Windows 7 – First Impressions

I downloaded the Release Candidate (Build 7100) of Windows 7 last Friday and I’ve been running it on my primary laptop since Saturday morning.  I did an in place upgrade of my Windows Vista Ultimate install and I can’t really report on how long that took since I started it Friday before bed and woke up to a fully upgraded system on Saturday morning.  The upgrade advisor recommended that I uninstall Windows Mobile Device Center, Visual Studio 2008, and SQL Server 2008, however I only uninstalled Windows Mobile Device Center since uninstalling the other two would defeat the purpose of doing the upgrade instead of a clean install.  The upgrade went very smoothly and I had no issues reinstalling Windows Mobile Device Center afterwards.  When I first logged in, Windows Update also updated Visual Studio and SQL Server as well to patch the known issues with them.  The only issue I had after the upgrade was with my Pinnacle USB HDTV Ultimate Stick, which was quickly resolved by a trip to the Pinnacle website for the Windows 7 beta drivers.

The first thing you notice in Windows 7 is the new taskbar.  This is by far the biggest change in Windows 7 from any previous version of Windows.  Gone are the text window titles.  Gone is the Quick Launch toolbar.  All you get are icons.  This has definitely required some getting used to, but the more I use it, the more I’m liking it.  You can pin applications to the taskbar and when the application is active, it is shown highlighted in the taskbar (Windows Live Messenger, Libraries, and Paint.NET are active in the screenshot above).  Hover the mouse cursor over any active icon to see a screenshot of the window(s) associated with that icon and click to activate any of those windows.  You can also drag and rearrange the icons in the taskbar in any fashion you like.

I’ve also had a chance to use the new XP Mode.  XP Mode is a Virtual PC running Windows XP that runs on top of Windows 7.  You have to have a processor capable of supporting hardware assisted virtualization to take advantage of this feature.  When you first install XP Mode, it boots up the Windows XP image.  I recommend installing a virus scanner and all of the Windows Updates on the Virtual PC as well to keep yourself protected.  Once the machine is initialized, the magic starts.  Windows 7 monitors the Virtual PC’s All Users Start Menu folder.  When you install new applications there or make a new shortcut there, Windows 7 adds a new shortcut to your start menu to launch that application in Windows 7.  The application then shows up as a new window in Windows 7 with an XP style border and runs like any other Windows application with the exception of a small startup delay while the Virtual PC starts.  I’ve used this feature to run IE 8 as a Windows XP app because my work’s VPN doesn’t consider Windows 7 a valid operating system yet, and it worked like a charm there.

Beyond those two features, most of the changes that I’ve noticed so far are small changes from Windows Vista that add up to a subtly improved user experience:

  • If you drag a window to either the left or the right edge of the screen, you can dock it to take up half of the screen.  This is a really nice feature to be able to compare the contents of two documents.
  • Click on the title of any open window and shake the mouse and all of the other windows minimize themselves.  Shake it again and all of the minimized apps reappear.
  • The Disk Management utility allowed me to delete the HP Recovery partition on my C: drive and seamlessly expand the main partition to reclaim this wasted space.  Disk Management on Windows Vista wasn’t capable of this.
  • Gone is the Windows Vista Sidebar.  You can arrange your gadgets anywhere on the screen, though I’m still preferring to keep them on the side where the sidebar was.
  • If you hover your mouse over the taskbar in the bottom right corner of the screen, all of your windows will turn transparent, allowing you to see the desktop.  To minimize all of the open windows and show the desktop, just click in the same place.

User Account Control (UAC) popups are much less frequent than in Vista.  I must admit that I didn’t find them to be a big annoyance in Vista, but they are less common in Windows 7 and are truly worth paying attention to because they only show up if an application is making system settings changes as opposed to the user making the changes.

This is a pretty complete list of the features that I’ve used so far.  There’s a lot of stuff to like here, and I’d highly recommend Windows 7 to anyone currently running Windows Vista.  From the news today, it sounds like the final version of Windows 7 will be released in October and will be available on new PCs in late October or early November.

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