We have finally reached that critical mile stone in the development of Microsoftís next major desktop release of Windows, BETA 1! Back in October 2008 we previewed the Pre-beta build 6801 of Windows 7 which was surprisingly quite stable for an alpha after running it as my main OS for the past couple of months. For many persons, the description that best describes a beta of an OS like Windows is, crude, incomplete, rough, buggy and just not ready for prime time. Well, Windows 7 BETA is quite the exception in this case. I recall my experience with Windows Vista BETA 1 which worked, but was buggy throughout, whether it was application compatibility or unfinished components just not working as intended. Windows 7 BETA feels and works like a finished product. One of the things users will immediately praise about the new OS is its improved performance, I have been running the x86 platform on my AMD Sempron 1.6 GHz machine with 512 MBs of RAM for a couple of weeks now and itís just fast, no lag, got Aero Glass and my applications just feel really snappy on it. The Windows Team has listened; they have focused on the fundamentals, the things that users really care about, making Windows compatible, making it faster and making it just work!
I installed Windows 7 x86 build 7000 on a variety of hardware configurations and brands. Letís take a look:
If you have installed Windows Vista before, you have installed Windows 7. Installing Windows 7 BETA was a rather uneventful procedure, there are however some minor changes in the setup process this time around. The install stage across all systems was done in a reasonable amount of time. For users who might be coming from Windows XP, there are some changes to be expected as well as some improvements over Vista:
The above table list improvements in Boot time, Loading the Desktop and Shutdown compared to Windows Vista and XP. There still isnít a significant win over Windows XP. I am not drawing conclusion yet, but I am most pleased by the numbers and by the actual experience of seeing Windows 7 work faster. Particularly for the Home Built x86 system with an AMD Sempron 1.6 GHz I am most impressed. That system originally had Vista Enterprise x86 and it was a PITA, I did everything I knew to make it run fast, disabled services, effects and it was just a groggy disappointment. Now itís running Office 20007 and Windows 7 Ultimate with Aero Glass and its snappy, no lag, no grogginess and it boots and loads fast. Microsoft has done some significant work in the areas of performance and users will definitely see it when they install Windows 7.
Overall, the install process was smooth, but there were a number of restarts, especially one after completing OOBE which I find annoying. Reaching the desktop was a mixed reaction depending on the system, the Acer Ferrari on which I installed Windows 7 x86 first was a bit disappointing because it was lacking Aero Glass which includes some of the new visual cues that makes the interface so much fun, but after loading my ATI Drivers WDDM 1.0 for the ATI Radeon Mobility x1600 I had AERO Glass up and running and oh boy was I in heaven! I did a quick check in Computer Explorer to see how much disk space is used by Windows 7; it seems the Windows Team has done some clean up since the total used was 8.67 GBs, down from 11 GBs in Windows Vista. The HP Workstation out of the box had AERO Glass; while the Home built system only required installing the Vista nVidia driver. Letís take a look:
At first glance, Windows 7 looks like Vista, but with a lot of polish, the new theme is called Scenic. Parts of the interface such as the Start menu panel, features a shinier glossy look and feel.
Over the years, the Taskbar seem to remain consistent since the release of Windows 95 with some visual improvements and minor functionality added with the release of Windows XP (window grouping) and functionality like Taskbar Thumbnails in Vista. In Windows 7, the Taskbar has transformed the Quick Launch desk band into both a host for shortcuts and running applications. Of course there are immediate limitations I discovered, such as the lack of clear notifications for programs like Windows Live Messenger because every window by default is grouped when there are multiple of an application, so if you have 2 or more conversation windows open and you get an alert, you canít tell quickly who it is or the option of simply clicking just that conversation window, basically, a lot of task have been reduced to two click steps. You can however turn this off to achieve a more classic appearance and make the Taskbar appearance for icons smaller. This will result in a spaced out look for pinned short cuts. I would have appreciated if there was a more thoughtful Classic option with one click without the need for multiple tweaking necessary to achieve a desired result. Regardless of this, there are some improvements users can look forward to, for instance, when you hover over an application an instant preview is composed, Taskbar Thumb nails have evolved with more functionality such as the ability to interact with the thumb nail preview, you can even close a window from within the thumbnail itself. Application buttons on the Taskbar feature contextual improvements too called ĎJump Listí. For instance, when you right click a Windows Explorer folder on the Taskbar, a list of frequent or related activities are displayed such as recently accessed folders, content shell folders in addition to management activities such as unpinning from the Taskbar or close all grouped windows. Applications also support Jump List activities on the Taskbar; the Sticky Notes program for example features options for a New Note or access to your other notes. Users will appreciate Jump list for programs like Media Player which features quick options for interacting with your music library, whether itís your recent play list or songs within an album track listing.
The Taskbar Properties dialog has been updated with a few arrangements here and there, such as the Notification Area tab now situated under the Taskbar tab. Some users might be disappointed to know that the Classic Start menu we have become familiar with since the release of Windows 95 is not available anymore, the only options available under the Start menu tab is Power Button and Privacy. You can now add links to folders on the Start menu such as Recorded TV and Videos, something a lot of persons requested back during Vista. A new behaviour has been added for excluding Public folder from the Start menu search results.
