Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Windows 7 RC Quick First Impressions

About two hours ago I inserted my Windows 7 Release Candidate disk into my spare laptop's CD-Rom tray and for the most part I'm done. Windows 7 is still complaining that I need to install an anti-virus program and I do need to re-install the software I normally use on my computer but other that I'm up an running having installed Firefox.

The installation process was fairly straightforward. I already had the Windows 7 Beta installed on this machine. It was the 32-bit version and I used the 64-bit version of the release candidate so I couldn't just upgrade the Beta. Microsoft recommends a "clean install" anyway so I restarted the machine with the RC in the CD-Rom tray and let it install. This took about an hour. The computer restarted several times during this process.

Near the end of the install, Windows offered to activate itself automatically and asked for the key to my wifi hotspot. This was a fairly clever thing for it to do. Unfortunately, I have a 63 character wifi key which I keep on a USB flash drive and there was no way to get the wifi key off the flash drive and into the connection dialog box. No biggie, I just let Windows start and it already had a connection icon in the taskbar. I just clicked on the icon, chose my wifi hotspot from the pop up list, and copied and pasted the wifi key into that dialog box. I've noticed in the past that Windows Vista allows you to export your wifi key onto a flash drive in some (hopefully encrypted) format but never bother to use this feature. Perhaps people who have used this feature might be able to just insert flash drive into their computers and have Windows 7 recognize their wifi keys. Despite this problem, one of the big improvements going from Windows Vista to 7 is the improved ease in connecting to secured wifi hotspots.

When Windows finally came up it was with a fairly generic configuration at a relatively low resolution of 1024x768 giving my laptop's widescreen a fuzzy, squashed appearance. As I poked around the interface, Windows continued to look for updates and found seven of them, including the software drivers for my NVIDIA graphics card. I let Windows install the updates and reboot. Suddenly my laptop took on a more familiar appearance at its full 1280x800 screen resolution. Curiously, Windows went with a basic theme for my computer and I had to choose an Aero theme in order to get its pretty transparencies to appear. Windows was ready to go.

Now for first impressions. So far there are no surprises. I've been using the Beta for months and the changes which the Release Candidate brings are fairly subtle. While it gets rid of many of Vista's annoyances, there are still many which remain from Vista. Windows Explorer for example still tries to hide its menu and status bars and still comes with default settings which hide system files and generally make it a lot less useful. Luckily, as with every version of Windows, you can change these settings and make Explorer a much more useful program for organizing your computer.

Many have regarded Windows 7 as "Vista Service Pack 2.0." I prefer to think of 7 as "Vista done right." For example, unlike Windows Vista where themes and appearance mean two different things, they are pretty much the same in Windows 7. If you choose an Aero theme, Windows Aero Glass interface starts with it. If you choose a basic theme Aero shuts down. Vista by contrast has its themes and it has its color schemes. You can shut down Aero without changing themes in Vista and vice versa. By contrast if you want to shut down Aero in Vista, you have to choose a basic or high-contrast theme. While this led to some confusion for me at first, the more I think about it, the more Windows 7's way of doing things makes sense. Why bury so many options someplace which most users never see? In Windows 7 these options are displayed beneath the more popular ones and are easy to get to.

Many have always regarded Windows itself as a rip-off of the MacOS and Windows 7 definitely does take some of it cues from MacOS X. In fact it takes a few too many many cues from OSX. I've always felt that the OSX Dock while very pretty has always been very disorganized and sometimes confusing for new users—a triumph of aesthetics over usability. In Windows 7 the taskbar hews more closely to the Dock, removing the labels from running applications and mixing them together with Quick Launch shortcuts. Fortunately, you can restore the labels. One change that actually improve the user experience by adding thumbnail displays of your applications to the taskbar.

It a continuing the trend from Vista, 7 adds a lot of pretty eye candy with lots of themes and lots of background pictures and a link to more online. It also adds subtle performance improvements and a much smoother interface than Vista. I never expected to find myself excited by a new version of Windows but 7 definitely gives me something to look forward to in the Windows world.

No comments: