Microsoft Windows 7 - First Look

Microsoft has released the Windows 7 beta allowing anyone to get a hands-on with the company's latest Operating System, before it officially launches later this year. But with the download at 2.4GB, plenty of reported issues, and the mere fact that it's not the finished product, should you bother? We've done just that to find out for you.

Taking about an hour to download, getting the OS is simple. All you have to do is give an email address, some details and jot down the product registration key. Once you've got the download on your desktop you have two options - either burn the collection of files you've got to a DVD disc or to a USB flash drive. We happened to be testing a new 16GB Mobile Ultra microSDHC card from SanDisk so opted for the latter.

Before you start the install you it's worth bearing in mind that you have to be running Windows Vista with Service Pack 1 installed. Failure to do so means you'll only get so far with the install before it asks you to do so - annoying. Upgrading from XP therefore could take you some time - like the whole evening as it did with us. XP to Vista to Vista SP1 (a lengthy download) and then Windows 7 beta. That said, those who are already at the Vista SP1 stage - it will take you about 45 minutes from clicking on the setup.exe file.

So you've ticked all the boxes, pressed yes to the reboots and now looking at a shiny new Windows 7 desktop. Well not so fast. Not everything is supported, since the upgrade we've personally lost our Ethernet controller and wireless controller on our clapped out Tiny laptop (we told you it was clapped out). Admittedly it's an old AMD Athlon 64 Processor 3700+ 798MHz processor and 1GB of RAM, slower than your average netbook, but they both worked under Vista so it's frustrating they don't work here. Plugging in a Belkin Wireless USB card lying around the office worked a treat though.

To be fair Windows 7 did warn us that the connectivity hardware in our machine wasn't going to work, but it's still something to bear in mind that your hardware might not be totally up to the job.

So what's new, what's groovy and is it worth all the hassle? This being Windows 7, here are the seven big things (see what we've done there?) that make Windows 7 worth checking out.

1. Taskbar and Jump menus
Forget all the background stuff that makes it go faster, you want new features that make day-to-day use easier. Microsoft's answer to that is the new look taskbar. Taking inspiration from Apple, application windows are now icons that house all the application's windows. Windows jump out from a single icon rather than you having 30 odd application windows sitting in the taskbar all at once. It's organisation overload. Open a new app and the icon appears with subsequent windows of that app sitting within it. It's like the tabs on a browser window. Really simple, but really effective. Now add to that something Microsoft is calling a Jump menu and you get shortcuts to your most popular files or pages within that application like documents or websites all at the press of the right button. Very clever.

2. Widgets
Another Apple inspired feature that builds on the company's sidebar feature found in Vista. Now, instead of the widgets being confined to a limited section of your desktop, you can dump them wherever you want just like Dashboard in Apple OSX. The plus however, is that unlike Apple's Dashboard feature that's in a parallel desktop, these are right there be to interacted with all the time. The widgets are all interactive, all easy to change and manipulate, and can, as we've seen previously in Vista, be useful. What's even more interesting is that they don't seem to suffer from the problem we found in Vista, i.e., making our PC grind to a halt.

3. Speed
There is no denying that Vista was a tortoise when it came to performance. Slow as anything, it required big powerful machines to get the most out of all those graphical features. Not so for Windows 7. Microsoft has managed to optimise the code, speed up the processing capabilities and even eek more battery life out of your laptop for you. We installed Windows 7, as we've mentioned, on the 5 year-old laptop that struggled with Vista, so much so we had reverted back to XP. Here Windows 7 flies. Boot up is quick. Apps load virtually instantly and all in all we are impressed. Maybe the old girl's got some life in her after all. But more importantly for you, it means when it comes to installing it on your netbook, you shouldn't have any problems whatsoever.

4. Action centre
It sounds like a government agency or a department Jack Bauer would work for, but unfortunately it's not that exciting. The fact that it's there shows that Microsoft users need to take action to keep their PC on the straight and narrow. According to the Redmond based company: "When Windows needs your attention, you see a new icon in the notification area" so you can find out more. Sounds ominous and that's because it is. Think nagging partner and you're on the right track. "You haven't backed up in a while!", "You need protection!", blah, blah, blah. Of course like a nagging partner they need to be followed if you're going to avoid falling out and luckily it will recommend solutions for you, be it sending you to a page detailing antivirus solutions or driver updates.

5. Graphics, themes and screen resizing
Did we mention shiny and Mac already? Oh we did, let's mention them again. That's right Windows fans, get ready to start using something a little more Mac like. Shimmering see-through windows and menu bars, swishy icons with gloss and shadow effects, even new themes to customise your desktop at a press of a button. The screen-resizing feature that allows you to quickly resize windows on the desktop is a nice touch as is making everything see-through so you can see the desktop by moving your mouse to the bottom right-hand corner. Expose any one?

6. Device management
Plug in any device and the new device manager will now show you what's connected so you can see if it's working correctly at the press of a button. Bundled into a single window you can see all devices and printers connected. It's simple and effective with Microsoft also trying hard to improve the plethora of control panel options available to you. It's still not as simple as the Mac's System Preferences pane, but it's certainly easier than the previous outing. Oh and did we tell you Microsoft has made an effort with the icons?

7. IE8
A new OS, means a new version of Internet Explorer for the European Union quangos to get all uptight about. Here you get version 8 (confusing we know) to get you onto the Internet. Surprising as it may sound, it's actually a pleasant experience. So far we've yet to download Firefox or Chrome, something that is normally always a first point of call and we've been using Windows 7 for a while now. There are improvements to the address bar, search, tabs, and favourites, with Web slices allowing you to cut a small part of any website to view without loading the whole sight (similar to a feature in Apple's Dashboard).

Verdict

So what's the verdict in our First Look with the Windows 7 Beta? Very good, very good indeed. The operating system is faster and cleaner than Windows Vista ever was and there are some really nice features too.

It's the OS upgrade that should have come after XP, rather than forcing us to live with Vista for what seems like a long time.

In fairness it probably helps that my main machine runs Mac OS rather than XP as there are so many features similar or alluding to Apple here that I could easily see myself using Windows 7 a lot more. I will certainly look to dual boot it when the final version comes out.

So should you bother with the download? If your machine isn't mission critical, you're prepared to get the odd bug, crash or annoyance and most likely to upgrade when it comes out later in the year, then yes. If you're unsure, or not ready to have your machine go desperately wrong at what's bound to be the wrong moment, we would hold off for the time being.

Overall though it's a definite thumbs up.

UPDATE: Since writing this review Microsoft has announced the Windows 7 operating system has now gone into Release Candidate stage. The new version, which is virtually identical to the beta fixes a number of bugs and improves stability. It also removes a couple of features such as guest login, while adding support for Remote Media Streaming. The core elements of the operating system and therefore this First Look remain the same. We will be reviewing the final version when Windows 7 hits the shops later this year.


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