The Taskbars Notification Area has some welcome improvements too, because of the extended height full date and time are displayed with the most appreciative being the ĎShow hidden iconsí menu. Back in Vista or previous versions of Windows, it was rather encroaching often stealing precious real estate and would give users a hard time retracting, even when behaviours were set for certain notifications in the Taskbar properties. The new Notification area in Windows 7 resolves this by consolidating additional notifications into a submenu that reveals a floating balloon. You can customize the behaviour from the floating balloon which opens a Control Panel applet which allows you to individually control the behaviour of each icon populated in the Notification Area, there is even a separate area just for controlling the behaviour of System icons such as Clock, Power, Network and Volume.
The Start menu looks pretty much the same as the one in Windows Vista, but a lot of functionality has been consolidated and improved to make it more usable. There is more emphasis on the integrated Search box with blue highlight around it. The Power options are more simplified, with the default now set to Shut Down and additional options such as Switch User, Log off, Lock, Restart and Sleep consolidated into a single menu. You can of course set your own defaults from the Task Bar Start menu properties. The Windows Team has removed and added new menus, in Vista SP1, the Search menu was removed as part of the Anti-Trust Clause that the Company had to fulfil at the request of the Government and Industry Competitors. A new menu; Devices and Printers host a collection of devices connected to the computer. I am trying to understand the significance of this explorer shell with the existence of Control Panel and Device Manager, but Microsoft sayís it makes setting up devices easier, but my Cellular Phone, Motorola E398B has issues being detected, hopefully that will be worked out as we approach RTM. Listed among your devices depending on what you have connected to the computer, include system drive, monitor, peripheral devices such as mice and keyboard, USB storage such as jump drive and external hard disk in addition to types of printers such as multi-function, along with fax devices.
The Start menu Search facilities have been updated; results now utilize the entire Start menu pane instead of Vistaís Results and menus appearance. Search results are more detailed with each category listing the total entries relating to your query. Jump List is also integrated into the Start menu pane and there are some welcomed changes that make you start seeing the significance of it, for instance the old annoying Welcome Center window that always appeared on the first load of the desktop in Vista is now a Jump List which quickly reveals its Task within an expanded menu. Programs and folders such as Internet Explorer, Microsoft Office applications, and Shell Folders make great Jump List on the Start menu; you are able to see recent activities associated with a pinned short cut, whether its recently accessed documents, web pages or favourites. Since its major overhaul in Windows XP, Microsoft continues to drive innovation into the Start menu and I know users will be quite pleased with its improvements.
The Start menu All Programs is a little meagre, with less built in productivity and multimedia applications compared to Vista. There are few programs that still come with Windows 7 such as DVD Maker which basically comes unchanged with some of the ugliest themes known by man. There is a dedicated XPS Viewer application that allows you to view digital documents outside of the browser, features include: Search, Permissions and digitally sign documents printed using the paper specification. Windows Fax and Scan remains unchanged. Microsoft has not stopped development of programs such as Photo Gallery, Movie Maker and Mail applications, itís just that they are now a part of the suite of Windows Live services called Windows Live Essentials, which means, the best way to enable them is to go download them (http://download.live.com). But why is Microsoft even doing this? I know a lot of persons like myself who donít even want to go through the chore of having to install or go download additional applications after doing an installation of Windows. But Microsoft has given some understandable reasons for this.
Brian Hall (General Manager for Windows Live) notes that removing programs such as Photo Gallery, Mail and Movie Maker from the core operating system will give Microsoft more time to focus on the core operating system experience in addition to improving the efficiency of things like Service Packs which could ultimately be fewer and smaller. Mr. Hall also said that a cleaner operating system eliminates potential confusion for customers faced with two different programs that are similar in function-one already in Windows and the other from Windows Live. He also said that Microsoft is working with OEMs are around Windows 7 so that they can place shortcuts that will link to a download page where you can choose just the programs you.
Itís all about balance while delivering choice. Users have complained over the past couple years that Windows has become bloated. Personally, I donít see it; a lot of the stuff that came with Windows are applications a lot users ended up needing and using anyway. Removing Movie Maker, Photo Gallery and Mail does not significantly reduce the OSís disk foot print either. I believe at least a bundled Mail client would have been handy, there are some limitations with Windows Live Mail and I think the old Windows Mail from Vista should be an option for users to use on 7.
Vista introduced some rather controversial changes to Windows Explorer, some I still find a bit hard to work with, such as the in ability to customize the Command Bar, a lack of common task menus for copying and moving files which are still missing in Windows 7 resulting the need to invoke the Classic File menus. Windows Explorer at first sight might look a lot different, yes it is in some respects, but again, itís a careful rearrangement and consolidation of certain elements. The Address Bar area looks unchanged, but subtle changes have been introduced such as the ability to resize either the Address Bar or Search Field area. The Search Field in each Explorer shell now features the name of the area in which youíre searching, for e.g. Search Documents, Search Music, Search Pictures etc. Activating the Search form also reveals small improvements such as saved searches and unique filters for content in the different Explorer shells, such as Authors, Date Taken, for more specific Search Results. The Command bar in the shell folders seem radically different, over the years Microsoft has adopted a slightly improved look and feel with each release of Windows, Windows 98 introduced a web inspired Command Bar and Vista featured a more static less controlling change. Windows 7 is not much of an improvement; menus are now text only arranged on the left with buttons on the right for configuring icon previews and window layout. The Details Pane at the bottom of the window has been made much thinner but is still limited in its functionality, you can change the attributes of Microsoft Office files and thatís just about it, I wish functionality could be extended to other formats .txt, web blog post and popular third party formats like .DWG, I guess this is something the developer of the application has to do themselves.
Task links are separated into 5 categories: Favourites, Libraries, Homegroup, Computer and Network. Common Shell folders such as Documents, Music, Pictures, Videos and Downloads are known as Libraries. Modifications have been made to how data that might be scattered across your hard disk and network locations are viewed and accessed. For instance, the old Shared Documents folder from XP or Vistaís Public folders are less prominent in Windows 7. They still exist and are critical when sharing data with multiple computers on a network. But what has happened is that Libraries makes accessing the data from these disparate locations much easier, a file added to the Public Document folder is automatically aggregated into the Documents Library. Of course, you might say, there are some things I donít want to have mixed up with my Personal Data and prefer to keep them in separate locations. No worry, you still have access to your Personal Shell folders under your User folder. You can create your own Library too and add specific locations to them and data from those locations will be automatically aggregated from there. Libraries takes advantage of new technologies such as Home Groups and will be an asset especially if you are the type of user who has a laptop that connects to a Domain at work, but still want to access data on your home network without having to mess with your workgroup settings just to do so.
More about Libraries
Libraries are a new experience in Vista that streamlines the process of managing the array of information users have scattered across their PC. Organization was a key focus of Vista, but regardless you tried your best to keep your files in their appropriate locations photos in the Pictures directory, videos in the Videos directory, audio in Music directory, etc. You still ended up having a lot of files stored in folders you either create or parts of the system such as the desktop out of quick convenience. With Libraries, you donít have to remember exactly where you stored a particular photo or search multiple places to find what you need. You donít even have to keep multiple copies of the same file around. With Libraries, you can not only organize, but view and manage files that that are stored in more than once place. This reduces the need to view files even when they are stored in different folders. Libraries are so powerful that they even span different disk drives, PCs on your home network. There are a range of options for organizing and browsing, by type, date taken or genre depending on the file type. The power of Libraries grows when combined with rich capabilities of Home Groups, meaning; families can get in on the fun by access a shared library by having the right permissions setup.
The Desktop is the first place you experience when you start Windows. Improvements would be considered minor, but there is better synergy between windows and features like Gadgets. Microsoft introduced the Windows Sidebar in Vista which hosted a collection of web based applications that delivers quick information whether its Stock Quotes, Weather, latest info from subscribed sites and a Slideshow to name a few. Windows 7 makes gadgets easier to use, they are free to roam the desktop enabling you to position them anywhere and make them smaller or larger. If you like to keep your gadgets at the edges of your screen, theyíll snap into place like magnets. Are there any new Gadgets? Well, there is a new Windows Media Center Gadget that gives you quick access to your media such as Photoís, Music and Videos. The Notes Gadget has been replaced it seems by Sticky notes. Sticky notes are a lot more powerful; they are resizable and support inking along with date and time. For persons who occasionally need to access the desktop, a new feature called Aero Peek allows you to glance at the desktop by simply hovering over the right hand corner of the Notification Area and all of your open windows become transparent, this makes ĎShow Desktopí so 1998. Aero Snaps allows you to maximize a window by dragging its border to the top of the screen, to restore the window to its original state by dragging it from the top of the screen. For persons who often do data comparisons with content from two windows on screen, Aero Snaps also makes it a cinch by simply dragging the windows to the opposite sides of the screen; automatically the windows will fill its half.
The Personalization Explorer features improved customization and accessibility. For persons who like to make their Windows experience unique, Microsoft has reintroduced expanded theme capabilities. Windows XP and Vista offers the ability to customize the interface to a certain degree, such as changing the window and Start menu colour for instance. If you wanted additional options, you had to turn to third party solutions such as Star Dock. In 7, Microsoft provides in addition to window colour, the ability to choose pre-packaged themes that matches the bundled wallpapers. Glass colour options have increased from 8 in Vista to 16 now in 7. You can even create your own themes and save them. Improvements to Aero include, inactive and active windows are more distinct on screen. The themes explorer itself is more centralized with one stop approach to customizing your Desktop Background with a Desktop Slideshow that can change at certain intervals, Sounds and Screen Saver while you are at it. I say halleluiah. I wish the Windows Team kept back the DreamScene animated wallpapers though from Ultimate Extras and they donít even survive the Upgrade from Vista Ultimate to 7 Ultimate. I wish Microsoft would provide something better than the butt ugly Aero Basic theme though, itís washed out and just not aesthetically pleasing, even the option to change its colour would be great.
In Vista, the cumbersome separate dialog from XPís Display settings was a confusing experience and multiple step approach to making Windows your own. I personally suggested collapsible panels in Windows Vista, but this new look and approach is even better! Microsoft still includes the venerable Windows Classic theme for those who just canít escape the Windows 95 experience.
Over the years, Microsoft has done little to improve the traditional bundled applications in Windows such as Word Pad, Paint and Calculator. Windows 7 breathes new life into their interfaces.
