Testing 64-bit Vista and Windows 7

March 8th, 2009

This story was significantly updated with added detail during the first 2.5 weeks after it was launched. Those additions did not fundamentally change the thrust of any of the original points I made. They were aimed at clarity, added support for points made, and the addition of new details as I’ve continued to use Windows 7 Beta 1.

If you’ve been reading Scot’s Newsletter of late, you’re probably aware that I’ve been giving Windows 7 a close look. Several of my stories have been about Windows 7 performance. Since I’ve been more critical than most on that point — using what I consider to be typical hardware for Windows XP users (the vast majority of Windows users) — I decided that I needed to approach the question of Windows 7 performance from a different perspective.
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Fixing a Firefox user profile, and Foxmarks

March 8th, 2009

SNB reader John Volborth wrote to me with a Firefox problem. My solution worked for him, so I thought I would pass it along:

Question:

I haven’t used Firefox in a while because of a problem I’ve been having. It won’t let me gather any apps. This is the error message:

Could not initialize the application’s security component. The most likely cause is problems with files in your application’s profile directory. Please check that this directory has no read/write restrictions and your hard disk is not full or close to full. It is recommended that you exit the application and fix the problem. If you continue to use this session, you might see incorrect application behaviour when accessing security features.

Is there any help you can offer me? Thanks.

Answer:

I’m not clear on what you mean when you say “it won’t let me gather apps,” but more than likely you have a corrupt Firefox user profile. To solve the problem, you’ll need to delete every file in your Mozilla installation and do a clean install of the latest version of the browser. Some of these files hide in places you might not think to look, so it’s important to follow directions on how to fully remove profile.
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Microsoft: MinWin and Performance Changes in Windows 7

February 7th, 2009

In following up my earlier post, More About Windows 7 Performance, I asked Microsoft this question last weekend:

Have there been memory footprint, background services refinement or elimination, or other performance/reliability changes made to the core of the OS that is Windows 7? We’ve been told in the past that the kernel has not been changed from Vista. But Windows 7 is supposed to run properly and well on netbooks. And reviewers all over are saying that Windows 7 is faster. The enterprise guide (online) says that performance is a key tenet for Windows 7. What has been changed in Windows 7 that makes it faster, more reliable, or gives it a smaller memory footprint?

I also asked whether Windows 7 contains “MinWin,” the somewhat romanticized slimmer, componentized version of the Windows kernel, an effort that began with the Windows 2003 Server product. Speculation about the inclusion of MinWin in Windows 7 was fueled by stories like this one in Softpedia.

Microsoft, through its PR agency, released the following brief statement to me as its only meaningful response. The company is gathering information for the press about Windows 7 technical changes and is not prepared to give me an interview on that subject yet. Redmond offered this basic statement about MinWin and the notion of major kernel redevelopment for Windows 7, for now:

“MinWin isn’t anything formal. It isn’t even necessarily a thing as much as it is a design tactic. It is an informal word describing the goal to increase the componentization of the OS through combining common binaries within the core of the OS. This is something that was first mentioned in 2003 and the idea has evolved to present day. So the basic answer is no, Microsoft didn’t create a new kernel for Windows 7. Microsoft is refining the kernel architecture and componentization model introduced in Windows Vista. This means our ongoing efforts that started with Windows Vista will increase the independence of individual components without changing the functionality of those components. This makes it possible for Microsoft to make future changes to specific components more quickly than before because the effects of those changes will be better isolated. These changes will increase engineering agility, and keep the user experience intact without application-compatibility issues.”

Here’s how I read this statement: Microsoft’s biggest concern in saying that Windows 7 has a revamped kernel is that enterprises will be concerned about software-compat and even possibly device-driver issues. That was one of the big enterprise sticking points for Vista. The overriding marketing message from Microsoft has to be that Windows 7 will be compatible with software and drivers that run well on Vista. The “design tactic” that MinWin describes is a pretty major revision to the Vista kernel. I applaud the design direction, though. It makes total sense, and it really might reduce compatibility issues. I also believe that performance may well be improved by this “refining of the kernel architecture” in the final release of Win 7.

