Windows 7: 1 Week Later

The HP MiniNote is now up to 3 operating systems: Ubuntu 8.10 (with XFCE, Gnome, and KDE 4.2 RC), Windows Fundamentals for Legacy PC's, and the Windows 7 public beta. Overall, Windows 7 has certainly been the biggest surprise.

I won't go in depth into all the features (or lack of them, really) that I've encountered. They're pretty widely covered on various sites, with a good writeup from Ars Technica. Windows 7 is an incremental upgrade to Vista; it's what Vista should have been at launch. I doubt it will be worth the paid upgrade from Vista, but I think it will finally be at the point where it's not worth recommending users to go out of their way to find machines with XP on them.

1. The install process beats Ubuntu's (finally)

Admittedly, it's much the same as that in Vista, but it takes way less time to install on much slower hardware. It's certainly in stark contrast to Window's XP's installer. A minimum of questions are asked during install, and you can get everything going in a few clicks. After install, there isn't much else to set other than a user account and regional settings. One unfortunate choice is that you're required to set a password hint. It can always be set to "You should know the password!", but for laptops especially it's best if that can be left empty. Once logged in, the hint can be removed, and it isn't required for new users, so it may just be a bug in the installer.

Long-term, Microsoft biggest issues is that they don't release updated installer discs periodically. With Linux, built in support for new hardware is usually a 6 month wait at most; once Windows 7 goes gold, the driver set included will quickly become outdated. Releasing new disk images with updated WHQL-certified drivers would go a long way towards keeping those of us in charge of fixing broken systems happy.

2. The new task bar is vastly improved

For power users, Window's concepts of window management are rather dated. On my Mac, I currently have 18 full-blown applications open, each with their own set of windows. Between the Dock, Exposé, and virtual desktops, it's very easy to find and organize my work. Doing the same on Windows without third party utilities is an exercise in frustration.

In Windows 7, by default the taskbar behaves very much like the OS X Dock, and in some ways is even a bit better. Pinned applications are left-aligned, with un-pinned applications opening to their right. All windows from the same application are grouped with the application icon. The biggest advantage is that most applications will have a consistent target on the screen for activation; unless you delve to the command line on OS X, as you open more applications or minimize windows to the Dock, the icons push each other out from the center. The new task bar simultaneously makes things more manageable for power users while removing the confusion of the Quick Launch bar for everyone else.

As well, using the bottom-right corner as a hover point for viewing the desktop is very nice. Much better than "Show desktop" has ever been, and again is a consistent (and click less!) target on the screen.

3. The window manager

Windows has a window manager? Well, not a replaceable one like on X11-based systems. But, for the first time in my memory, significant new features have gone into the window manager. By far, my absolute favourite feature is the "half-maximize" feature. By dragging a window to the left or right edges of the screen, it will be maximized along that half of the screen. It makes working with two documents on large, widescreen monitors much easier. I really wish OS X could do this. Not only has this and other features been added to the window manager, but keyboard shortcuts are available for them as well! Lifehacker has a good list of them.

In conclusion...

While none of these features are worth switching operating systems for, it does show that perhaps Microsoft is on the road to salvation. At the very least, their flagship product will no longer be quite so laughable to technology professionals. With the upcoming Snow Leopard release from Apple, 2009 is shaping up to be quite competitive on the OS front.