Perhaps it’s a changing of the tide within the walls of Microsoft, but the decision to allow as many people as demand dictates to download and try a free beta of its next operating system has proven to be a good one.
For two reasons, really. Firstly, it demonstrates an openness that would serve the company well were it to continue. And secondly, Windows 7 is really rather good and a sign of hope for those of us who have grown frustrated with the bloat and fussiness of Windows Vista.
The beta is downloadable from Microsoft’s website for a limited time, and runs through until August, at which point you’ll need to dig out your XP/Vista/Linux discs again. We opted, unwisely as it turned out, to upgrade an existing Vista installation rather than install from new, and paid the price for doing so.
There’s a wise proverb yet to be written about always installing an operating system afresh, and after sitting through three hours of Windows 7′s takeover of our 2GHz test laptop, we were tempted to throw in the towel. Many commentators have noted that the from-fresh installation is really quite brisk, so it was inevitable that we’d do things the hard way.
After that, we did eventually arrive at the Windows 7 log-in screen, a familiar descendant of Vista’s, and were delighted to see that even on a laptop, everything was in place. All of our old programs were compatible, the hardware was working and even the trusty old touchpad was giving us no problems. In short, it was a long yet seamless upgrade. It was really surprising just how much worked.
For things have clearly changed. The boot up time had slightly improved for starters, and – thankfully – the hanging around once the Windows desktop appears, before you can actually do anything meaningful, has also been attacked. This is clearly good news.
The look of the operating system is very much one that shows its Vista heritage: it is still the same core operating system, with some enhancements, until you get down to the taskbar. Here things have changed, with chunkier, double-sized icons following the kind of thinking that Microsoft employed with Office 2007, and Apple utilises with MacOS.
You can dock an application to the taskbar and running programs are displayed here. What’s good, though, is that if you have six or seven Firefox windows running, for example, then they’ll be docked under one icon. Clicking on said icon will then let you choose from all open windows attributed to that program. A neat idea, even if it takes some getting used to.
Also built onto the taskbar by default, on the far right, is a direct-to-desktop button. This was available in XP and Vista, but it just seems in a more logical place now.
Under the bonnet there are many changes too, and the operating system seems a bit friendlier as a result. Little things like changing the labelling of features to more sensible names makes a handy difference.
So what other changes? The gadgets that Vista brought in can now be placed all over the desktop as your heart desires, there’s greater control over user accounts, and the security side of things – arguably a strength of Vista – has been refined too. And then there are little add-ons such as the snipping tool, which allows you to take a grab of an area you select without having to battle through a graphics program to do so.
What impressed us the most about Windows 7 thus far, though, is its stability. Mixed in with a generally faster way of working, there’s real promise here, even if some holdovers from Vista are still a little annoying. This seems to be a strong step in the right direction, and you have to conclude that it’s closer to release than Microsoft is saying, given just how polished it feels.
There’s still time for things to go off in the wrong direction, but right now, Windows 7 is a product of real promise.