What’s more, performance has to be a strong underlying design goal for Windows 7. Code bloat and performance slow-downs have been an essential part of the Vista experience for millions of end users — and that has been a large factor in lackluster Vista sales. The word of mouth hasn’t been good. Microsoft has conceded, internally at least, that it has to make Windows 7 perform more like a sporty car than a four-cylinder pickup truck. It’s the message within the message, but it’s more of a consumer message. As such, Microsoft is probably content with the early performance buzz it’s getting from the public beta. But I suspect we’ll hear a lot more about Win 7 performance as we get closer to the ship date. But I would caution you not to be too sucked in by the gee-whiz “reviews” of Windows 7 we’ve seen to date.

Windows 7: Smaller Footprint?

February 7th, 2009

Writing for his ZDNet blog yesterday, Ed Bott’s research on Windows 7 and Vista memory footprints provides some evidence that Windows 7 may perform better in smaller-RAM and 64-bit installations. See his How well does Windows 7 handle 512MB?

Bott’s tests, which were based on comparisons of 512MB-constrained virtual machines, showed that 64-bit Windows 7 Beta 1 (Ultimate) uses both less memory (according to Microsoft’s Task Manager) and less disk storage than Windows Vista Ultimate. He lists the numbers in a chart. He also compared with XP, and not surprisingly, XP uses both less memory and disk storage than either of Microsoft’s newer OSes. The specific memory data points: XP used 150MB, Vista used 299MB, and Win 7 used 216MB. (See Bott’s story for additional details.)

He also compared Vista and Win 7 in VMs limited to 1GB of RAM, and concluded:

“With the extra RAM available, the delta between the Windows 7 and Vista VMs narrowed dramatically, although the 64-bit edition of Windows 7 still used less RAM than Vista. On the Vista system,. this upgrade made a noticeable difference, whereas the Windows 7 system performed about the same.”

My tests of Windows 7 as compared to Vista have been carried out on a machine with 2GB of RAM and a virtual machine configured to 768MB of RAM. I also have not done any formal comparison of performance, which I always leave to gold code.

Bott mentioned that in 2007, he tested Vista with a circa-2002 P4 512MB RAM machine. (I tested it with three different over-the-hill machines in late 2006 and found that video was the biggest hurdle, although RAM was a close second.) I hope he re-runs that test; he somewhat joking says he might. I might do the same, although I no longer have any machines with less than 1.5GB.

The reason I bring up testing with actual 512MB RAM hardware is that I’ve found that virtualized installations of Windows don’t need as much memory as hardware-based installations. That’s the one quibble I have with Bott’s tests. Even so, it’s hard to argue with the numbers in his results. They’re interesting and instructive.

I plan to test Windows 7 on a 64-bit Vista-level machine (as soon as I acquire one). It’s possible that I will see more performance improvement there.

More about Windows 7 Performance

February 4th, 2009

Microsoft has been quoted as saying that it was not creating a new kernel for Windows 7. Anyone who’s ever used any flavor of Linux knows that even small changes in an operating system’s kernel can make for big variations. But apparently there’s a difference for Microsoft between new kernel and refined kernel. Maybe they’re right, but which is it?

I’ve been trying to get actual information for a while now about just what Microsoft has changed in Windows 7 to effect supposed performance changes. This Windows 7 Developer Guide, published in October 2008, while vague, shines more of light on it than the entire Windows 7 Reviewer’s Guide or anything else I’ve read on Microsoft’s Windows 7 site. Here’s a direct quote from page 8 of this guide, which describes the performance changes in Windows 7:

“Windows 7 maximizes hardware energy efficiency and scalability while maintaining high performance. Energy efficiency is improved through reduced background activity and new support for the trigger starting of system services. Windows 7 also offers improvements in the Windows kernel that enable applications and services to scale efficiently between platforms. Performance of many features and APIs is improved in Windows 7 versus Windows Vista. For example, driver performance on servers is optimized by new user-mode and kernel-mode topology APIs. Graphics rendering is considerably smoother and faster. Accessibility performance is also significantly faster than before.”

