I spent part of my weekend fiddling around with the Windows 7 Beta, and though it took a little getting used to, I’m largely impressed with the quality of the product so far.
Saturday morning I got up around 10:30 AM, realized I had nothing better to do, and so decided I’d try to download the Windows 7 Beta a second time, having failed to get into the initial batch the day before. I was pleased to find out that the limit of 2.5 million downloads had been removed, so I loaded up FireFox, navigated to the Windows 7 website, found the link, went through the registration process, clicked the download link – and nothing. I clicked a few more times just to make sure, and then loaded up Internet Explorer to cover all the bases.
After re-registering and receiving a second (and different, oddly enough) CD Key, I was directed to the download page again. I clicked the button, and instantly understood why FireFox had failed to initiate the download; a warning about installing an ActiveX control popped up at the top of IE.
At this point, I believe I must have sighed audibly. I think it’s great that Microsoft is making strides to correct the problems they’ve had over the years. They’ve been slowly but surely coming around to accepting web standards with Internet Explorer, and they’ve been taking cues from other companies like Google to make more user-friendly and fun websites and software. Kudos to them for that. But after all these small steps toward progress, this was a large leap backward. For everything Microsoft is trying to do to fix their image, it seems completely counter-intuitive to not only force users to use their much-maligned browser, but then impose an ActiveX control on them as well. I almost have to wonder if Microsoft is just willfully ignorant of its many criticisms that have rang out over the years. In any case, I pressed on with the download, only slightly deterred.
Windows 7 Beta is currently being distributed as a DVD image, which you can burn and then use just like an ordinary Windows install disc. The download clocks in at 2.4Gb, so once the installation of the ActiveX download manager was finished, I was looking at a 3 hour download, and thus, 3 hours of waiting. I flicked my monitor into its secondary input mode, fired up my Xbox, and spent some time vanquishing foes in Prince of Persia and traversing the wastelands of Fallout 3. Surprisingly, I was even able to download / stream an episode of Venture Bros. (go Team Venture!) over my Xbox during the download. It was a good time.
In between my game-playing and video-watching, I also got my older computer ready for the beta. The Windows 7 Beta expires on August 1, 2009, so I didn’t want to overwrite my XP install on my primary computer and then be forced to buy Windows 7 later in the year. I also don’t think it’s a great idea to use a beta version of an OS for your regular computing. I backed up my data and cleaned up the older machine.
After the download finished, I burned it to disc and popped it into my old computer. A window appeared, asking me if I wanted to install, and I accepted. Installation of the Windows 7 Beta was quick and painless, and though the machine restarted a few times during the process (this is supposed to happen, apparently), there was no weirdness whatsoever. The initial part of the install has the new OS extracting and unpacking files, and this takes quite a bit of time, so I went out to return a video to Blockbuster and grab myself a late lunch. When I returned, Windows 7 was just about done installing, and had a few questions for me to finish the setup. Once completed, Windows 7 fired up for the first time on my older machine.
I always tend to have a slight feeling of “Now what?” every time I get done installing a new OS, and there was no exception for Windows 7. I spent a few moments gathering my bearings, and then went about checking out all the OS’s newest features the media has been talking about over the last few months.
The revised taskbar in Windows 7 isn’t quite as alien as other sites have made it seem – put simply, it’s the same taskbar you’re used to, but a little bit taller, and a little bit abbreviated. The default settings do away with text descriptions in the taskbar, and instead use only icons for Start Button, quick-launch, and running apps. In previous versions of Windows, you’ve had the option to group similar windows into groups, and Windows 7 takes this a step further – not only does it group windows of the same flavor into one icon, but upon hovering the mouse over this icon, it allows you to view all the grouped windows as thumbnails. You can hover over these to show a full screen preview, and click to restore the window.
Notification icons are also present in their usual place, for security, networking, etc. The system clock retains its position in the lower right corner, but is now next to a special button which will preview the desktop when you hover the mouse over it, and minimize all windows when clicked (the same way the Show Desktop button in Win XP works).
Though I felt that the new taskbar was more visually attractive than previous iterations, I was happy to see that grouping can be disabled and text labels are still available. I might be able to make the jump to the fully new taskbar eventually, but for now I think I’ll make it look like my old XP taskbar, just for the sake of familiarity.