Word Pad is now watered down Microsoft Word 2007, featuring the popular Office Fluent UI, Word Pad still is basic in its capabilities, but the program adds some nice improvements such as support for OOXML format. The interface has been arranged I would conclude for the purpose of consistency. For what most persons do with it, it looks like over kill since Word Pad was never straining under 1,500 commands and toolbars like Office Word. Improvements that users will most appreciate include highlighting, line breaks, additional text colours, bullets, indents and print preview enhancements in addition to picture insertion and zooming capabilities. Will users be pleased with it, I guess, but I donít see it as adding significant value to the user experience.
Paint also inherits this look and feel, but also suffers from the fact that it was not a detrimental necessity. I will certainly admit the program looks darn gorgeous and was a needed update in terms of refreshing the UI a bit. Some new features include media paint brushes and the ability to easily pick colours and shapes. There are some additional options that make working with illustrations a little easier such as options for transparency and opaque. Measurement options have been improved with the ability to zoom in and out, display a ruler, grid lines and full screen mode.
Calculator is drastically pleasant; richer options and modes are available for Standard, scientific, duration between two periods, add or subtract a period of time, gall mileage, lease estimation, mortgage estimation, unit conversion and many more. The interface itself looks a lot like a traditional calculator, with big bold bright buttons; this should be for those using the Touch capabilities on a Tablet PC. The new calculation options I mentioned, conveniently pop out from the left side when invoked.
Home Networking in Windows has evolved over the years, from Windows 98ís Internet Connection Sharing to Windows XPís Home and small office networking. I consider Vistaís networking capabilities to be quite overwhelming, donít get me wrong, there are indeed major improvements, but the options are vast and not structured in a way that makes navigation more focused. The problem continues in Windows 7 and I would have hoped that some of the changes that have been made to areas like Personalization would also creep into this critical area of the OS. Microsoft still managed to make certain aspects of networking multiple PCís in the home a seamless experience. One of this is through Homegroup and Sharing. Homegroup provides a centralized location to setup the sharing of personal data and resources such as Pictures, Music, Videos, Documents and Printers. Taking a cue from Windows Media Player 11ís media sharing capabilities, Homegroup expands these capabilities with additional options for sharing pictures, music and videos in particular with devices. Users have the option of setting up a Homegroup password, leaving a Homegroup in addition to advanced settings for fine tuning file access and sharing.
PCís connected to your Homegroup automatically show up in the Navigation Pane in Windows Explorer. Some of the great things you can do include interacting with shared Libraries from other PCís just like you would locally in addition to changing the views, search them, you can also be specific with your search criteriaís. If one of your computers is joined to a domain, you still have access to Homegroup features such as your Home Printer and content shared within it, by default though, content cannot be shared by a PC that is joined to a Domain. Media Streaming is also a part of the Homegroup experience in Windows 7 with a very simplified experience. Homegroup when setup, automatically enables media streaming from within Media Player 12, for pictures, music, and videos, they are instantly made available on other PCs and devices in your Homegroup. Windows 7 makes viewing and connecting to networks simpler and consistent. Other Network improvements include a one click access to Wi-Fi, Mobile Broadband, a Corporate VPN or even Dial-up based networks from the Network Notification, the only thing I am disappointed about is, it does not indicate when you are connected to the Internet like in Vista.
Searching is a key aspect of the information management experience in Windows 7, Windows Vista presented a great opportunity for users to make access their data easier by integrating Search heavily throughout the interface and giving users tools make results more accurate. In 7, Search is much smarter, by presenting input recommendations based on previous searches and dynamic filter suggestions, to help you narrow down results. Because of the tight integration with Libraries, you can search beyond the PC right at the Start menu which grouped for easier visualization. When Searching across multiple PCís in a corporate setting, Administrators can fine tune how a search is executed, be defining up to five search destinations. All of the search processing is handled on a remote server and results presented you within your comfort zone. This sounds complex and it is, but Windows 7 is subtracting complexity of it all and presenting you only with ease of use part of the equation.
The Search engine in 7 uses an improved algorithm to determine relevance and rank results. Within those results, words from the search query you make are highlighted with parts of a file or even a path to it to give you a clearer idea of whatís happening and if its meeting your expectation. Search operates multiple ways by offering results based on multiple Libraries if you search through the Start menu if you search specifically from Windows Explorer; it stays within that particular library. For persons who have data stored on multiple devices, Windows 7 Search is a dream come through, a new feature called Search Federation allows you easily add a location; these include multiple PCs, external hard drives, servers and even websites.
My good friend John Tweedleman created a few including one for ActiveWin.com, you can find them at the following link:
I have had a while now to experience some of the improved features in Windows 7 build 6801 more intimately. One of my favourite past times on the PC of course is listening to music. I would describe my collection as mostly popular music with numerous Rhythm and Blues selections. I also like listening to Rock and Alternative but not too aggressively. Windows Media Player 12 is not a drastic departure from version 11; it adds nice enhancements that make engaging with your music more fun. Media Player 12 supports a wide variety of media formats; this lessens the need for using multiple players to listen to your library of content. It also makes it easier to manage and synchronize your media across a broad range of devices. Common media formats supported include WMV, WMA, MPEG-4, AAC and AVC/H.264. Still there are some concerns; WMP 12 still does not support other formats such as: OGG Vorbis, FLAC, Matroska (MKV) container, APE, WavePack (WV). There is no subtitle support SRT, SSA, ASS regardless they are they are open source and require no license fees.