So let’s translate that:

1. “Hardware energy efficiency …”

Translation: Windows 7 saves electrical power.

2. “Improvements in the Windows kernel that enable applications and services to scale efficiently …”

Translation: The apps that the kernel permits to run have a longer leash.

3. “Performance of many features and APIs is improved in Windows 7 versus Windows Vista.”

Translation: Microsoft finished refining Vista features and the ways in which applications interface with the operating system.

4. “…Driver performance on servers is optimized by new user-mode and kernel-mode topology APIs.”

Translation: I don’t really know, but drivers will apparently perform better on servers.

5. “Graphics rendering is considerably smoother and faster.”

Translation: We get that.

There’s been a lot of talk about “MinWin,” a small core of Windows 7 that according to some reports has been made self contained by changing the way DLLs and APIs are structured. It makes sense, but has it really happened? Microsoft doesn’t appear to be talking about this.

I hope to get a briefing, and if I do, I’ll post about it.

Windows 7 HomeGroup not so hot in Beta 1

February 1st, 2009

In a more recent post, I finally got HomeGroup to work — third time is the charm. The fact that I had difficulty with a virtual machine version of Windows 7 is something that I hope Microsoft can resolve. So I think this post is still valid. I will retest virtual installations with later releases of Windows 7.

In an earlier first impression post about Windows 7 Beta 1, I called Microsoft’s new HomeGroup feature brain dead. Well, after further review, I’m standing by that assessment. HomeGroup isn’t working here. The feature feels only partly implemented to me. And, normally I’d forgive Microsoft that foible, given this is Beta 1, except that Microsoft’s top dog for Windows 7 Engineering, Steven Sinofsky, just confirmed that Windows 7 will move straight to a release candidate build, skipping any other betas.

So, why do I say that when so many other reviewers are raving about HomeGroup? Well, here’s my experience.

I started by creating a HomeGroup on my Windows 7 test machine. Then I thoroughly tested networking with several other computers on my network, including a Vista machine, an XP machine, and two Macs. I had no trouble with either Vista or XP, networking the way any Windows user would on a peer network. In that mode, Windows 7 networks exactly like Vista does. All computers, even the Macs, are using the same workgroup name. My Vista and XP machines can file-share back and forth with the Macs quite easily. The Windows 7 machine could not. The Macs can connect to Windows 7 without trouble. Windows 7 sees the Macs but issues a path error when I try to force it to connect to them. I had run into this same Mac problem with my earlier test of Win 7 Beta 1 and the November release of Win 7. Networking is often dicey with beta versions of Windows, so this Mac issue wasn’t a huge surprise.

The only way to test the HomeGroup feature is with two Windows machines running Win 7. Unfortunately, I don’t have another PC available and suitable to be a Windows 7 test machine. So I downloaded Sun’s freely distributed VirtualBox software for the Mac. The hardest part about setting up VirtualBox was locating its Guest Additions (add-on drivers specific to your guest OS). It wasn’t where Sun’s documentation said it was. But there were several variations on the installation directions, and one of them worked. In all other regards, VirtualBox is an impressive product. Anyone who has used either VMware or the Parallels virtualization tools will recognize similarities.

VirtualBox has a pre-configured Windows 7 guest-OS mode, and that made set up easy. It took me only a little over an hour to rig up both VirtualBox and Windows 7 on one of my MacBook Pros.

