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Microsoft Windows 7 – Single License


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Microsoft Windows 7

What if a new version of Windows didn’t try to dazzle you? What if, instead, it tried to disappear except when you needed it? Such an operating system would dispense with glitzy effects in favor of low-key, useful new features. Rather than pelting you with alerts, warnings, and requests, it would try to stay out of your face. And if any bundled applications weren’t essential, it would dump ’em.

 It’s not a what-if scenario. Windows 7, set to arrive on new PCs and as a shrinkwrapped upgrade on October 22, has a minimalist feel and attempts to fix an­­noyances old and new. In contrast, Windows Vista offered a flashy new interface, but its poor performance, compatibility gotchas, and lack of compelling features made some folks regret upgrading and others refuse to leave Windows XP.

Windows 7 is hardly flawless. Some features feel unfinished; others won’t realize their potential without heavy lifting by third parties. And some long-standing annoyances remain intact. But overall, the final shipping version I test-drove appears to be the worthy successor to Windows XP that Vista never was.

Microsoft’s release of Windows 7 also roughly coincides with Apple’s release of its new Snow Leopard; for a visual comparison of the two operating systems, see our slideshow “Snow Leopard Versus Windows 7.” Of course, an OS can’t be a winner if it turns a zippy PC into a slowpoke or causes installation nightmares. Consult “Windows 7 Performance Tests” for Windows 7 performance test results, and “How to Upgrade to Windows 7” for hands-on advice on the best way to install it. Read on here for an in-depth look at how Microsoft has changed its OS–mostly for the better–in Windows 7

 Interface: The New Taskmaster

The Windows experience occurs mainly in its Taskbar–especially in the Start menu and System Tray. Vista gave the Start menu a welcome redesign; in Windows 7, the Taskbar and the System Tray get a thorough makeover.

Windows 7’s revamped Taskbar introduces several new features and gives users much more control over how it looks.

The new Taskbar replaces the old small icons and text labels for running apps with larger, unlabeled icons. If you can keep the icons straight, the new design painlessly reduces Taskbar clutter. If you don’t like it, you can shrink the icons and/or bring the labels back.

In the past, you could get one-click access to programs by dragging their icons to the Quick Launch toolbar. Windows 7 eliminates Quick Launch and folds its capabilities into the Taskbar. Drag an app’s icon from the Start menu or desktop to the Taskbar, and Windows will pin it there, so you can launch the program without rummaging around in the Start menu. You can also organize icons in the Taskbar by moving them to new positions.

To indicate that a particular application on the Taskbar is running, Windows draws a subtle box around its icon–so subtle, in fact, that figuring out whether the app is running can take a moment, especially if its icon sits between two icons for running apps.

 File Management: The Library System

Compared to the Taskbar and the System Tray, Explorer hasn’t changed much in Windows 7. However, its left pane does sport two new ways to get at your files: Libraries and HomeGroups.

Libraries could just as appropriately have been called File Cabinets, since they let you collect related folders in one place. By default, you get Libraries labeled Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos, each of which initially di­­rects you to the OS’s standard folders for storing the named items–such as My Pictures and Public Pictures

HomeGroups, Swee HomeGroups? Closely related to Libraries are HomeGroups, a new feature designed to simplify the notoriously tricky process of networking Windows PCs. Machines that are part of one HomeGroup can selectively grant each other read or read/write access to their Libraries and to the folders they contain, so you can perform such mundane but important tasks as providing your spouse with ac­­cess to a folderful of tax documents on your computer. HomeGroups can also stream media, enabling you to pipe music or a movie off the desktop in the den onto your notebook in the living room. And they let you share a printer connected to one PC with all the other computers in the HomeGroup, a useful feature if you can’t connect the printer directly to the network.

HomeGroups aren’t a bad idea, but Windows 7’s implementation seems half-baked. HomeGroups are password-protected, but rather than inviting you to specify a password of your choice during initial setup, Windows assigns you one consisting of ten characters of alphanumeric gibberish and instructs you to write it down so you won’t forget it. To be fair, passwords made up of random characters provide excellent security, and the only time you need the password is when you first connect a new PC to a HomeGroup. But it’s still a tad peculiar that you can’t specify a password you’ll remember during setup–you can do that only after the fact, in a different part of the OS. More annoying and limiting: HomeGroups won’t work unless all of the PCs in question are running Windows 7, a scenario that won’t be typical anytime soon. A version that also worked on XP, Vista, and Mac systems would have been cooler.

Federated Search, a new Windows Explorer feature, feels incomplete, too. It uses the Open­Search standard to give Win 7’s search “connectors” for external sources. That capability allows you to search sites such as Flickr and YouTube from within Explorer. Pretty neat–except that Windows 7 doesn’t come with any of the connectors you’d need to add these sources, nor with any way of finding them. (They are available on the Web, though. Use a search engine to track them down.)

Security: UAC Gets Tolerable

Speaking of annoying Windows features, let’s talk about User Account Control–the Windows Vista security element that was a poster child for everything that rankled people about that OS. UAC aimed to prevent rogue software from tampering with your PC by endlessly prompting you to approve running applications or changing settings. The experience was so grating that many users preferred to turn UAC off and take their chances with Internet attackers. Those who left it active risked slipping into the habit of incautiously clicking through every prompt, defeating whatever value the feature might have had.

