We've covered a few tidbits of what the Windows 7 Beta has to offer, including the mess of machines we've installed it on, but we finally gathered together all our thoughts and impressions of the OS into one meaty pile of words and screencaps. Naturally, we're working with a beta here, so things can absolutely get better (or worse), and Redmond might be hiding a feature or two in the wings -- or for the inevitable SP1 -- but we'd say Microsoft has really put its best foot forward here. Check out all our ramblings after the break.
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Windows 7 Beta in-depth


Note: all testing was performed by a real live human blogger, running clean installs of Windows 7 Beta (build 7000) natively on a years old Dell Dimensions 9150 and a brand new Vaio P.

What we love

Installation

It's fast, painless, and usually complication free -- what more could we ask? More here.

Speed improvements
This seems to be the thing people most wanted out of Windows 7, and it certainly seems to deliver. We'd say the benefits are most drastic in seriously underpowered hardware, like netbooks -- which is, of course, exactly where it's most needed. Our Vaio P, for instance, booted in two thirds the time it took with Vista. Naturally, the OS is by no means delay free. We bump into slowdowns all the time, with all sorts of apps, but they seem to happen less often, and Microsoft has done the work of mitigating the traditional "hurry up and wait" aspect of booting up the computer -- if you can see the desktop, you aren't far from making something happen, instead of waiting for 100,000 start-up items to do their thing. We would like to point out that most folks installing Windows 7 might be looking at their first clean install in a while, and the OS is definitely not immune to slow downs as more stuff is installed and more things are going on -- as we type this we're trying to sync a Zune and watching the rest of the OS grind to a halt in the process. Speed gains aren't just at the surface level, either. File transfer times have been improved, especially with SSD.

Stability
It's a beta, so we won't harp on this. We've had a few BSoDs, and a couple of failed installations that we feared would "brick" our computer, but ended up failing gracefully. Overall, a pretty tame experience for a beta, but Windows 7 definitely isn't bug free.

New Taskbar

Ooh, this is a tricky one. We'd say it's most likely going to boil down to a debate between power users and the casual types. It does introduce a certain amount of interface inconsistency to the OS, with non-active applications taking up the same amount of space and sitting right next to running applications, and it means you're an extra click away from switching windows within an app in certain scenarios -- extra windows are buried in a pop-up menu, though you can turn off this functionality. Also, Microsoft has made the odd move of removing any apps that you "pin" as a permanent icon to the taskbar from the frequent items section of the Start Menu -- which will no doubt prove frustrating for people expecting to see their frequented apps in that familiar place.


Certain apps also have "jump lists" that can be accessed by right clicking on the icon, bringing up recent documents, frequent tasks and the like. This kills two birds with one stone, allowing for easier access to more tasks right where they're relevant, and killing off some of the myriad of icons that tend to populate the system tray. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait for developers to catch on -- most of Microsoft's own apps don't even support this functionality yet.


Further cleaning up the system tray is an "Action Center" for listing various nagging warnings -- instead of closing them out and forgetting about them, you just leave them in the Action Center and forget about them.

Peek

Gimmicky? Sure. But it's not everyday that a little gimmick like Peek -- activated by hovering over a button on the bottom right hand corner of the screen, turning all open windows into just their borders -- gives new life to the frequent task of finding the desktop and hunting for windows.


Peek is also activated when you click on an item in the Taskbar with multiple windows open. A pop-up shows large thumbnails of each item, and when you hover over it all windows -- below and above it -- disappear into their borders. Perfect for finding that misplaced dialog box.

Windows Explorer

Microsoft has reworked some things here, reorganized some others, and made sure to put frequent and relevant tasks in an easy to find spot across the top. We won't get into all of it, but overall we'd say things are more intuitive and "pretty."

Windows Media Center
Microsoft hasn't done a ton here, mainly a new, easier setup method and some interface enhancements -- borrowing a bit from Zune in the now playing section. Engadget HD will be looking into this a bit more deeply, so stay tuned.

Window management

They really went overboard on this one, and we're loving it. There are bunches of ways to find, sort and place windows now, some of which include:
  • Shake: grab the title bar and shake vigorously to minimize all other windows.
  • Maximize at top (pictured): drag the title bar to the top of the screen and Windows 7 will try and grab it and maximize it if you let it go in the right spot.
  • Pop to the left, pop to the right: Windows + Left or Right arrow key to maximize the window to that half of the screen.
More fun shortcuts like this can be found here.

Gadgets run free

Microsoft axed that constricting sidebar, now allowing Gadgets to litter the desktop however you choose -- another good excuse for Peek. Unfortunately, some gadgets seem to chafe at this -- we'll have to wait for updates to many of them before they start to look "right" sans sidebar.

Networking

Microsoft's done a lot of work here, and it really shows. They might not be to the point of "it just works" yet, but the HomeGroups functionality actually allows mere mortals, using no magic tricks or slight of hand, to set up their own home network, and merge existing networks -- and actually find and share media, printers and documents! It's a crazy concept, we know, and won't get into all the technicalities -- through a string of bad luck or some broken functionality, it didn't "just work" on our first few tries -- but we were able to go through Microsoft's simple hand-holding process from enough different angles and do-overs to get our PCs talking to each other at last.