With the two Windows 7 installations running, I expected to have no problems with HomeGroup. Even though there’s clearly some sort of issue with Windows 7 and Mac networking, the fact that the Macs could connect with Windows 7 left me feeling confident. It’s actually not uncommon for the Mac to have an issue networking with a Windows box while the virtual machine of Windows running on the same Mac has no problems connecting. But if you’re inclined to discount my experience with HomeGroup, this would be the best thing to hang your hat on.

So, with Windows 7 running on the Mac, I proceeded to try HomeGroup. You’re supposed to create your HomeGroup on one machine and then from all other Windows 7 machines, use the Join HomeGroup function. But no matter how hard I tried, the two Windows 7 installations were unable to connect to one another. The Join HomeGroup dialog wouldn’t appear. I tried it in both directions. I also tried creating HomeGroups on both machines and making them use the same password. No go.

Note: It’s possible to change the HomeGroup password after the fact from the Network and Sharing Center or Control Panel. It’s not possible to change the Windows 7-assigned HomeGroup password while you’re initiating HomeGroup.

I probably would have put off posting my less-than-stellar experience with HomeGroup except that I decided to go looking for other people’s experiences, and it was not difficult to find other people having the exact same problems with HomeGroup that I was.

I’m sure that Microsoft will straighten out HomeGroup in most people’s Win 7 installations by the time the operating system ships. I’m sure I will get it to work, too. Although I still sort of doubt that this Windows Networking Wizard on minor steroids will truly obviate the need to fully understand the ins and outs of Windows networking.

One final note: For those of you who read my previous post on Windows 7 and disagreed with me about performance, my MacBook Pro-hosted virtual machine Windows 7 installation seems no faster or slower to me than the other one. Windows 7 feels like Vista to me.

Maybe it just feels faster because you’re not constantly being bombarded with those annoying UAC prompts?

The 2010 Honda Insight and Toyota Prius

January 24th, 2009

It’s not exactly hot news any longer, but earlier this month Honda and Toyota pre-announced new or improved small hybrid vehicles. In Honda’s case, it was a brand new platform with an old name, the 2010 Honda Insight. In Toyota’s case, it was the redesigned 2010 Prius.

The 2010 Honda Insight

Honda has revealed more information about the new Insight than Toyota has about the next iteration of the Prius, so it’s easier to analyze the Insight’s pluses and minuses. The 5-door Insight’s styling is very similar to that of the Prius (although it can be argued that Toyota borrowed from Honda’s styling of the original Insight when it created the Prius). With the Prius as the benchmark, though, you might sum up by saying that the Insight is less in several regards: The overall size is smaller, the gas engine is smaller, its EPA fuel economy is rated at 40/43 (less than the Prius), and it’s expected to be less expensive than the Prius — although, neither manufacturer has revealed pricing as I write this.

Specifically, the new Honda Insight has a 1.3-liter semisingle-overhead-cam, 8-valve, 4-cylinder engine that makes 98 horsepower. By U.S. standards, that’s a small engine for a car whose curb weight is 2723 pounds. The 10-kilowatt electric motor delivers 13 hp. It should be noted that Honda’s hybrid technology uses a very small “assist” electric motor. (For comparison: Toyota’s 2009 Prius employs a much larger 50-kilowatt, 67-horsepower electric motor. According to Toyota’s preliminary specifications, the 2010 Prius electric motor will make 80 horsepower.)

The Insight has a continuously-variable transmission (CVT) and a nickel-metal hydride battery, a combination found on many other hybrids. The wheelbase is 100.4 inches. Honda’s approach is to go smaller and lighter — a strategy that makes sense given that the power-to-weight ratio is a big issue in hybrid vehicles, and even more importantly, weight has a huge impact on fuel economy.

Pricing is an important part of the Insight value proposition. Although Honda has not released pricing, industry observers have pegged it as possibly starting as low as $18,000 or $19,000, which is several thousand dollars less than the 2009 Prius.

