Putting the Jump List through its hoops
The taskbar has an associated feature called Jump Lists that makes it even more useful. When you right-click an application's icon in the taskbar, a menu appears of actions associated with that application -- and the list varies according to the application. For example, when you right-click Microsoft Word, you'll see a list of recently opened files, but when you click Internet Explorer, you'll see a list of your most frequently visited sites.
In addition to lists of files, you'll see tasks you can perform. For example, if you right-click on Windows Media Player, a task will let you play music. You'll also be able to close all open windows or pin the program to the taskbar if it's not already pinned there. (When you run a program that is not permanently pinned to the taskbar, the program's icon shows up in the taskbar for as long as the program runs. Once you stop running a nonpinned program, it vanishes from the taskbar.)
Similarly, recently used programs that appear on the Start menu each offer a list of recently opened files, the same as the one that shows up for applications on the Jump List. An arrow appears next to applications that use this feature. Click the arrow to see the list, then click any file to re-open it.
The new taskbar and Jump List have some hidden features. For example, you can manually pin files to a Jump List for a program that normally doesn't handle that file type by simply dragging the file onto the program's icon on the taskbar. You can then open the file using the program to which it has been pinned. It's a simple way to open a file using an application that normally doesn't handle that file type, without being forced to permanently change the file association.
Remote Desktop Connection users will be pleased to see that when you pin the Remote Desktop Connection icon to your taskbar, it includes all of the remote desktop connections you've saved in the Jump List. That makes it much easier to take control of remote PCs on your network.
A deep look at Aero Peek
No doubt the niftiest addition to the Windows 7 interface is Aero Peek, a tweak to the Aero interface that lets you "peek" behind any open window. It puts the Show Desktop icon on Vista's Quick Launch bar to shame.
Aero Peek takes up residence as a small, just-visible vertical button at the right edge of the taskbar. Mouse over it and all of your open windows disappear -- you can see straight through to your desktop. However, your open windows don't entirely disappear -- you also see the outlines of each.
For example, if you have four open windows, you see the outlines of each of those screens, even if they overlap. To see the desktop with no outlined windows, click the Aero Peek rectangle instead of hovering your mouse over it. In that case, it works just like Vista's Show Desktop feature.
This does more than just offer a bit of eye candy -- although the eye candy is certainly nice. If you use gadgets and they are hidden by open windows, Aero Peek lets you peek through all open windows at the gadgets underneath, because Windows 7 considers gadgets part of the desktop. In addition, if you regularly keep many windows open, it's a quick way to see at a glance which windows you have open.
Switching among windows using Alt-Tab has been improved by combining it with Aero Peek. When you use Alt-Tab to cycle through your open windows, you still display the window that you've tabbed to, but you also peek through to the desktop to see the underlying desktop, along with outlines of any other open windows, just as you can with Aero Peek.
Aero Peek is directly tied to the taskbar's thumbnail feature. Turn off Aero Peek, and you won't see thumbnails when you hover your mouse over the icon of a running application in the taskbar; you'll see a stacked list instead. You turn Aero Peek on and off by right-clicking the Aero Peek rectangle, and by checking or unchecking the box next to "Peek at desktop."
Other interface tweaks
There are interface tweaks throughout Windows 7. One of my favorites is the way windows are minimized, maximized and moved. Drag the title bar of a window to the top of the screen, and it maximizes the window. When you drag the title down from the top of the screen, it returns to its previous, non-maximized size. Drag any window to the right or left edge of the screen, and it takes up that half of the screen.
There are plenty of other improvements. You can now turn the preview pane in Windows Explorer on and off by clicking a button, a task that in Vista takes multiple clicks. The Control Panel also has some new tricks -- when you're on the main Control Panel screen and click any category, the category's main screen slides into place on the right and displays a list of relevant actions on the left.
It's also easy to clean the Notification Area (the area on the right side of the taskbar that shows the time and date, icons of programs running, etc.) and keep it free of icons via a new dialog box. And when you want to customize your desktop, you can choose and customize themes more easily by right-clicking the Desktop and choosing Personalize.
Several Windows 7 applets, including Paint and WordPad, now sport a Ribbon interface, like the one that debuted in Microsoft Office 2007 and is being carried over into the prerelease of Office 2010. In addition, Vista's Windows Sidebar, which let you use a number of desktop gadgets, has been dispensed with; gadgets can now live anywhere on the desktop.
The Start button no longer protrudes across the top of the taskbar, and it glows with a more noticeable light than in Vista. The associated Windows Shut Down button has been improved: Click an arrow to the button's right, and you get a list of shutdown options, including switching to a different user.
There are similar changes sprinkled throughout every level of the operating system, giving it a more polished feel than Vista.
Finally, in Windows 7, Microsoft seems to have found its inner bizarre artistic self, because in addition to the usual high-resolution photographs and nature scenes that the company includes for use as desktop backgrounds, there are oddly compelling images that are a mix of psychedelia, Hieronymus Bosch, Disney characters, Japanese anime and flat-out weirdness.