Multiple display support

Having set up many a projector in our day, we know the incredibly frustrating task that can be at times. Windows 7 makes it easy -- just tap Windows + P and there's a quick selector menu for choosing to extend, duplicate or isolate the screen to your monitor or the projector.


Microsoft has also improved the general display settings, making it easier to detect and arrange multiple monitors.

Play to device

Speaking of talking to each other, one of our favorite new features is the new "play to device" functionality in Windows Media Player. After you set up device sharing -- which is vaguely but not really related to HomeGroup setup -- you can right click on a song or playlist and blast it out of any device you have set up to receive such blasts. That means an Xbox 360, a Media Center Extender, a family member's PC (they obviously have to approve this functionality at the outset), or whatever other devices support this function in the future. You can also stream music and video out of networked collections in the other direction, but that's way less fun.

Brand new Paint

Aww, it's so pretty!

What we're looking forward to

Device Stage

A pretty neat feature, in theory, Microsoft brings device management straight into the OS -- no longer relegated to a sub-menu of some media player or control panel. Unfortunately, it didn't work with any of the myriad of devices we had laying around -- including the Zune, Samsung's super-basic YP-S2 mass storage player, a PowerShot SD1000 or the very D90 (pictured) that Ballmer has demoed this feature with. If Microsoft won't even drink the Kool-Aid with the Zune, or at least build in default support for mass storage devices and generic cameras, it's hard to see this catching on, but we're sure there will be more happening here at launch. There's a compatibility list here.

Multitouch

We're working on tracking down some gear to give Windows 7 multitouch capabilities the real once over it deserves. Stay tuned! In the meantime, check out this video of multitouch Virtual Earth 3D running on Windows 7 and a HP TouchSmart.

What it still needs

Good software

Sure, this is an incredibly subjective topic, but bear with us. You know that new Peek feature? Well, guess which one single app didn't show its border when we activated Peek: Zune. Sure, it's one of the best looking apps on our whole computer, but it's also incredibly at odds with the majority of our computing experience, and took us a week or so to master back in the day. If Microsoft can't latch onto some sort of consistent usability and interface paradigms, not to mention basic software development guidelines, how can we expect anyone else to? The "sameness" of software on the Mac side might be frustrating, but we'd say the frustration of re-learning how to operate nearly every single application on the Windows side greatly exceeds that. Also, we need some better Twitter apps.

WinFS
We keep making fun little baby steps in this direction -- for instance, the universal search features now built into the operating system makes it much easier and faster find that one particular file, app or function we were looking for -- but we still want the incredible power and promise of WinFS. It's clearly not happening this generation, but that doesn't mean we can't complain about it.

A unified vision
Overall, we get a certain vibe from Windows 7 -- and most Windows releases -- that there are too many cooks in the kitchen. There are too many ways to do the same or similar things, like set up a network, or play music. Sure, it's getting easier to accomplish those tasks, there's the new HomeGroup functionality, a myriad of setup wizards, and the ever-present and intimidating "advanced" setup modes; or the choice between Zune, Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center. Or if you're failing to accomplish something, the OS is all-too-ready to send you to a help page, but you don't get the idea that these groups really talk to each other. They might be "linked" together, but they're not "unified" in purpose. There have been plenty of times when we just had no idea where to begin a task, from the seeming endless options on the left side of the control panel, or when the OS forgot about helping us do the task, and just gave us a link to a help section instead -- even if a wizard would've been the more appropriate way to go. There's no simple solution to all of this, but the older and bigger Windows gets, the more obfuscated certain tasks become -- and that's not a fun trend.

What we hope we never see


Image courtesy of Boing Boing Gadgets

Three hundred different overpriced versions of Windows 7. We know that Microsoft sells its operating system to a lot of different people, and we're aware that some people only need the stuff that's in Vista Basic, while other people Media Center and motion-filled desktop backgrounds, but please, for the love of Bill Gates, don't hit us with Windows 7 Home / Basic / Business / Ultimate / Whatever. Build a smart installer and figure out how to put the right components on the right computers, but stick the OS in one box and sell it for one price. If you have to sell some crazy enterprise thing at an extra cost, so be it, but stop confusing consumers and stop overcharging -- pick a low, flat rate and stick to it.

Wrap-up

We're not sure we necessarily agree with folks who say that Windows 7 is the "Vista that should have been." There are certainly plenty of improvements here that Vista could have benefitted from, and Vista very well might've been released undercooked, but Vista was what it was, and Microsoft has clearly moved on, with new features, a newly refined kernel and a new aim of supporting a wider swath of hardware. And yet, in many other ways, Windows 7 shows where Microsoft's industry dominating OS has hardly changed from its Windows NT heritage -- it doesn't take very many clicks to find the ugly underpinnings of the OS, aspects like the "true" device manager that have hardly received an aesthetic upgrade, not to mention a functionality upgrade, in the past decade.

Overall, Windows 7 is a very good Windows release, and that's going to be plenty for most folks -- but we just wonder how many generations we are away from Microsoft really gutting this OS and finding newer, better paradigms than, say, "windows" and "double click" for interfacing with a desktop computer. Multitouch is certainly part of it, but we're pining for the future, and nobody's delivering it just yet.

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Windows 7 Beta in-depth impressions