Windows Media Player still comes bundled in Windows, 7. So unlike some applications that were once bundled with the OS but are now a part of the Windows Live Wave 3 suite, you don't have to download it. Just like version 11 when you launch the executable for the first time you have a choice between doing a 'Express' or 'Custom' setup. Of course, I would like to see if there are any new changes, so lets go with the Custom Settings.
Most of the common options you are accustom to seeing during this portion of setup are there, the first change I see is the option to add the Media Player 12 executable to your desktop, which I see a lot of persons do, so looks like a make sense option. Next you can choose to make Media Player your default music or video Player or choose specific file types you would like it to play.
After you have completed the setup process, you are greeted by the media player, which takes you immediately to the music library. Based on my observations, Media Player adapts a combination of Windows Explorer bread crumb menus which help you to easily back track path ways throughout a folder hierarchy but in this case your music library locations. There is also separation between task and locations as evident by the location arrangements and features like 'Play', 'Burn' and 'Sync' which are now situated on the far right of the interface. The familiar back and forward buttons are still there and makes it easy to move between different areas of the interface.
Below these options you will find a second toolbar which display menus for Organizing, Sharing, creating a playlist, library view and searching in addition to Help. The Navigation Pane situated on the right of the interface is revamped with a new addition. In Media Player 12 Library links such as Year, Rating, Songs are now a part of the library table. You can still find Navigation Pane options under Organize > Customize Navigation Pane. The Recently Added link has been removed. Two new library links Video and Pictures are available providing a central location to truly view all your media. Today's Portable Players are complex media devices that not only store music and videos, but also photos and those are just two more of the great things users can look forward to in this release.
Letís look a little closer at the different components and within their locations:
Play tab - a combination of 'Now Playing' (which exist now only as a mini playing mode - discussed later) with Playlist wrapped into one. Itís quite convenient and provides the option of easily navigating back and forth between your custom playlist while also viewing your main library of music. When a song is played from a particular artiste in your library, all songs from that artiste are automatically aggregated into the
'Play' tab. I wish there was a separator to make it easier to identify different albums from the artiste. I wish there was an option for one song within that active playlist to have the option of Repeat when selected though, instead playing over the entire playlist or having the user manually choose to play over that particular song by double clicking.
Burn tab - provides the same functionality as previous versions without the need to leave your music library. Some nice options are available such as Eject Disc After Burning, Apply Volume Levelling Across Tracks on Audio CDs and Name Disk (not checked by default).
Sync tab - provides synchronization capabilities for your portable player. I was not able to accurately test this since I do not own MP3 player at this time, but similar options available in prior versions are just the same in this release.
If you find activated Tabs distracting, you can easily hide them by clicking the Tab once which will show the entire library. Organization of music in Media Player 12 has been greatly enhanced and the new layout of songs in the library provides a more simplified, yet detailed approach to interacting with your collections. I do find it frustrating that certain areas still cannot be customized, for instance, the Album art column cannot be unchecked, I would like to use that space for another column such as Date Added or Play Count.
One of the nice things I like about playing songs from my personal ripped collection of albums, when I hover the mouse pointer over the Album art in the 'Play' tab, it does display buy. I find that annoying in Media Player 11, I already have the album on my hard disk, why is it suggesting that I purchase the album, a more neutral 'shop' link is displayed which could suggest buying more music from that artiste. You can also preview tracks in your library. You might ask, how different is this from simply double clicking a track and listening to it for a few seconds. When you hover a track and click the preview song link on the floating balloon, you will hear the song for approximately 15 seconds, the sweet part is, when you have heard enough, you simply move the pointer away from the floating balloon which will stop playing the song. The Windows Media Player Team could make it even more innovative by simply hovering over the preview button without any manual clicking.
Working with Management
Options once available under hidden drop down menus for each button of the player interface in Media Player 11 (Now Playing, Library etc) are now clearly exposed through Organize, Share and New Playlist.
Organize - Features menus for managing your library content, whether itís Pictures, videos or Recorded TV. You can customize and arrange your library views by checking or un-checking columns in addition to customizing the Navigation Pane displaying drop down menus and access entire options for Media Player 12.
Share - Here you will discover the option of sharing content in your library with devices connected to your computer or your home network. For this to be possible, Media Sharing must be turned on, it also supports streaming music, pictures and videos to these devices and you can pick and choose which devices can access your media. This greatly expands the media sharing capabilities first introduced in Vista where you could easily access another computers music library from Media Player 11 once Media Sharing was turned on in Network and Sharing Center.
New Playlist - has its own dedicated menu which allows you to quickly create new custom playlist of your favorite content. There is also a sub menu for a New Auto Playlist which is a playlist that changes automatically according to criteria you have specified.
