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.