Living with Windows 7

Keith’s review of Windows 7 after living with it for almost a month.

So, I’ve been living with my new computer for almost a month now, and that’s given me plenty of time to become familiar with the changes that came with Windows 7.

Previously, I’d only played around with Windows 7 through the betas and release candidates in a virtual machine – which, by its very nature, lacked the power to really let Windows 7 shine.

My new computer, on the other hand, has enough “oomph” to let me turn on all the bells & whistles so I can see how they work and which ones I like. This has allowed me to really get a “feel” for Windows 7 – arguably in an even better way than I did with Vista on my old computer.

So far, I have to say that I am very pleased.

If you’ve read any other Windows 7 reviews, you’ve probably read a lot of praise on how Windows 7 is a great leap forward, it’s so nice, etc.

Well, those people weren’t lying.

Windows 7 is incredibly polished. I’m sort of a details person, so these little details, the “fit & finish” of Windows 7 really impress me.

In any case, let’s get down to the details – in a nice, convenient list format:

  • Multitasking: you need a true multi-core CPU to get the benefits of this, but Windows 7 does a superb job of running lots and lots of programs all at once without any sort of trouble between them. And if one program goes down, you can just kill it and keep on truckin’ – no reboot required.
  • Stability: Windows 7  has so far been incredibly stable for me – and I tend to push my computers hard, so I’m one to know. Of course, part of this is due to the fact that I’m running the 64-bit version, and the 64-bit versions of Windows don’t allow “unsigned” drivers. And since device drivers are often the biggest contributor to instability in Windows, the fact that only “signed” drivers are allowed means that (overall) the quality of drivers is much higher – which means, in turn, that Windows is more stable.
  • UAC: My biggest gripe in Windows Vista was the UAC prompts that would pop up in various places – most annoying to me, personally, was when I tried to drag & drop to re-arrange folders in my start menu (I like to have my start menu nice & neat). If the folder or icon I was dragging & dropping was in the “All users” branch of the start menu, I’d get a UAC prompt when moving it. It was just incredibly annoying. In Windows 7 these prompts come up less often, which makes me very happy!
  • New Task bar: This is one place where I found myself unhappy with the default Windows 7 behavior, which is to show programs in the task bar by icon only (even when the program is open). I like being able to read the title of a window at a glance, without having to mouse over it, so I turned that functionality off. Plus, having the task bar buttons be full-sized with titles helps visually distinguish (even more) between running programs and programs that are just “pinned” to the task bar.
  • Glass Effects: speaking of the task bar, if you hover your mouse over open programs, you’ll see that the sort of glowing colored highlight follows your mouse pointer – as if your mouse pointer were a light shining on the button. On top of that, the color of the highlight is based on the color of the program’s icon… Niiiiiice. It’s little details like this that really impress me.
  • Aero Peek: Though I think the name is a bit pretentious, it is a handy feature. Basically the evolution of the “show desktop” button in that you can just hover over it, and it will make all open Windows 100% transparent so you can see your desktop (any windows that are not full-screen will show a faint outline so you know where they are). Other than that, the button acts just like the old “show desktop” button – click it once to show the desktop, click it again to restore all windows. Simple and easy, but it’s nice to have it permanently attached to the task bar, so you don’t lose it.
  • Libraries: I’m not exaggerating here – I love libraries. I’d been wishing for some sort of functionality like this for years, without even realizing it – or even being able to describe what I wanted. But libraries deliver. Got a folder with some pictures in it, in some strange location on your computer? Just add it to your “Pictures” library and now it’ll show up as if you had copied it into your “My Pictures” folder – but without actually having to copy it there! And since things like Windows Media Center and so on use libraries (rather than specific folders), it makes managing a music & movie collection so much easier!
  • Windows Media Center: The new UI for Windows Media Center is nice, but I didn’t really mind the UI in Vista either, so this doesn’t really impress me that much. It’s nicer, sure, but not enough for me to sing its praises.
  • Windows Media Center Extender Support: OK, so maybe I will sing the praises of the new Media Center UI – at least, as it applies to Windows Media Center Extenders. Because the new UI applies to these little, under-appreciated, under-powered devices. My Media Center Extender (MCE) hasn’t gotten any faster, but it looks nicer and it works more smoothly than it did when it was connected to a Vista computer. So there’s a bonus there.
  • Media Sharing & “Play To”: In addition to having a Media Center Extender, my new TV also supports the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) standard, which means it can connect to my computer and stream media (pictures, videos, music) from my computer. Under Vista, the only way to get this media was to browse for it from the TV – and the UI was a bit clunky and sometimes crashed! With Windows 7 however, the game has changed. Although the UI for browsing media directly from the TV is still clunky and slow, it is much more stable. And if that’s not your cup of tea, you can play media directly from the PC to the TV by right-clicking a file and choosing “Play To” and then selecting the TV (Windows detects any DLNA devices on the network automatically – though they do have to be turned on first!). There is just something deeply, geekily cool about selecting a video on your computer and then hearing it start to play in the other room!
  • Videos link on the Start Menu: It’s a little thing, but it was always very annoying to me that in Vista there was no “Videos” link option on the Start Menu. You had links to Documents, Pictures, and Music – but no Videos! Thankfully, this little oversight has been corrected in Windows 7. Again, it’s the little things that really add up and make Windows 7 such a pleasure to use.
  • Drag and Drop re-arrange of Task bar buttons: I’m not talking about pinned items, but actual task bar buttons for open programs – you can now drag & drop to re-arrange them as you see fit. Previously, you needed a 3rd party program to enable this feature. It’s not a big deal, but it’s nice if you’ve got a lot of windows open and you want them arranged in a certain order.
  • Volume control for multiple audio devices: Although Windows Vista handled volume control pretty well (you could adjust volume on a per-program basis), Windows 7 takes this even further. Now, most people will only ever have 1 audio device – their main sound card – in their computer, but increasingly you find people with secondary sound cards – maybe a USB headset, like I have (for Skype, etc.). When you click the “Volume” icon in the taskbar, it shows the “main” volume control, same as always. But, if you are using a secondary audio device (like, say, you have Skype open and are using your headset), when you click the “Volume” icon you get two volume sliders – one for the main volume, and one for the secondary device. Nice! You can control the volume for each individually – very handy!

So those are the big new things I’m very happy about with Windows 7. Suffice it to say, if you have the opportunity, I highly recommend you upgrade. Believe me – it is well worth it!