But is less really more? That’s difficult to judge from a spec sheet. The Insight is expected to be available in April. Honda’s Insight website offers detailed specs, but for more information, see the 2010 Honda Insight press release.

Finally, I was let down by the final design and trim out of the 2010 Honda Insight. It doesn’t live up to the concept vehicles that came before it. To me it looks faintly reminiscent of a smaller 2001 Dodge Stratus with a Prius rear end. The front grill looks cheesy. Honda’s U.S. vehicles have, in general, lost their design appeal. My 1989 Accord was gorgeous in comparison with the current day Accord. The 2010 Insight isn’t butt ugly, like the previous generations of the Prius. It’s just bland.

The third-generation 2010 Prius

Toyota is calling this vehicle its “third generation Prius,” but as I predicted in earlier posts, it does not offer a lighter-weight lithium-ion battery pack. There are significant hurdles of safety and manufacturing that Toyota and others have not been able to iron yet pertaining to mass production lithium-ion batteries for hybrid vehicles. Even so, Toyota has managed to upgrade its technology in several significant ways.

The conservative body changes are also not the “pretty Prius” that was heavily rumored last year. The biggest change is is a nearly four-inch pushback of the hump in the roofline and some pillar repositioning to improve aerodynamics and deliver more rear-seat headroom where it’s needed. The cargo area is over two inches wider, and a tad longer. Toyota claims that the redesign also reduces the new Prius’ coefficient of drag to an impressive 0.25 (down from 0.26).

The 2010 Prius gets a larger, higher torque 98-horsepower Atkinson-cycle 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine. Toyota says this larger engine (the old one was 1.61.5 liters) will deliver better fuel economy at highway speeds because it will be strong enough to run in a higher gear range (added for the 2010 Prius), even on inclines. And while this hasn’t been EPA-tested yet, Toyota is predicting 50/ 50 miles per gallon in combined driving.

Several changes are aimed at reducing power consumption. Toyota lightened its electric motivation system by trimming the size and weight of the electric motor, inverter, and transaxle. (Imagine if they paired that with a lighter battery pack.) The new Prius also offers LED low-beam headlights on some trim lines. The air conditioning system has been reengineered for cool-down efficiency.

Perhaps more importantly for those in colder climes, the heating system is more efficient in the 2010 Prius. I get about 5 miles per gallon less in the dead of winter in my 2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. The Prius probably doesn’t take this much of a hit because it was designed from scratch as a hybrid. The Highlander Hybrid’s heat is slow to take effect, so you really need the anemic heated seat to get through a New England winter. The gas engine has to run more frequently to make cabin heat. On really cold days, I’m not driving for gas mileage — I’m driving to warm up!

The new Prius has several new systems and functions that may be more glitzy than truly useful. But they’re also kind of cool. For example, an optional sliding-glass moonroof contains solar panels that can power a ventilation system even when the car is parked and off. It reduces cabin temperature on sunny days, reducing the initial cool-down period for air conditioning.

Some of the more advanced — and clearly in need of real-world testing — features include Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Lane Keep Assist, the Pre-Collision System, and Intelligent Parking Assist. Each of these uses technology designed to save you from yourself, and, as such, I’m not a big fan. On the other hand, I haven’t tried them either.

Toyota’s 2010 Prius website is a triumph of form over function that doesn’t actually impart much more than basic bullet points about what’s new. Even the pictures of the new Prius there are based on a late prototype, not the final vehicle. The 2010 Prius press release is far more detailed. Check it out for more information. Until there are more hard facts on the 2010 Prius, you can refer to the 2009 Prius specs for details, since many things — such as its 106.3-inch wheelbase — are unchanged.

My On-Paper Assessment

It should be noted that while both the Insight and Prius are 5-door hatchbacks, the Prius is larger than the Insight. It’s also likely that the Prius base price will be at least $2,000 more than that of the Insight, and the cost delta could be as much as $5,000. Toyota is very busy watching its bottom line these days. The point: These cars are not really quite in the same class. If you want a low-cost hybrid that gets over 40 mpg and has a back seat and a fifth door, the Honda may be just fine for your needs.

