Tuesday 13 January 2009

Windows 7 Public Beta

I’m an unapologetic fan of Vista so I’ve been following the whole Windows 7 thing with interest but without feeling a desperate need to get a copy using any means necessary. The whole [very] public Beta appealed to me though so I duly downloaded it yesterday, hacked out a 30GB partition from the system drive of my M1330 (using a GParted Live CD, Windows Vista still can’t reliably shrink a system volume that has been in use for any reasonable length of time) and installed it.

First impressions were pretty underwhelming. I thought the look and feel was a bit flat and didn’t notice anything significant apart from the tweaked Task Bar.

After some digging I found that the installer had left me with a “customized” theme that basically turned off a lot of the UI enhancements. Once I switched to a full Windows 7 Theme it started to look pretty good and then I got digging in earnest and actually found some stuff that I quite liked. Seems like a very nice set of bumped up features at this stage without too many downsides, although this is after just a couple of hours nosing about so I’ll be revisiting this in a week or two to see what I think of it then.

There are some nifty improvements:

  • The new style Taskbar is actually quite nice and seem like a sensible UI improvement. Items on the takbar have more intelligent context menus and Win 7 aware apps display a lot of extra info in both the taskbar icon itself (e.g download progress in IE, Presence status info in Messenger) and awareness of tabs within the mouseover previews.
  • The “mouse over the end of the taskbar to temporarily display the desktop” trick is simple but useful and effective.
  • “Sidebar” is gone but gadgets now have a proper place to live – on the desktop, shich is conveniently now easy to get a quick look at.
  • There seem to be quite a few extra “Windows Key + X” shortcuts - Win+P brings up a tab ribbon for handling connectivity to a projector, Win+Arrow keys tell the current window to maximise,minimise,dock to the left or dock to the right. Win+G brings all the Gadgets temporarily to the foreground. Win+T cycles through the Taskbar items. Things like Win+E (Explorer), Win+D (Desktop), Win+F (Find), Win+R (Run) remain as useful as ever.
  • Powershell V2 is included by default ( finally )
  • There’s quite a nice quick shortcut in the Start Menu that directly brings you to a new “Devices and Printers” control screen that sort of kind of makes it easier to get to most of the setup screens for your “add-on” hardware.
  • UAC seems to have been given a major dose of common sense – user initiated tasks that require elevation no longer trigger a UAC confirmation but program initiated actions do. Seems like an excellent balance to me.
  • WLAN’s are detected during the OS install and immediately used to download patches and updates. That’s a good idea.
  • The concept of file system “Libraries” is introduced – these are collections of files and folders that are presented and used as a single unit without needing to move the underlying files around. Finally we’re getting towards a sensible way to add proper classification structure to collections of files. I very much like this idea.
  • We still have dear old Edlin.
  • All of the hardware on my laptop was detected and got up to date drivers installed (that includes the Video driver for the Geforce 8400M GS, Intel 3945ABG WLAN, Ricoh SD\XD\CF Card Reader, Creative Labs Webcam, Touchpad..
  • The install was quick (20-25 minutes at most) and required very little interaction.
  • There appears to be a new higher security layer (facilitated by the Homegroup services) added in to the network places structure by default to ensure that some level of protection is applied to all those easily hacked into Home Networks out there.
  • There’s now an option to link your Windows login with an online account. This is a very interesting development and should enable more seamless utilization of online services and sharing\sync across machines. The option doesn’t do anything yet but I’ll be keeping an eye on that feature for certain.
  • Once again we have the ability to create a System Recovery Disc (as we did in Vista SP1 Beta but not in the full release of Vista SP1 for some reason)
  • We finally have the option to create a full system (Image) backup natively with a Windows OS. 
  • All saved credentials seem to be stored in a single location called the Credential Vault that can be selectively backed up and restored. Individual items within it can be selectively removed too. Very, very good ideas.
  • Location Sensors (GPS) and location awareness are now configurable as a standard item via the Control Panel.

Performance wise it seems to match the existing Vista install pretty closely apart from having a noticably slower hard drive – but that is entirely due to the fact that I’m using the last (and thus slowest) 30GB of space on this drive for the Windows 7 boot partition.

Everything I’ve tried to run so far runs without a hitch (My XP\Vista portable apps collection all works fine, Firefox 3, Google Chrome, Dropbox Sync + its Explorer plugin, Shockwave\Flash, GTalk’s video plugin).

On the negative side (comparing to Vista remember):

  • Finding things like the Advanced Display Settings dialogs, or the properties of a NIC or where to change your TCP/IP Settings and so on remain just as obnoxiously awkward as they are in Vista.
  • That default Theme I ended up almost turned me off the thing right at the start – maybe I caused that but it really did give me a very bad first impression.
  • Contrary to rumour it doesn’t have a smaller footprint at least on this system but I would only expect that to be evident on very small\low powered sytems if it is true and this is not one of those systems.
  • IE8 is pants, nuff said.

So overall it seems like far more pluses than minuses and there are some very, very interesting things hinted at in the features that have been exposed at this stage.

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