Performance and Quality
Media Player 12 is faster based on my testing; songs instantly play when double clicked in the library. To reduce the waiting time to launch full media player when you might only want to play an album or a few songs, there is a Mini Player mode called Now Playing Mode. This convenient setup instantly opens when you launch a song from an Explorer for instance (by default), immediately your music begins playing, no waiting, no hitching and no glitches. Media Players familiar Now Playing tools are situated here with visualization effects (that I think needs to be updated) and album art in the visualization similar to 'mediaviz' that was released for Media Player 10. Itís quite nice and makes it more fun playing songs from a folder when you are not particularly interested with working the full media player library. The Mini-Player itself is resizable and intelligent in doing so, it knows when to show certain player controls and reveals more when it resized to a larger degree. If you want to go back to the full Media Player, simply click the 'Library Mode' button on the player controls. I would like to see an option to hide the window border though, to give it a floating appearance. I still would like the option of turning it off and go directly to full library whenever a song is double clicked from Explorer although you can easily switch Library mode from the player controls, it's just the extra step I would like to get out of the way.
Quality is very good, audio comes back pumping and clear to the listeners ears. This is something I have noticed since version 11, but I think it has more to do with the improvements to Audio in Vista. Since audio sounds puny when played in Windows XP I get a much richer experience on both Vista and 7. I remember during the Vista betas; even at BETA 1 the quality of audio in Media Player 11 was horrendous. For a BETA release itís excellent and very stable. I imported 5.4 GBs of music (which is significantly small compared to some libraries), but there were no problems doing so and all my tracks were recognized along with album art. What I notice about miscellaneous tracks in a folder that the meta data such as song information and album art in particular needs to be downloaded again regardless itís there hidden. There is also a mis-match of album art for different songs and artiste - kinda funny seeing Bill Haley's Jingle Bell Rock represented by Shanice Wilson's Greatest Hits.
Watching movies is a favorite activity in media player. Version 12 adds some improvements such as automatically going into full screen mode when you insert a DVD. There is also support for the new Mini-mode which looks lovely. From a technical point of view, Media Player 11 supports new video codec's which were once available through Third party vendors, some include: MPEG-4, 3GPP standards, H.264 video, DivX and xVid. This of course delivers a richer playback experience for the consumer, which results in less disappointment, something which was true of Media Player 11. Often you would download some particular video just find out the correct codec is not installed to view it.
Overall, Windows Media Player 12 looks like a great release that will surely keep loyal users happy. Its fast, great design and user interface make it a great application that I will continue to turn to for my media. The ability to now work with photos in addition to video is just a great way of defining WMP 12 as a true media player. I will continue to watch this release as it progresses. Will Microsoft make WMP 12 available for previous versions of Windows? I sure hope so; it has been a tradition for past versions so I donít see why an exception would be made for this release.
Included in Windows 7 is the latest version of Microsoftís web browser, Internet Explorer 8. There are no differences at all between IE 8 on Vista, 7 or XP except that Windows 7 itself now has built in support for Accelerators and I can safely predict Microsoft does not have any plans to back port to previous versions of the OS. It has been in development with the first beta released back in March of 2008. The fundamentals of this release revolve around Microsoftís security initiatives. The new InPrivate mode allows users to clear any private information such as cookies, visited web pages and the entire session itself. There is also an improvement to Phishing Filter through Smart Screen which puts greater focus on web pages that try to collect personal information from users; itís great for scamming sites that utilize known URLs such as PayPal or known banking merchants. How it does this is through a black list of known or suspected phishing sites so itís an ongoing game of cat and mouse, users should still be cautious about how they enter personal information on the web.
Ease of use is also a must; areas such as the Address Bar are now streamlined to make navigating the interface a sure pleasure for surfers. Auto Completion now suggest websites that you might want to go to, suggestions are based on your history of websites you like to visit, your personal web browsing history and Feeds that you have subscribed to. Tabís also feature a new visual functionality, links launched from a Tab in a new Tab enable colour coordination for better management and navigation between windows in the browser. Typing in a URL offers some address bar tricks, if you click the arrow below the URL in the middle, it will reveal a number of commands:
Hands down, this beats Firefox in the Power User category, offering a faster, more intelligent browsing experience. It also lessens the repetitiveness of common takes that users often do in the browser. One thing would have made this feature even more friendly and powerful, an actual command key to reveal the commands, instead of shifting between the keyboard and mouse.
Changes such as a single Favourites button, chrome based skin with a flatter appearance and removal of the Tools and Feeds menu (but changes back to Feeds when browsing), now pushed under the chevron. Taking the spotlight are Web Slices, Read Mail and Safety.
The search fields features new convenience improvements to its search facilities, providing more detailed options when text is typed in. For instance, based on your search history, a list of Search option links are listed by the Search Engine of choice. Type in ĎMariah Careyí and you will see a number of query filters, which could range from lyrics, thriller, songs, soundboard, news, jokes or popular topics. Search suggestions can also be populated based on your history. I also love the new Search on the fly option which allows you to quickly change Search engines based on your query. I use Wikipedia a lot, itís very cumbersome having to type in the query through Google, search for it then open Wikipedia. With this feature, you are take immediacy to the source, which is sure to be a hit with those who want a more detailed browsing experience with better results.