The Start Menu is very similar to the new style menu that made its first appearance in Windows XP – a design I’m not entirely sold on yet, but which is growing on me. With Windows 7, recently accessed programs appear in the main list, a button to access all programs is placed below that, and commonly accessed locations, like My Computer, folders for photos and documents, and Control Panel are all accessible from a list on the right column. The menu also expands to show more options for certain items on the list, which is a cool addition for quickly navigating to more specialized areas of the OS. Like the Taskbar, the Start Menu will take some getting used to for users of older versions of Windows, or who have refused to adapt to the newer versions of it (like me). Nevertheless, I enjoyed the experience with it, and didn’t find it to be too counter-intuitive.
Look ‘n Feel
There’s no doubt that Windows 7 is leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessors in terms of eye candy. The glassy look of Vista’s Aero theme is applied liberally throughout. Windows cast shadows, buttons glow, and shines of light move dynamically across the surface of windows as you move and size them around the screen. Icons are high resolution and look nice and sharp. A handful of themes are available for customizing the OS, and the colors of Aero can be changed to just about any color you want. I was also happy to see that multiple wallpapers can be set up to automatically change out now and then, and that windows animate as you open, close, minimize, and maximize them.
Overall, Windows 7 is a visual feast; so much so that at times I found myself surprised I was even using Windows. For users of Vista, it may not be a huge step up, but for me, an avid XP user, it was a very new experience, and I came off liking most of the changes. There were a few trifling issues here and there, but I’ve never used an OS that I haven’t found graphical faults with, and this is beta software, so I won’t complain much. Windows 7 is much better looking than other versions of Windows, and in my opinion is graphically superior to Mac OS X in some areas. We’ll leave it at that.
Since I’ve not used Windows Vista for more than a few seconds, I don’t know how extensive some of the updates to Windows 7 are, however I do believe that the updated versions of the calculator, MSPaint, and other built-in tools are new to 7. Calculator has been given extra ‘programmer’ and ‘statistics’ modes, and Paint has received a complete redesign, including a new ribbon-based GUI, like MS Office. I’ve not used either extensively yet, but the new features are always welcome.
I’ve installed Windows 7 on the same computer twice now, once on top of a previous install of Windows XP, and once (after a botched attempt at installing Mac OS X on the same hardware) as a fresh install, and both instances were easy and trouble-free. I’ve used the OS for a few hours now, and so far I’ve had only two problems.
The first, which was slightly expected, was that the installation disc didn’t contain drivers for some of my hardware. After all the driver problems Vista had, I expected something far worse, but it seems that Microsoft has ironed out most of the kinks this time around. Unfortunately for me, the drivers I was missing were for my motherboard’s built-in networking and sound.
The sound drivers weren’t all that important, because I have an ancient Soundblaster 16 installed (which strangely, did have drivers). The networking drivers however, were sorely missed, and even after fiddling with drivers downloaded and burned to disc from my primary computer, I could not get the Windows 7 machine connected to my network without installing a newer Ethernet card (a $10 purchase from Fry’s). After installing the new card, the machine connected practically on booting up, and within moments I was online – at which point Windows 7 proceeded to download and install the correct drivers for my onboard networking and audio!
The only other issue I’ve had was one where Internet Explorer began to hang when I tried to open it. I’ve been submitting all the errors I find to Microsoft, however, so hopefully things will be even more smoothed out by the time they decide to launch Windows 7.
In the coming weeks I hope to try out some games and other applications on Windows 7, to test performance and compatibility. I’ll report back on that as I do it.
Altogether, I came away from my initial Windows 7 experience impressed. Sure, there are things that I’m not entirely thrilled about, but I think that even at this early stage, the pros far outweigh the cons. I’ll definitely be interested to see what the coming months bring to Microsoft’s new OS, and I hope that each change is for the better. If you decide to take part in the beta, be sure to submit bug reports and suggestions as you test things; it’ll ensure that we all have a better experience with WIndows 7 in the future!
By the way, I’ll post some screenshots of my system when I get home from work! Done!
Windows 7 image courtesy of Windows 7 Team Blog