Like Elvis in '68, Microsoft is itching for a "comeback," and Windows 7 is the perfect excuse. In fact, this week in LA at the Professional Developers Conference, Windows 7 officially shoved Vista aside. Having suffered through the often deserved criticisms of that ill-fated OS installment, Microsoft's people are thrilled to tears to be able to talk about something (anything!) else. On Sunday, they took journalists through a lively 7-hour orientation on Win 7, then handed off a Dell XPS M1330 loaded with pre-beta Build 6801. Thankfully for the overworked, underappreciated developers at Redmond, it's surprisingly stable, and its look and feel already puts Vista to shame.
Here's a walkthrough of the system I'm looking at, some videos showing its basic performance, and then shots of more interface and system details demoed at PDC that will show up in the first beta build.
It's really hard to piece together everything I experienced at the seminar, so I'm going to start with the real, actual improvements I see in the system I've been fiddling with, and then expand into the more rhetorical stuff.
WHAT I'VE ACTUALLY SEEN
For starters, even the early build of Windows 7 feels like a fast, stable environment. There's a lot going on behind the scenes to make the OS more usable, one monumental improvement being how video memory is allocated for unseen windows. (Hint: It's not.) The result is a highly responsive machine that gets decent battery life. Though specs aren't out yet, Windows boss Steve Sinofsky confirmed that it could run on systems with just 1GB of RAM.
As you might expect, I'm already seeing smarter user-interface decisions. Here are three great examples:
Choosing a Wi-Fi network now takes just one click, straight from the system tray. How much of a no-brainer was that? Instead of the clicking on the insulting "networks are available" pop-up, you actually get the available networks. Speaking of the system tray, it now gives you more complete control over what you see—instead of just hide or show, you can get it to display particular notifications, as you see here:
The dreaded User Account Control lives up to its name with more control. Yes, this slider is how you will be able to reduce the number of pesky pop-up warnings, eliminating all the ones that come from Windows, for instance. There are four tiers of security in total, so basically two settings between Vista's tell-me-everything and don't-tell-me-squat modes.
The sidebar is dead—the gadgets roam free! Why should keeping one or two gadget/widgets alive mean sacrificing a fifth of your clickable screen? Now when you add gadgets, they stack up on the right, but you are at liberty to put them wherever you want, and they're always there, hiding under your windows. This is an idea I wish Apple would incorporate too. Speaking of Apple and things hiding under windows, there's an upcoming "peek" feature that I will show below in the up-coming section.
There are some other new interface elements that might be quite useful. Microsoft is sort of the opposite of Apple when it comes to organising your media files: Apple helps you put them all in one place, while Microsoft says it's okay to leave them scattered around. Up until now, though, it was hard for Microsoft's software to keep track of everything. But there are two new tools, one local and one networked, that will help you track all kinds of media files.
Libraries let you clump together same-type content no matter where it is on the system. If you have pictures in one set of folders, and other pictures in another, and you damn well aren't going to merge the folder, you can still track them together by adding them both to the Photo Library. Libraries even show the contents of local external storage drives you add to them, though when you unmount the external drive, Library offers to ditch its folder.
HomeGroup is a re-do of classic workgroup networking, only with the home in mind. The feature will only work on Windows 7, so to test it I'd need a second loaner unit. Still, having set up a basic HomeGroup, at least the initial interface and Microsoft's literature suggest that this will simplify viewing content across multiple machines, and sharing printers and other products. Let's hope so, because it could also be one of those classic "Why won't this work for me????" networking wizards. (Or is it just me who gets those?)
Here are some other shots from the pre-beta unit I'm looking at, including:
• Ribbon interface now appearing on WordPad and Paint (and nothing else so far)
• Solutions Centre that will soon be re-branded as Action Center
• New fast-launching "lightweight" Windows Media Player
• Subtler, but still cool, improvements to the main Windows Media Player
• Windows information page, so you can see the attributes of the system
I shot the following videos to get you some immediate sense of what it's like to use the Windows 7 laptop, but though in some instances it is compared to a reasonably similar system that is also fairly clean, this isn't any kind of test. It is interesting to note, though, that while the Win 7 boots way faster here (even with the other computer's BIOS startup out of the way), it actually takes longer than the other system to shut down. But yes, these are totally unscientific, just a nice thing to observe:
Totally Unscientific Video of Boot-Up Time
Totally Unscientific Video of Shut-Down Time
Super Scientific Video of New Window Resizing Feature
WHAT MICROSOFT IS PROMISING
The sad thing about the build that Microsoft handed out is that it's missing a lot of the neat stuff that they showed off at the conference, and have been hinting at elsewhere. Though we did see a lot of this stuff running on systems, we couldn't take photos or video—not even of the slides.
