent items” list. In previous versions of Windows, the start menu contained a list of your most recent files.

Vista's Recent Items List

Vista's Recent Items List

I use this feature quite a bit, so its absence is notable. However after editing a few items in WordPad and Paint, I noticed an arrow to the right of the start menu’s application icons. When clicked, Windows displays all recent files associated with that application, pretty slick.

Windows now shows recent files by application

Windows now shows recent files by application

While moving WordPad (now with .docx support) around on my desktop I ran into a nifty usability shortcut. When you move a window to screen a screen edge, Windows will try to automatically position it for you on the screen. For the left and right sides, your window will be resized to fill the screen halfway. Pushing your program to the top of the screen will maximize the window. Very useful.

When dragging a window all the way to a screen edge, an outline shows where it will resize to

Image resize outline

I’m also pleased to report that Microsoft has finally gotten around to making the dialogs for the various settings more intuitive and easier to understand. I would sometimes get lost in Vista’s hard to understand menu system, but in Windows 7 most of the confusion has been taken care of. In Windows 7, right-clicking has been used to greatly streamline user flow, usually popping up the settings you’re looking for without the need to delve into the more robust dialog boxes.

Right click from a mouse now brings up a menu with more specific options

Right click from a mouse now brings up a menu with more specific options

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