Surprise! UAC is usable
Quick, what is the most reviled feature of Windows Vista? As far as I can tell, it's User Account Control (UAC), Microsoft's method for keeping your computer safe. Unfortunately, many users felt that UAC was so inconvenient that they turned it off entirely.
In Windows 7, UAC finally gets out of your way and strikes the right balance between security and usability. Far fewer prompts appear, and the ones that do appear pop up only for good reason. Want to do something really weird and wild, like, say, change the date and time on your PC? With Vista, you'll get a UAC prompt. In Windows 7, you can make the change without the prompt.
Also, UAC is now customizable. In Vista, UAC was either on or off. With Windows 7, you have some control over how it works by using a slider to change to one of four settings:
Always notify me when: This is in essence UAC Classic, and it works like Vista's UAC. When you make changes to your system, or when software is installed or when a program tries to make a change to your system, a prompt appears.
Default -- Notify me only when programs try to make changes to my computer. As the setting says, this is the Windows 7 default. You get a UAC prompt only when a program tries to make a change. As part of that prompt, your desktop goes dark, just like it does in Vista.
Notify me only when programs try to make changes to my computer (do not dim my desktop). This is identical to the default, with one change: When a UAC prompt appears, your desktop doesn't go dark. You'd use this setting if it takes a long time for your desktop to recover from going dark and you don't want that delay.
Never notify me when: In this one, UAC is completely turned off.
Windows Vista users will find one aspect of the new UAC confusing. Windows 7, as with Vista, displays a small, multicolored shield icon next to any selection or setting that spurs a UAC prompt under the most restrictive UAC settings. In Windows 7, that shield stays there no matter what your UAC setting is. So if you keep the Windows 7 default UAC setting, you'll still see the shield next to many settings, such as the one for changing your system time or date. But when you click, no prompt appears. This takes some getting used to. It would be better if Windows 7 grayed out the shield when the UAC will not generate a prompt.
Networking: A mixed bag
Networking has long been Windows' Achilles' heel -- the networking features have always felt bolted on rather than an integral part of the operating system. I can't say that Windows 7 finally gets networking right, but at least it's made some moves in the right direction.
The biggest addition is HomeGroup, a feature for home networks designed to make it easier to share files, folders and devices such as printers.
As the name implies, HomeGroup works if you designate your network as Home; if your network is labeled as a work or a public network, you can't use it. Your HomeGroup is protected by a password. It lets you specify which files, folders and devices you want to share, and also lets you keep certain files and folders private.
Those who use a laptop in multiple locations -- at work and home, for example -- may find it useful because it lets you keep your work files private when you're at home. Also, when you come home from work, you won't need to change your default printer; when you join your HomeGroup, you'll automatically use your home printer. HomeGroup also has a feature missing from Windows networking up until now: the ability to easily stream media to other devices connected to the network.
Unfortunately, HomeGroup only partially succeeds, because the HomeGroup feature works only with other Windows 7 PCs, not with Vista- or XP-based PCs, Linux-based PCs or Macs. So it's not a feature most people will use, since most people with more than one PC at home will have XP or Vista on at least one of them -- and they might actually have a Mac or Linux-based PC as well. Microsoft is clearly hoping that people will eventually run Windows 7 on all their home PCs -- but that's a bet I wouldn't make.
In addition to HomeGroup, Windows 7 also includes the networking capabilities built into Windows Vista -- with some of the same problems. On my home network, Windows 7 initially had problems finding PCs that weren't running Windows 7 or Vista. It could not find several XP PCs connected to my network or a Mac connected to the network. Several hours later, the problem resolved itself, with no explanation, although not all of the Macs and XP PCs appeared on the Network Map; some showed up only in Windows Explorer. When I rebooted, it still took some time for non-Windows 7 or non-Vista PCs to show up anywhere.
After a while, this resolved itself, and all of the PCs showed up immediately in Windows Explorer. This exact thing happened to me with Vista -- at first I experienced the problems, and then over time they seemed to disappear (although in Vista they still reappear from time to time). The same pattern seems to be happening with Windows 7.
The Network and Internet Control Panel applet has been put on a much-needed diet, with a more streamlined interface and fewer confusing sharing options. There is a better-organized set of links for accomplishing network-related tasks, and simpler ways to immediately see the most important information about your network, such as its type, its name, the state of its connection and so on. Categories such as Offline Files seem to have been eliminated. (The People Near Me feature, thankfully, was also put out to pasture, doing away with one of the more pointless features of Vista.)
The downside of this diet, though, is that some features don't seem to be accessible from the Control Panel, even though they still exist somewhere in the bowels of Windows. The Sync Center, for example, which lets you synchronize offline files with other computers on your network, is still available, but not from the Network and Internet Control Panel applet. Instead, you'll have to first list all of the applets on the Control Panel alphabetically (by changing the view to either large icons or small icons) and then choose Sync Center from that alphabetical list.
Document sharing has been improved. Right-click a folder or file and select "Share with" from the menu that appears. You'll get another menu that offers options such as sharing with a HomeGroup, disallowing sharing, or sharing with specific people. This is different from Vista and XP, where you have to go through menus and option screens to customize file sharing, often forcing you to figure out how to configure permissions -- a place even angels fear to tread.
Wireless networking has been tweaked to let you connect to a network with fewer clicks. The wireless networking icon in the system tray displays a small star on it when wireless networks are available. Click it, and a list of available networks appears. Click on a network name, and a small Connect button appears. Click it to connect to the network.