Windows 7 RTM -- a closer look

Windows 7 RTM is finally out, and a lot of Vista and XP users are wondering what they can expect. We take an in-depth look.

Sleeper features: Libraries and Search

No one runs an operating system just for the pleasure of the interface; the point is to get work done. And that means getting to your files quickly. But file-handling and search rarely get headlines.

With the release of Windows 7, perhaps they should. Windows 7 makes it much easier to organize and find files and folders; this will most likely save you far more time than you might imagine. In past versions of Windows, the operating system practically forced you to use the default Documents folder to store all your files. Even hard-core holdouts, including me, have given up fighting it; it's easier to switch than fight.

With the new Libraries folder structure, Windows' folder organization finally makes sense. It can greatly improve your productivity by letting you assemble a virtual library of all of your work folders and files, even if they're on multiple computers and drives. There's now a very good reason to use this default.

In Windows 7, the Documents folder has been replaced by Libraries, under which can be found separate Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos areas. That by itself is nothing new. What's new is that you can now add virtual locations to the Library.

Say you've got three networked PCs, and you'd like access to some of their folders on your Windows 7 PC. You can simply add the folders to your Library. They'll still live in their original location, but you'll be able to access their files over your network by simply opening them from within Libraries. Better still, when you do a search on your own PC, you search those folders as well. That means you can do networkwide searching from your PC, a big timesaver for those who work with multiple computers.

Be aware, though, that when you use your applications, the virtual folder feature can be somewhat confusing. Let's say you have a folder on a second drive in your PC. You include it as a virtual folder in Libraries. You can open up the file by going to Libraries and then navigating to the virtual location in Libraries, but you can't save the file by going to Libraries and then navigating to the virtual location in Libraries. To save a file, you instead have to go to the physical location, for example, on another drive or PC. Microsoft would do well to find a way to allow you to save to your virtual folders.

Search has also been much improved. When you search from Windows Explorer, it's easier to customize and filter your searches using file name, author, file type and file size. You can also add tags from in Windows Explorer to individual files, and sort by them. And search now displays long snippets for each result, so that you can easily locate the file you want among many search results.

Multimedia: Incremental improvements

Windows 7 is certainly not a multimedia powerhouse, but it does include some incremental improvements over Vista.

In previous versions of Windows, you could use a stripped-down version of the bloated Windows Media Player that was accessible from the player itself. Now there's a stripped-down version available from Windows Explorer's Preview pane as well. Just select the file you want to play, click the Play button, and the small media player operates within the pane. You don't get all of Windows Media Player's other capabilities, of course, but it's a great way to sample music or video.

The biggest change is that you can stream media among networked Windows 7 PCs via Windows Media Player. Again, though, that requires you to have only Windows 7 PCs in your network; it would be better if you could stream to and from earlier versions of Windows. And Windows Media Player can now handle a wider variety of formats, including the AAC audio format used by Apple's iTunes.

Windows Media Center now has a feature called Internet TV that at first sounds like a very big deal. I was hoping that there would be a way to tune in to all the various TV shows that are now available online from inside Windows Media Center, without having to jump from site to site. I was hoping you would be able to do that using the very nice interface, searching capabilities, etc., of Windows Media Center -- things that a site like Hulu.com doesn't have. I was also hoping that Microsoft might make deals with various networks, cable outlets, etc., to provide content for Internet TV.

Alas, that is not the case. Instead, you'll find canned TV segments, each of which is several minutes long, many of them quite old. Looking for the latest sports news? You may be shocked to discover via Internet TV that the New York Jets have fired head coach Eric Mangini (which happened back in December 2008). Clearly, this feature needs some work.

Windows Media Center also has something called Internet TV Beta 2, which one would expect to be a more advanced version of the default version of Internet TV, especially because it requires a download. But it's basically the same content in a nicer-looking interface.

Hardware support

Microsoft does not want to relive the many hardware problems that plagued the launch of Windows Vista. This time around, the company says, Windows 7 will be able to use the same drivers as Vista, which means that it should work with most hardware purchased in the past several years. But it also means that some older hardware won't work with Windows 7.