Whereas Vista’s notorious User Account Control gave users no control over the feature other than to turn it off, Windows 7’s version of UAC lets users choose from two intermediate notification levels between ‘Always notify’ and ‘Never notify’.

Windows 7 gives you control over UAC, in the form of a slider containing four security settings. As before, you can accept the full-blown UAC or elect to disable it. But you can also tell UAC to notify you only when software changes Windows settings, not when you’re tweaking them yourself. And you can instruct it not to perform the abrupt screen-dimming effect that Vista’s version uses to grab your attention.

If Microsoft had its druthers, all Windows 7 users would use UAC in full-tilt mode: The slider that you use to ratchet back its severity advises you not to do so if you routinely install new software or visit unfamiliar sites, and it warns that disabling the dimming effect is “Not recommended.” Speak for yourself, Redmond: I have every intention of recommending the intermediate settings to most people who ask me for advice, since those settings retain most of UAC’s theoretical value without driving users bonkers.

Other than salvaging UAC, Microsoft has made relatively few significant changes to Windows 7’s security system. One meaningful improvement: BitLocker, the drive-encryption tool included only in Windows 7 Ultimate and the corporate-oriented Windows 7 Enterprise, lets you en­­crypt USB drives and hard disks, courtesy of a feature called BitLocker to Go. It’s one of the few good reasons to prefer Win 7 Ultimate to Home Premium or Professional.

Internet Explorer 8, Windows 7’s de­­fault browser, includes many security-related enhancements, including a new SmartScreen Filter (which blocks dangerous Web sites) and InPrivate Browsing (which permits you to use IE without leaving traces of where you’ve been or what you’ve done). Of course, IE 8 is equally at home in XP and Vista–and it’s free–so it doesn’t constitute a reason to upgrade to Windows 7.

Applications: The Fewer the Merrier

Here’s a startling indication of how different an upgrade Windows 7 is: Rather than larding it up with new applications, Microsoft eliminated three nonessential programs: Windows Mail (née Outlook Express), Windows Movie Maker (which premiered in Windows Me), and Windows Photo Gallery.

Users who don’t want to give them up can find all three at live.windows.com as free Windows Live Essentials downloads. They may even come with your new PC, courtesy of deals Microsoft is striking with PC manufacturers. But since they are no longer tied to the leisurely release schedules of Windows, they are far less likely than most bundled Windows apps to remain mired in­­definitely in an underachieving state.

Still present–and nicely spruced up–are the operating system’s two applications for consuming audio and video, Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center. Windows Media Player 12 has a revised interface that divides operations into a Library view for media management and a Now Playing view for listening and watching stuff. Minimize the player into the Taskbar, and you get mini­player controls and a Jump List, both of which let you control background music without having to leave the app you’re in. Microsoft has added support for several media types that Media Player 11 didn’t support, including AAC audio and H.264 video–the formats it needs to play unprotected music and movies from Apple’s iTunes Store.

Media Center–not part of the bargain-basement Windows 7 Starter Edition–remains most useful if you have a PC configured with a TV tuner card and you use your computer to record TV shows à la TiVo. Among its enhancements are a better program guide and support for more tuners.

The Backup and Restore Center in Windows 7 gives users greater specificity in selecting files to back up than Vista did, but most versions of Win 7 can’t back up to a network drive.

Windows Vista’s oddly underpowered Backup and Restore Center let users specify particular types of files to back up (such as ‘Music’ and ‘Documents’) but not specific files or folders. Though Microsoft corrects that deficiency in Windows 7, it deprives Windows 7 Starter Edition and Home Premium of the ability to back up to a network drive. That feels chintzy, like a car company cutting back on an economy sedan’s airbags. It also continues the company’s long streak of issuing versions of Windows that lack a truly satisfying backup utility.

The new version of Paint has Office 2007’s Ribbon toolbar and adds various prefabricated geometric shapes and a few natural-media tools, such as a watercolor brush. But my regimen for preparing a new Windows PC for use will still include installing the impressive free image editor Paint.Net.

The nearest thing Windows 7 has to a major new application has the intriguing moniker Windows XP Mode. It’s not a way to make Windows 7 look like XP–you can do that with the Windows Classic theme–but rather a way to let it run XP programs that are otherwise incompatible with Win 7. Unfortunately, only Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate offer it, and even then it comes as an optional 350MB download that requires you to have Microsoft’s free Virtual PC software installed and that only works on PCs with Intel or AMD virtualization technology enabled in the BIOS.

Once active, XP Mode lets Windows 7 run apps that supposedly aren’t compatible by launching them in separate windows that contain a virtualized version of XP. Microsoft clearly means for the mode to serve as a security blanket for business types who rely on ancient, often proprietary programs that may never be rewritten for current OSs.

Device Management: Setting the Stage

Windows 7 offers you numerous ways to connect your PC to everything from tiny flash drives to hulking networked laser printers–USB, Wi-Fi, ethernet, slots, and more. Devices and Printers, a new section of the Control Panel, represents connected gadgets with the largest icons I’ve ever seen in an operating system. (When possible, they’re 3D renderings of the device; the one for Sansa’s Clip MP3 player is almost life-size.)

More important, the OS introduces Device Stages–hardware-wrangling dashboards tailored to specific items of hardware, and designed by their manufacturers in collaboration with Micro­soft. A Device Stage for a digital camera, for instance, may include a battery gauge, a shortcut to Windows’ image-downloading tools, and links to online resources such as manuals, support sites, and the manufacturer’s accessory store.

 

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