Based on the specs we have to date, however, for me it would be no contest in favor of the Prius. I believe performance, both in terms of pick up and gas mileage, will be better in the Toyota hybrid. (The Honda is very likely to offer better handling.) The Prius also offers more cargo space. These are the most important things to me.

In the real world where people have varying priorities, there’s more than enough room for two 5-door hybrids. Both vehicles will be successful, and despite their similarity in appearance, will appeal to different types of buyers.

Windows 7 Beta 1: I’m not impressed

January 18th, 2009

I am not impressed with Windows 7 Beta 1. While virtually every reviewer, including my friend and Computerworld‘s lead Windows editor and reviewer, Preston Gralla, is for the most part praising Windows 7, Beta 1 is every bit the pig that Windows Vista is. How could reviewers be missing that? The earlier Alpha was fast — even I said so. This beta is not.

For those of you who downloaded the new Windows 7 beta, try launching two Windows at once or loading two Internet Explorer windows. Try deleting one large folder of files, and then while that’s taking forever to delete, try deleting another. Or really anything that involves walking and chewing bubble gum. Like Windows Vista before it, Windows 7 Beta 1 is sluggish, glitchy, and inconsistent. It may be fast for a while, here and there, but as soon as you really press it, performance folds up like a house of cards.

It took me 30 minutes to figure out how to avoid using the brain-dead “HomeGroup” feature to share files and folders on a wireless network. Windows 7 kept telling me that it was sharing the files on the “domain” that was the workstation name of my Windows 7 computer, not the workgroup name on my network (you know, like, “Workgroup”). In fact, there’s no place that I can find within the Network and Sharing Center to create or change the workgroup name. In other words, Microsoft removed this ability in Windows 7, since Vista’s Network and Sharing Center had it. Eventually, I just rebooted Windows 7 and it started recognizing the workgroup name of the other computers connected to it (I wanted to see whether the incorrect workgroup name was a bug or a feature — it was a bug). Yes, you can still change the workgroup name several levels deep under the System Control Panel, but that’s not even slightly intuitive for the uninitiated.

I suppose I should score something in Windows 7’s favor because I was at least able to network with Beta 1, something I gave up on with the Alpha version. Microsoft still doesn’t get networking. In trying to make it more and more a wizard process, it has needlessly complicated it for people who already know what they’re doing. It comes down to this, if the only way we’re being given tools to network requires us to use the HomeGroup, the new name for the Windows Networking Wizard, something is awry. HomeGroup assigns you a cryptic password which you must “write down” to remember, and every computer on your network has to use it. You can’t change this password. And, as with the Alpha version, I don’t see a way to network using HomeGroup with a Linux or Mac machine. (For additional information on the operation of Homegroup, please see the more recent post, Windows 7 Homegroup not so hot in Beta 1.)

The new taskbar, missing from the Alpha code, wasn’t worth the wait. It’s not special. The windows-management features first shown in the Alpha are pretty cool. But the new taskbar is a pale imitation of the Mac’s Dock feature. I suppose that if you’ve never used the Mac’s Dock, you’ll find this innovative. But if you have, you’ll recognize the fact that Microsoft hasn’t improved on it in any meaningful way.

For pictures of the new Windows 7 Beta 1 features, including the new taskbar, see the image gallery for Preston’s Gralla’s Computerworld review of Windows 7 Beta 1.

Other new features include Jump Lists (prettier context menus with new functions) and Aero Peek (yet another way to look behind opened windows). But let me expose this for what it is: Fluffy UI stuff to help make you feel good about a warmed over version of Windows Vista with a new name. Taken as a whole, the changes so far shown in Windows 7 are minor.