Integration with Windows Live would of course be a must. You can see of this already through the Search Field, but version 8 takes it a little further by integrating it deep into other parts of the browser, such as the Contextual menus, for instance, right clicking a link gives you a choice of options such as blogging with Windows Live Spaces, email with Live Mail or Translate through Windows Live. Highlighted text on a page adds additional options such as Searching through your Default search engine define with Encarta and even search through Live Maps. Users familiar with Smart Tags in Microsoft Office might also find the Accelerator menu share some distant similarities; it gives you additional options for finding and management of these extensions. It ultimately eliminates the mundane task of copying text back and forth between web pages. Another unique addition in IE 8 is Web Slices which allow for sections of a web page to be subscribed, stored and monitored from the Favourites Bar. The success of Web Slices will ultimately depend on how many web pages out there decide to support it. Itís a neat idea though that promises to make information obtained from the Internet more personalized.
Microsoft has not forgotten about improved performance and compatibility. The browser definitely feels snappier, using IE 8 on a mobile phone connection web pages load considerably faster, it seems like some significant changes have been made to the caching engine itself. The IE 8 Team have noted that considerable improvements have been made to the HTML parse, CSS engine, Jscript runtime and the associated garbage collector. ActiveX permissions are more independent allowing users to define how they run depending on the site.
Version 8 offers a compatibility layer, so that site designed for an older version of the browser will continue functioning as normal. Common problems you might see if a website is not updated to support the latest features in the browser include, out of place menus, images, or text. An integrated contextual button built into the address bar appears next to the Refresh and Stop button refreshes the website and presents it in its original state as if you were browsing in a supported version of the browser, nice! What I notice when you do enable Compatibility mode is, you lose access to some of the new features of the browser.
Internet Explorer 8 is looking like an excellent update, and you are not going to need Windows 7 to experience it, Microsoft has promised to release the browser for Windows XP and Vista users sometime this year. The focus on improving the browsing experience, relevancy and productivity of the Windows Live services, developer flexibility and compatibility in addition to the features that focus on making the browsing experience more secure, personal and not intrusive will surely give users reason to stick with the platform and might even bring some users over from Firefox which I personally have had problems with in the memory resource department.
The same bundled games from Windows Vista are in 7 along with three old classics, Internet Backgammon, Internet Checkers and Internet Spades. I donít know if games that were offered as a part of Windows Ultimate Extras such as Texas Hold ĎEm and Tinker will be carried over in the upgrade process. I would love to see a return and native support for Pin Ball. The Games Explorer itself has been updated with an improved preview explorer that features Rating and Performance tab.
Direct3D 11 extends the functionality of the Direct3D 10 pipeline and provides Windows 7 games and high-end 3D applications with efficient, robust, scalable access to the upcoming generation of GPUs and multi-core CPUs. In addition the functionality found in Direct3D 10, Direct3D 11 introduces several new features. Geometry and high-order surfaces can now be tessellated to support scalable, dynamic content in patch and subdivision surface representations.
To make good use of the parallel processing power available from multiple CPU cores, multithreading increases the number of potential rendering calls per frame by distributing the application, runtime and driver calls across multiple cores. In addition, resource creation and management has been optimized for multithreaded use, enabling more efficient dynamic texture management for streaming.
New general-purpose compute shaders have been created for Direct3D 11 Unlike existing shaders, these are extensions to the programmable pipeline that enable your application to do more work completely on the GPU, independent of the CPU. DrawAuto, which was introduced in Direct3D 10, has been extended to interact with a compute shader.
What are most notable are the considerable improvements to how security is handled. The controversial User Account Control utility is more controlled. Persons familiar with it in Vista resorted to disabling the feature out of nuisance. I expressed my views about it in our ActiveWin Vista review. Windows 7 takes a more passive experience with UAC; the most notable is when a system component or application triggers UAC it does not block out the screen. UAC also gives the user more information about why does what it does. For instance, an application is shown which part of the system it needs to access or write to. UAC is still annoying, but itís not in your face. In Action Center, which now replaces Windows Security Centre and Problem Reports and Solutions, a new setting called User Account Control settings provides users the option of controlling how they are notified of potential changes to the system. Similar to Windows Internet Explorers ĎSecurity level for this zoneí setting, users have a choice between Never and Always Notify.
Never Notify is the most drastic option and is pretty much similar to turning of UAC all together. I donít think you want to choose this option because UAC still has a place in Windows, just that it needs to be more intelligent. For this there are more flexible options, there is the option to only be notified when programs attempt to make change to the system, but exclude user initiated actions. It kind of defeats the original premise of UAC protecting novice users from themselves, but for those who are novices and experts who find UAC in its current state too intrusive should find this to be the right balance. Two other options, ĎAlways Notify Meí, notifies the user, but does not wait on a response from the user, which the obvious ĎAlways notify me and wait for my responseí does.
Overall, I consider this to be progress; users finally have choice on this critical area of the system. Its clear Microsoft is listening and users should feel more confident with changes they make to UAC. In Vista there is this nagging paranoia even for those who willingly turn it off. Itís all about choice and confidence.
