Windows 7 Beta launched to the public, via download.microsoft.com, and I installed it on a Dell’s superb Studio Hybrid PC – that’s exactly the sort of stylish, miniature computer Microsoft wants users to have in their living rooms, at the centre of the much-vaunted “digital home”.
The installation process took over an hour, but once up and running Windows 7’s advantages were impressive. Gathering information from 168,941 user files, settings and “programs” was time consuming for the automated installer, and so was expanding 2340mb worth of files. Google’s new Chrome browser installs in seconds, and while that is not an operating system, Microsoft will be aware that everybody’s impatient for their computers to be faster in all respects. However, at least the process was clearly saying what it was doing, and made it obvious that it hadn’t in fact crashed midway through.
Homegroups and touchscreens
Essentially, this is the operating system Vista should have been – it starts up relatively quickly, drivers already exist to make peripherals such as scanners and printers work with it, and it does clever things that XP, the version of Windows most people still use, just doesn’t.
The two facets that are at the heart of that are based around the “Homegroup”, and new ways of inputting and viewing information. The Homegroup means that you can group together a number of things, from MP3 players to other computers, and so as soon as you join a network, you can instantly see everything you’ve seen before. Music, films and files really are available immediately. This idea is certainly not new, but the breakthrough comes in simplifying the sharing process to accommodate the countless videos, digital pictures and albums that people have taken using digital technology. Windows Media Player, too, now supports far more file formats.
The new ways of dealing with information, meanwhile, mean that touchscreens are much better supported – in the future they will need to be – and that forthcoming applications based around combining television and the internet will slot in neatly, too. The same integration applies to online services such as social networking site Facebook, and, for instance, Windows Live with its shared picture galleries.
The icons here are bigger, too, but they don’t look patronising. The idea is that fat fingers should be as useful as the tiny pointer of a mouse. Shaking individual windows can be used to activate certain features, as well, which could be a natural move with a finger on a touchscreen, but not with the mouse.
Vista’s desktop, improved
On many machines, Vista’s desktop quickly seemed to run slowly. Software updates fixed some issues, but at least three computers I’ve used didn’t seem to respond very effectively. Vista separates its gadgets out from the bar that previously occupied the right-hand side of the screen, and consequently feels considerably more friendly. The difference isn’t huge, aesthetically, but functionally it’s significant.
From netbooks to desktops
Another crucial improvement for Windows 7 over Windows Vista is that 7 will run on a range of machines, from low-specification netbooks to high-powered desktops. On our mid-range Studio Hybrid, 7 was certainly more impressive than Vista, although there were the bugs that are acceptable in a test beta version, especially to do with the anti-virus programmes that are currently still very specific to Vista.
Micorosoft say that the operating system will be happy on, for instance, an Asus EeePC. Given that the EeePC sometimes struggles to run its cut-down version of Linux, that’s quite some claim, and I’d be eager to see how true it really is.
Intelligent power management
There are substantial improvements in power management, too, with ports being turned off when they’re not in use, and so this is an operating system that does what it should: unlike Vista, it shuts up, and keeps things going while you, the user, can get on with whatever it is you need to be doing. Batteries will live longer, but the programme learns from your behaviour too. If the display is set to dim after 30 seconds and you move the mouse immediately it does, then you’ll get significantly longer before the computer dims its display again. So there’s time, say, to read something quite lengthy on screen without constant irritation.
But should you really go and download a beta?
Senior people at Microsoft say they’ve been using the current build of Windows 7 on their main machines for a few days now and that there have been no problems. Indeed, it is certainly true that the developer community is making surprisingly positive noises about Windows 7, especially when compared to Vista. So people will be taking the plunge in droves, right?
Geeks will, indeed. But does Windows 7 do anything you need so much it’s worth the risk? The answer is almost certainly no.
It offers impressive connectivity, it looks slick to the (Apple?) core, but, for instance, persuading it to ignore warnings about McAfee’s Security Centre being incompatible with this new version of Windows was difficult and annoying. For some unknown reason, too, web access sometimes just ground to a halt and crashed Internet Explorer. No computer or wifi network is perfect, but a consumer should be able to know that such problems are not in their browser, and with a beta you simply don’t have that kind of certainty.
Microsoft has learnt a lot from Vista. The PR for Windows 7 is already better, and the company, more than in the past, is keen to constantly remind users that Friday’s release is only of a test version. It helps, of course, that in truth Vista is now the operating system it should have been when it launched. People aren’t desperate for an upgrade, as they were in the last days of XP.
What Microsoft has realised primarily, though, is that Windows 7 needs to make everything easier – playing music, joining networks, sharing photos should all feel simpler than they do currently. The good news is that with this beta they already do; if Microsoft can really deliver on that vision in the full release, then Windows 7 should be a formidable programme indeed.