In Beta 1, I continue to be happy with total gag order Microsoft gave User Account Control (UAC) by default. It makes using Windows 7 far less annoying. But taking away a bad idea also isn’t that big a deal. You could turn off UAC in Vista too.

Yes, Windows 7 Beta 1 is better than Vista, but if Microsoft doesn’t do serious work on the next version of Windows’ ability to run tasks simultaneously, on software quality, on adding that feeling of effortlessness that the Alpha displayed, I won’t be likely to recommend it. Microsoft needs to do well with this version of Windows. It needs to change the perception of what it’s like to use Windows. Beta 1 is not confidence inspiring in that direction. And for those of you wondering, I clean installed these new Windows 7 bits on the same machine I used for my Alpha review. While no barn burner, it’s a respectable 2.0 GHz Core Duo with a decent graphics subsystem. I purchased it in 2006 to evaluate Windows Vista’s Media Center functionality.

Beta 1 is a prerelease version of Windows 7, so I’m not drawing conclusions this early. But having reviewed every beta and gold release of Windows since Windows 3.0, I’m seeing the beginning of a pattern I’ve seen before: Windows gets slower and less responsive as it gets closer to being released.

At some point you have to just say no to more features and services that build unsustainable overhead. When you use other operating systems — such as Linux and OS X — it becomes clear that Microsoft and its OEM PC manufacturers really don’t care about the fact that Windows is perennially overtaxed.

Early Reactions to Windows 7

November 17th, 2008

Editor’s Note: This story was written in November about the early version of Windows 7 that Microsoft calls the “pre-beta.” I term it a late alpha. Either way, it’s not the Beta 1 version that was publicly distributed in January.

I was on vacation last week and finally got a chance to install Microsoft’s Windows 7 alpha code and play with it a bit. My first reactions were positive.

Installation went without a hitch. I cloned the drive of a Dell Core Duo notebook circa 2006 and then allowed the Windows installation process to do a clean install on the drive. The installation process was very fast — much faster than Windows Vista. It also did its job with a minimum of fuss and questions. On first start, Windows 7 did an online update and installed multiple items. The screen resolution, which wasn’t correct on initial start, righted itself to the LCD’s wide-aspect-ratio native resolution when I rebooted.

The first thing I noticed about Windows 7 is that it’s fast. I would caution that I had the same reaction to some of the earlier beta versions of Vista. Vista definitely slowed down at the end of its development cycle. The same thing could happen to Windows 7. But there’s an effortlessness about the Windows 7 UI performance that is pleasant and very welcome.

There’s not a lot new in this build of Windows 7. It’s not feature complete. But I love the new smarter window-sizing features. Pushing windows around and dragging their edges is one of the most tiresome aspects of working on a computer. Microsoft’s smart idea works this way: If your browser, for example, isn’t maximized, you can drag the top edge of the program window to the top edge of the screen. Then Windows 7 automatically pops the bottom of the browser to the bottom edge of the screen too. Think of it as maximized vertically; the sides of the window will be wherever they were when you started. Windows 7 shows you it’s going to adjust the window size in advance. The indicator is a tinted overlay area that shows what the new window size will be. When you release the mouse button (after moving the top edge of the window to the top of the screen), the tinted area goes away and the window resizes.

Even more useful for the way I tend to work, is a variation of the feature that works on either side of the screen. I frequently set up two applications side by side on higher-resolution monitors, a tedious process. Windows 7 makes the chore a snap. Drag any window by its title bar off the screen to one side or another (you have to drag it until the mouse pointer itself is to the edge of the screen). Windows 7 will then open the program window so that it takes up exactly half of the available screen to the side you dragged it to (think of it as maximized on three sides). Open another program window and do the same thing on the other side, and the result is two programs opened side by side, perfectly positioned in only a few seconds. It’s a very useful, even ingenious feature that power users are sure to love.