User Interface Improvements In the last video above, I say more UI to come, and I mean "in the beta." Here are the new promised UI effects—all of which make Vista's Flip3D look like the OS equivalent of the infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner.
While I'm a fan of the mouse hot-corner "Peek" function in the above photo, that lets you see gadgets or icons that windows could be obscuring, the biggest improvement to the Windows UI is probably in the Taskbar. It's gone through quite a few evolutions already, but this latest one is pretty great. Click on an app, and contextual menus pop up, giving you options like opening recent documents. The Taskbar can pull information that's already part of the program, so new apps don't need special programming to work here. Another aspect of the new Taskbar will be the preview feature, which will show you floating glimpses of hidden windows. (I'm still hazy on this one, so we'll have to revisit it once the beta comes out.)
Other improvements come in the natural-interface category: You can now write in math equations. (I think this is cool, even though it's been a very long time since I've actually written out any math more complex than a bar tab.)
Windows 7 will have great native touch and multitouch benefits too—none shown here unfortunately: Menus subtly enlarge when tapped with a finger instead of a mouse cursor; the mouse cursor disappears when the finger touches the screen; and iPhone/Surface-style pinching and stretching are now part of the OS.
Cool Device Tricks
As a gadget lover like most of you, one of my favourite parts of the conference was the device discussion. I am happy to report that, for starters, Windows 7 is itself a more aggressive media playback system, natively handling both AAC and H.264 as well as DivX and Xvid without third-party download.
It's also a DLNA 1.5 system with some neat tricks up its sleeve. Windows Media Player has a "play to" feature (at left) that you can reach via the Taskbar—one click and you can pull up a song, start playing, and even jump to the next.
But here's the coolness: You can use that same feature to pull songs from other places on the network. And you can send the song to play through a Sonos or other compatible player on the network, rather than through your dinky laptop speakers. You can even, theoretically, if everything's visible on the net, pull DRM-free AAC files from a Mac, and tell it to play on the Sonos, re-encoding it on the fly if the Sonos doesn't support AAC. In this case, the compatibility is only as good as the interface, and the interface is only as good as the compatibility, so I am eager to see how this is executed.
A nice servicey program for interfacing with gadgets and peripherals is called Device Stage. Yesterday in comments, it got maligned a bit as the new PlaysForSure, but that's a branding it doesn't deserve. Not yet, at least. The system allows camera, phone, MP3 player and printer makers to create mini interfaces for their devices. The products appear in the Taskbar when connected, with their own pop-up menus of activities, like offloading pics or uploading music. In addition to the pop-up Taskbar menu, each device will have its own pop-up page with links to ordering supplies or downloading the manual in PDF format, plus a photorealistic icon that will appear wherever the device is referred to.
For Device Stage to work, the third-party brands will have to provide their own content, but it will get served throughout the world by Microsoft. If there is no Device Stage present, you get the basic AutoPlay pop-up that we've seen for ages. When I asked Microsoft how aggressive they would be in getting companies on board with Device Stage, they said that the companies themselves were excited about the chance to do it. As someone who was bitterly let down by PlaysForSure, I can tell you, this ain't the same.
I realise I covered far more of the external bits and far less of the internal guts than some of you folks wish—nor have I even touched on the new Windows Live and IE8 features, both of which are somewhat visible already—but it's early yet, and while I will always focus on usability, there will be a lot more to look at in the coming months as the builds get richer and the testing is more reflective of the final product. As far as exact dates go, Microsoft is reluctant to carve anything too deep into granite, but can you blame them?
For now, we should just be happy that Windows 7 appears to be on the right track. You can almost look at consumer-level Windows—that is, 95, 98, Me, XP, Vista and Win 7—like the first six Star Trek movies: They pretty reliably alternate between crap and quality. All I can say is, screw the Final Frontier, and hellloooo, Undiscovered Country. That, and thanks to Microsoft for talking about Windows 7 early and often. It helps. Just don't screw it up! [Windows 7 News on Giz]