Foreword by Andy VandervellUnless you've been living under a rock for the last few months, you'll have heard that Microsoft is releasing its latest operating system, Windows 7, this month. Plenty has been written about it already, much of it favourable, but before we get into critiquing Microsoft's latest, we thought you'd want to get a basic idea of what's new. We'll be publishing an in-depth performance analysis next week and, of course, an in-depth review on the week of launch. First, however, Stuart Andrews details how Windows 7 differs from its much maligned predecessor, Windows Vista.
Some cynics are already describing it as a glorified service pack. Others, more politely, call it Windows Vista as it should have been. Still, while Windows 7 shares a high proportion of its codebase and much of its look and feel with its not-so-illustrious predecessor, it actually has more to offer than you might think. Sure, it's the most stable and speedy Windows since Windows XP, but it's also packed with features that make it a more usable, more functional and less deeply irritating OS. If, like us, you've been using the Release Candidate over the last few months, you might already be aware of some of these. Even so, have you discovered them all?
Desktop EnhancementsAfter the radical transformations from Windows ME/2000 to XP and from XP to Vista, Windows 7 can seem disappointingly Vista-esque on first impressions. Yet Microsoft has implemented a range of small but useful desktop enhancements that - cumulatively - will have an impact on the way you use it.
The taskbar and the system tray get the lion's share of these improvements. The Start button looks and functions much as it did in Vista, but the Taskbar is now wider than it was in Windows Vista, partly to accommodate the new, icon-based buttons which replace those old, text-based items. Windows belonging to active applications are stacked together by default, and you can see which applications are currently active at a glance, because a shaded glass frame sits over the top. Meanwhile, any application needing attention now pulses gently with a colour chosen to complement and remind you of the icon. Whisper it, but it's all a little bit like the OS X dock. But then, if we're honest, isn't that a good thing?
If there's an application you use regularly, you can also pin its icon to the Taskbar, simply by right-clicking and selecting 'Pin to Taskbar' from the menu.
Here's where things get clever. Hover over an application's icon on the Taskbar and you'll see thumbnail views of the documents or Web pages currently being used within it. Hover over the thumbnail, and all other windows on the screen will go transparent, leaving the window in question still visible (Microsoft calls this 'Aero Peek'). Click on the thumbnail and it becomes the active window. It's a simple idea, but one you'll grow to love.
At the other end of the Taskbar the old system tray - long a dumping ground of icons for every self-important craplet going - has undergone a clean-up. By default you'll see the time and date plus icons for volume control, network access and the new Action Centre, while other applications and applets are relegated to a pop up that appears when you click the arrow to the left. Of course, if you want a less minimalist system tray, you can have one. Click the arrow, click Customize, and you can configure which icons and notifications you want to see.