Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO, today announced the availability of the Windows 7 beta at CES in Las Vegas, confirming rumours that had been circling the web late last year.

Built on the same kernel as the much maligned Windows Vista, Windows 7 claims to bring a whole host of improvements for PC users, a more intuitive approach to everyday tasks, with faster startup and shutdown times as well as enhanced power management to improve battery life for notebook users.

Changes include a new taskbar, where common applications can be pinned, for quick access to files, and new preview pages without the need to constantly switch windows, and a Snap window resizing feature, so you can quickly view two side-by-side documents without fiddling around.

But the main focus of the Windows 7 announcement today was based around three areas: touch support, Device Stage and Home Group. The new taskbar provides an opportunity for easy touch launch icons to support hardware manufacturers wishing to move in this direction.

Device Stage provides a central area for device management as well as giving manufacturers a framework to provide support, such as ordering new ink cartridges for a printer.

Home Group provides a simple approach to home networking, allowing sharing between a number of computers within a family, for example, to share photos between multiple Windows 7 PCs.

Those interested in getting their hands on the Windows 7 beta will be able to download it from 9 January.