My reaction to the changes in the networking area — a weak point of Vista — is much less positive. I’m still frustrated by Microsoft’s attempt to wizardize everything. They’ve dumbed things down so far that I ran into three networking problems in 15 minutes. The first was that my Windows 7 machine somehow got the IP address of another device. This happens a lot with Windows machines on simple networks. I don’t know why that’s the case. In this instance, the IP address the Win 7 machine glommed onto is a permanently assigned address for a printer on my network. Windows 7’s network UI doesn’t offer a way to release and renew the IP address. While, yes, I can do that from the command line — the UI should offer this feature, as it did in Windows XP. What are they thinking?

While I was looking for a way to release and renew the IP, I realized that the Network and Sharing Center was showing that I wasn’t connected to the Internet — even though I was having no problems getting out to the Internet. After about an hour of operation and a couple of restarts, Windows 7 eventually realized that it was connected to the Internet and righted itself. But what’s up with that?

Finally, Windows 7 introduces the new “homegroup” feature, which is supposed to simplify the process of setting up file sharing and device sharing in home environments. But this is really nothing more than yet another wizard that wants to assign its own passwords (you can’t change them!) and take over for you. And there’s no transparency about what it’s doing. But the colossally arrogant aspect of this tool is that it appears to be only designed to work with other Windows machines. It’s not even clear from the UI that it works with non-Windows 7 machines, although I’m sure you can make it work with them.

I’ve saved the best of my reactions for last. One of my top three criticisms of Windows Vista was that UAC (User Account Control) was way too overzealous. To the point, I felt, that it effectively disabled its security by literally numbing the user to its warnings. Even worse, as far as I was concerned, was that UAC was annoying as hell. It made Vista very hard to warm up to.

User Account Control has changed in Windows 7. For one thing, it has four behavior settings which range from Windows Vista drive-you-crazy mode down to “never notify.” And the default setting is “Only notify me when programs try to makes changes to my computer.” During the first hour of use I opened almost every Control Panel item and was never confronted with a UAC prompt. At some point, I’m going to make a concerted effort to see a UAC prompt with the default setting, but I can call this now: Microsoft has solved my problem with UAC. This may not offer supreme protection in theory, but I believe that the balance of notifying about truly dangerous activities as opposed to everything under the Sun will offer better overall security. Why? Because if you see a UAC prompt in Windows 7, you’re far more likely to take it seriously. It won’t be just another in a blizzard of repetitive prompts.

It’s great to see the Windows Sidebar gone and the ability to place Gadgets (Windows’ widgets) directly on the desktop. This is the way it should work. Apple: Take notice.

All in all, the Windows 7 pre-beta is a surprisingly good start to the next version of Windows. I will continue to work with this build and report anything of note I come across. I look forward to testing the later pre-releases of Windows 7 too.

Updated: The A-List of Mac Software

October 29th, 2008

Yesterday I updated my listing of the best Macintosh apps, tools, and utilities in the first significant update in over a year. The research is ongoing, but I just didn’t make the time to update this page, known as The A-List of Mac Software. There are quite a few new additions to the list. I’ve also knocked some long-standing stalwarts off the list (programs I remove are also listed under the Considered but Rejected subhead.

My plans for the A-List include continuing to update it as I evaluate and add programs to my essential list of Mac apps, and also to broaden the information offered on the list with information like what each app costs, if anything, and a little summary of reasons for selection.

I’m pretty ruthless about ripping products off the A-List when I’ve decided they’re no longer valid, are outdated, or have been beaten by a competitor. You’ll notice that in some product categories, there is more than one contender. In that case, I like them both and am still considering between the two.

The A-List is based on real-world research. In other words, I’m not setting up bench tests to assess Mac software. I’m living and working with these products, and when they succeed or fail in real world use, that’s when I make changes to their status on the A-List.

Feel free to send me suggestions for new Mac apps to consider. There’s a specific email address for doing so toward the bottom of the page.