If its one thing Windows Vista was known for it was security, some would say too much of it actually. Features like Kernel Patch Protection, Service Hardening, DEP, ASLR and the controversial UAC all made up a complete security experience in Windows Vista. Windows 7 is about improving the usability aspects of these fundamental features. Windows Defender is now integrated into to Action Center. This provides a consistent way of alerting users when action is needed. The overall scanning experience has been improved for spyware and checking for updates. Scrollbars were removed in the configuration settings screen and Software Explorer feature has also been removed because itís not integral to spyware detection and removal. Real time protection in Windows 7 is improved to provide continuous monitoring while reducing the impact on overall system performance.
Action Center is an improved applet in Control Panel, formerly Problem Reports and Solution, Security Centre and Maintenance Program group combined into one location. Within Action Center the health of your Windows 7 system is monitored, from fundamentals like Security Center, Problem Reports and Solutions, Windows Defender, Windows Update, Diagnostics, Network Access Protection, Backup and Restore, Recovery and User Account Control. When your attention is needed, an icon represented by a Flag appears in the notification area where you can find out more information. You have the option of directly addressing the issue or go immediately to the Action Center for additional details or you can leave it until you are ready.
Microsoft has made ongoing improvements to how you troubleshoot, maintain and protect your computer. Microsoft introduced System Restore in Windows ME which was unreliable but had good intentions; it has improved over the years. For backup in Windows 7, the restoration process is a little more palatable, you can now restore individual files, selected folders or all your personal files. You can even reimage or restore your entire PC from a recent backup in the event of a hard drive failure or presence of malicious software. System Restore in Windows 7 is even more reliable, predictable and effective. You can now see a list of programs that will be removed or added, providing you with more information on which restore point to choose. System restore points are also available in your backups, giving you a larger list of restore points to choose from and over a longer period of time.
Windows 7 includes a new trouble shooting utility called Windows Troubleshooting which diagnoses and resolves common operating system and hardware issues, providing built-in trouble-shooters for several different types of problems. Whether its power management, performance, programs, networking or printers just to name a few. Some trouble-shooters that come with Windows 7 automatically run in the background, on a scheduled basis. If they discover a problem they will let you know in the Action Center. Examples of such scheduled maintenance tasks include cleaning up temporary files, detecting hard disk errors, removing broken shortcuts, and ensuring the system time is correct.
Microsoft has noted that Windows 7 builds on the foundation of Windows Vista/Server 2008 SP1, the NT Kernel version remains at 6.x to maintain compatibility with certain applications and device drivers that are hard coded to check for this specific numeral. Microsoft has promised to make Windows 7 available in both 32 and 64 bit platforms. There were a few minor hiccups, but overall, Windows 7 handles application compatibility very well. Some programs still prompt UAC when their executables were launched. The guarantee on compatibility will not be complete, a lot of the applications I tested are fairly new and some you just expect to work like Office 2003 for instance. One in particular I just have to point out is Adobe though, what in heavens name are you doing with those program hard code checking them that they act like idiots when you try install them on a brand new version of Windows? If this tactic is to get Windows users to upgrade to Creative Suite 5 when the time arrives, please get your head out of the toilet Adobe and I would apply the same to Autodesk.
Not much has changed in Windows 7 with the exception of support for Network backups and realtime preview of backup progress within the Backup and Restore Center shell. Updating your computer and Windows is an important ritual for everyone, especially in a connected world. Windows Update first made its debut in Windows with the release of Windows 98 and has been included in every version of Windows since. Windows Update has been a handy resource for getting the latest updates for the operating system, your PC and devices; it has taken on new capabilities such as support for Microsoft Office and other Microsoft software programs. With the release of Vista, Microsoft removed Windows Update from the web browser to its own dedicated Explorer shell built into the OS which provides a centralized location to manage, download and review your update history offline. It features tight integration with Programs and Features giving you the option of easily removing installed updates.
In Windows 7, there are some slight changes, mostly visual, the main Windows Update page, displays a large yellow banner with information such as the amount of available updates and the total size of updates which is new. You can immediately review and download the most important updates or select only optional updates to install from the main page. You have the option also in Change Settings to allow standard users to install updates which is something I am glad to see. Windows 7 Ultimate users will notice that there is something missing in this area - Windows Ultimate Extras. Microsoft has confirmed that Ultimate Extras will not be returning in this release. There is no word of whether they will be a core part of the OS new theming capabilities or optional downloads from Microsoft or third parties.
An improvement to selecting updates has been added, Windows Update now categories important versus optional updates. Important updates can be defined as critical whether it be an update that protects your computer from vulnerabilities, adds stability or functionality while Optional Updates provide features that are not critical. On the left, you will find a quick details pane which provides information about the update such as associated application or component in addition to links with more information. These changes are not significant, but they do make the maintenance of your computer less of a chore while adding flexibility to an already core set of experiences.
Windows 7 is shaping up to be a solid release that users of both Windows XP and (I am confident enough to say) Windows Vista should definitely consider upgrading to. Windows 7 builds on the fundamentals of Vista; the interface is richer with more innovation. The new Taskbar is radical but friendly, new functionality like Search federation creates deeper connections with web services while fully taking advantage of familiar facilities built into Windows. Compatibility is pretty much intact and the OS feelís snappy running the few applications I have tried so far. Improvements to power management, faster boot time, make Windows 7 worthy its praise. When coupled with Windows Live Essentialís, the OS further shines. This is just a first look, so stay tuned active for additional feature focuses as Microsoft heads to RTM with this major release of Windows!