In my testing, Windows 7 worked with several printers (including a network-attached printer), a DVD burner, and my older Dell laptop (although as I pointed out in the installation section, it had to download a driver before the video display worked properly). There's a new Devices and Printers folder that has the potential for finally making hardware easier to manage -- although at this point, it is only a platform-in-waiting (waiting for peripheral makers to provide the appropriate software).

The folder will hold icons representing each device; the icons can be created by the manufacturer to make the icon look like the device itself. A new technology called Device Stage will let hardware makers create an interface for managing the devices using features specific to that device. This interface will replace Windows' usual near-incomprehensible menus and boxes for managing hardware. It will only be useful, though, if the manufacturers actually create those interfaces.

Extras -- and missing features

You'll find plenty of nifty extras sprinkled throughout Windows 7, many so small that it may take weeks or months before you find them. For example, when you right-click a computer on your network, a new item appears on the menu -- the ability to make a remote desktop connection to that network, so that you can take it over via remote control. Anyone who has had to struggle with the difficulties of finding another computer via a remote desktop connection will welcome this change.

More important, Windows finally has a usable backup program. Windows Vista's backup was one of the worst applets ever built into an operating system, but the one in Windows 7 has enough features that you might actually use it. You can now customize your backups by choosing to include or exclude specific drives and folders. You can also easily make entire system images. And when you plug in a device that can be used for backup, such as a USB hard drive, a wizard can be launched that walks you through creating a backup -- just choose the "Use this drive for backup" option that appears when you plug in the device.

Windows 7 now has a series of built-in troubleshooters that can diagnose and solve common Windows problems. I can vouch that at least one of them works, because that's how I managed to turn on Aero -- the troubleshooter found and resolved the problem.

Not all of the new extras, though, are nifty. There's a new Sticky Note applet, for example, which at first sounds nice to have. But it is so lacking in even the most basic features, such as the ability to search through your notes, that it's unlikely you'll ever use it. Don't be surprised if this one gets dropped from Windows 8, or at least beefed up.

Also notable is what's missing. Microsoft has removed a number of applets and features from Windows 7, which is both good news and bad. On the good-news side is that a number of features, such People Near Me, have thankfully been taken out and shot. On the bad-news side is that some very nice applications have been removed as well, such as Windows Mail and Windows Movie Maker. They can be downloaded for free, though.

For the enterprise

Windows 7 includes a variety of features designed for enterprises and for small to midsize businesses as well.

AppLocker lets IT staff control what is run on individual users' PCs, banning or allowing specific applications.

The BitLocker encryption tool has been improved and now includes BitLocker to Go, which can encrypt data on USB drives.

Windows 7 also includes "federated search," which Microsoft says will allow people to use the Windows 7 search capabilities to search through remote document repositories set up by IT.

When Windows 7 is used in concert with Windows Server 2008 R2, Microsoft says, enterprises can take advantage of what it calls DirectAccess, which allows remote workers to securely access a corporate network without having to use a VPN. DirectAccess is also designed to make it easier for IT to manage remote machines.

BranchCache is aimed at branch offices -- when used with Windows Server 2008 R2, it speeds up the responsiveness of network applications, Microsoft says.

Finally, the new Windows XP Mode allows businesses to run Windows XP applications inside Windows 7 so that they look as if they are running on Windows 7 natively although they in fact are running in a virtual XP window. (Consumers can run this as well, but because of hardware limitations and a less-than-simple setup, it is better for businesses.)

The bottom line

It's become the received wisdom to say that Windows 7 is what Windows Vista should have been, implying that Windows 7 is essentially a supercharged Vista service pack. In fact, even though Windows 7 looks much like Vista on the surface, it's actually a substantial rework. It sports improved speed, far better task switching and task launching, and productivity improvements. And it's just plain more fun than Vista or XP -- you'll most likely enjoy your life at the keyboard more.

That being said, there's plenty to work on. Networking, long Microsoft's bugaboo, still needs to be improved, notably by figuring out a way to extend HomeGroup to previous versions of Windows and other operating systems as well. In addition, Windows 7 is still far behind the curve when it comes to watching TV over the Internet.

Still, if you're a Vista user, you'll do well to upgrade to Windows 7; it's a superior operating system. What if you use XP? First, check if your hardware can handle it. If it can, and if you're not wedded to XP for the remainder of your time on Earth, it's finally time to upgrade.

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