Look and feel
When you get RC1 in your hands, it's not going to feel drastically different than the previous beta. There are UI tweaks and tucks, and some functionality added, but mostly it's more of the same -- which is to say a really cleaned up, streamlined, nicer looking version of Vista. One thing we can say for sure is that it felt snappier and less buggy than the earlier versions (duh), and it's clear that Microsoft has taken a lot of the feedback it's gotten to heart. RC1 shows off definite attention to detail; things like the jump lists are now stacked with options, and since new applications won't auto-add to the taskbar, they hang out in the Start menu for a little while. We're talking the kind of little adjustments that don't immediately stand out, but you find yourself turning to all the time.
Strangely, though, the most interesting new component here might just be some of the wallpaper the company is including with this release: colorful, artsy, psychedelic... pretty much like nothing you've ever seen from Microsoft in its flagship software. Combined with the slightly more polished UI, you get the distinct impression that Redmond's gotten a jolt of new blood -- if not in staff, then certainly in mindset.
Remote Media Streaming
Microsoft is super jazzed about the new media sharing options in 7. Specifically, a little ditty it's calling Remote Media Streaming. The premise here is simple: associate your computers (say, home and laptop) using a Windows Live login, and you can connect to your home system while on the road with little to no difficulty. Unfortunately, it requires a little hunting around in Windows Media Player and a software download to really get the thing working right, and right now (during the RC phase), Microsoft is only using Windows Live IDs to connect. Still, it's further proof that the company is really making an effort to show off an integrated experience... and that the experience actually is getting more integrated.
Windows XP emulation
Sure, there's a lot of noise about this right now, but as has been previously speculated on, unless you're an enterprise user, Microsoft didn't really intend this feature for you. There are two main things worth noting: firstly, if you happen to have a full release license for XP that you haven't used for some reason, you can hit this up on your rig no matter what level of Windows 7 you've got. Second, again: this isn't at all intended for you. Basically, the XP emulation is really there to help coax businesses over to 7 who've been reluctant to touch Vista -- Microsoft really don't want you trying to recreate your 2002 PC experience on it. We're not going to say we agree with this line of thinking -- if the company really wanted to entice a wider audience with Windows 7, it would not only include XP virtualization with all versions (sans license), but tout the feature heavily, just like Apple did with Classic.
One thing that became clear when we were talking to reps is that the Starter Edition (which we've been hearing will be loaded onto most netbooks) isn't the end of the road for low-end users. Apparently, it's not so much of a power issue as a money issue that cheaper systems will have the 3-apps-at-a-time-only version of the OS. Because Redmond is still doing its "in-place" upgrades, you can boost your crappy, neutered OS to your heart's content... for a price. In fact, Microsoft says that Windows 7 scales lower and higher much better than Vista, and felt confident that if you wanted to load up Ultimate on a netbook, you'd be just fine (to some degree -- the people we talked to did expect that you'd max out the memory pretty quickly). Just in case you're wondering about the base specs, it's a 1GHz x86 CPU, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of available hard drive space, and a DirectX 9 graphics device.
This is probably mostly pre-launch hyperbole, but the reps we spoke with claim that the big M's partners have never been so excited about a release in all their lives. That's probably due more to the fact that all the hardware and software they've designed to be Vista compatible will get a second chance with the launch of 7, but it's also possible that they're legitimately happy to see Microsoft coming out of the gate with a positively revamped OS. Regardless, a strong showing with its new OS means lots of green for Microsoft and its friends -- so why shouldn't they be happy?
Microsoft is obviously still tight lipped about an official release for 7, but during our chat with the company, they seemed particularly excited about being "ahead of schedule" on the software, and gave us more than just a small wink that this may slide in under the January 2010 anniversary of Vista.
The mood at Microsoft seems (understandably) high about this release. It's clear that lots of folks see this as the big, shiny band-aid for many of the Vista woes that people have been experiencing -- and in many ways, that's exactly what it is. If you're at all curious about what Microsoft has been up to, you should absolutely grab this install and take it for a spin (when you can); there is a metric ton going on here, and it's certainly worth taking a second look at. Bottom line, though? This is still Windows, and it's still got a lot of Vista in it. If you weren't feeling it the first time around, there may not be enough here to convince you otherwise. However, this is a valiant effort from Microsoft and it shows that the company does understand it's burned some bridges throughout the last three years -- this is a big step for them both in technique and tone, and that's certainly not lost on us.