Windows 7 Beta Publicly Released
In SteveB’s CES kickoff keynote Wednesday night, he announced the public availability of the Windows 7 Beta release. Windows 7 is the next release of the desktop operating system from Microsoft, to succeed Windows Vista. This is good news for tweakers and tech-heads, and anyone who wants to stay ahead of the curve. The announcement indicated that this Friday it will be publicly available and starting tonight, is already available to TechNet and MSDN subscribers.
I’ve gotta say, I’ve been running Windows 7 (first the tech preview, and now the Beta…build 1400 for the last few days) on one of my laptops, and I am loving it. In fact, I’m typing this post from Windows Live Writer on Windows 7 right now. I’m not a Vista hater (I’ve had really good luck with Vista…and love a lot of the features…and actually find it very difficult to use XP now), but I really like a lot about Windows 7 so far. Here’s a few highlights (not nearly a comprehensive overview though).
The New Taskbar
Besides the quicker boot-up, the first thing most people will notice is the new taskbar. Mine as it sits right now is shown above. Here is a close up of the running and “pinned” apps that I have right now.
Obviously, this taskbar looks different…but it acts quite a bit different, too. First of all, it combines some of the functionality of the old quick launch toolbar and the taskbar. In other words, you can pin apps to the taskbar so they show up whether they are running or not…and you can launch them (or switch to them if not already running) with a single click. There is a subtle, but easily recognizable difference between running apps and non-running apps. Notice above the Zune icon…it appears “flush” with the background. This indicates that it is not currently running. The Skype icon, on the other hand, shows that it is running (it has a subtle raised effect in the glass). In fact, if you look to the left where the Internet Explorer icon is, you will notice that I multiple instances and tabs (conveniently combined in the UI) open, so there are multiple glass layers there. Finally, since I’m typing in Live Writer now, you’ll notice that it’s icon “glass” is somewhat smoked, or opaque, indicating that it holds the current focus. Simple and subtle, but useful and easily noticed without thinking much about it. This behavior can be customized as well. I’ve heard some in the media complain that the new taskbar is too different, and too subtle, and at first I agreed (and even changed the defaults), but the more I use it, the more I like it. Besides….it’s pretty.
I won’t get into the jump lists (finding them useful when I remember to use them…getting better at it), changing desktop backgrounds, etc…but it’s safe to say there are some really useful gems, most of which I probably haven’t discovered yet. And again…it’s pretty.
The system tray in the lower right corner (typically) is a little different as well. Now Windows gives the user full control over what shows up there and what doesn’t from a single and easy to use configurator. This is a welcome change. For each tray icon, you can choose to display the icon and notifications, notifications only (the toaster and the icon temporarily show up when a notification happens from that tray icon), or hide completely (out of sight, out of mind).
Windows 7 has a new concept of libraries; essentially libraries of different types of documents. These libraries can point to multiple physical locations on various disks (even removable disks and network shares), but ccollect and show a collation of these documents and files together as a single library. This is great for most users, and I’m already finding myself liking it for it’s simplicity and ease when it comes time to find a picture or save a video. Windows 7 ships with four libraries by default (Documents, Pictures, Music, Videos), but users can add as many as they want, and even modify the built-in ones.
HomeGroups and Device Management
Both home networking and managing devices is easier on Windows 7. The Homegroup concept, while I haven’t tested extensively, looks really promising. It allows even domain joined computers (like a work laptop for example) to automatically and easily participate in a group of home computers, and use devices (like printers and media centers) while it’s there. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’ll get to use this much because in my limited experience, it appears that you cannot create HomeGroups from domain-joined computers (although, as I said, they can participate in one). Since I run a domain at home, and of course use one at work, this may not be something I personally can take advantage of…although I’m in an extreme minority of home users who run a domain.
As for the device management, you may have heard of Device Stage. I’m not sure if that’s the official name, but managing devices in Windows 7, whatever the tool is called, is looking much easier and very promising. It is a very graphical view of all of your devices and resources along with the ability to change their settings, update drivers, etc., all from one place.
Compatibility, Speed, and Drivers
I saved the best for last. Windows 7 is fast. It boots faster than XP and Vista. It resumes faster the XP and Vista. It runs better with 1 or 2 GB of memory. 64-bit (which I’m running on two machines) is solid with no driver issues. I’m throwing all sorts of weird devices and drivers at it, as well as software, and so far, no glitches. I had to install the beta version of Skype, which seems to run great, but other than that everything just works. Every software package I’ve installed from the standard Office 2007 tools to very specialized stuff like Voyager 4 flight planning software and Flip Video’s FlipShare is working great. I’ve installed Visual Studio 2008 (which is monster big with lots of dependencies) with no problems as well.
I’ve thrown some non-standard hardware at it, too. Again, the Flip Video (with or without it’s drivers from the manufacturer) just worked…and shows up quickly and easily on the device stage. More surprisingly, perhaps, is the results from just slapping on my M-Audio Mobile PRE USB interface (which allows my to connect high end microphones and power them using phantom power, adjust built in pre-amps using physical knobs, and monitor using headphones, etc.). I plugged it in, and it just worked…both outputting audio as well as the inputs from the analog mics. Remember…this is 64-bit, too. M-Audio is working on 64-bit Vista drivers for this unit (which will work in Windows 7, I’m sure), but even without those drivers, everything works great just by plugging it in. I’m not sure how, but I’m happy. I’m really trying to break it, but I can’t
I did have a driver issue with the wireless on one of my laptops. I was getting crashes while using wireless. After thinking, “Well, after all, it is beta.” and dismissing it, I noticed that Windows Update was notifying me of an optional update to the wireless chip driver in my laptop. I accepted it, and it fixed the issue. I’m amazed. This really doesn’t seem like a beta product to me…at least not yet. Maybe I will start to discover more issues…but as it stands, I’m very close to upgrading almost all of my production machines to Windows 7 beta (at least as a dual boot for testing).
How to Get it
Brandon LeBlanc on the Windows 7 Team Blog has a nice write-up about downloading the beta. More information on how to get it can be found there and on the Windows 7 website, especially as the public release day (this Friday) approaches.
Oh ya…one last thing. I got a big chuckle out of the default desktop background (the focal point of which I’ve featured here). See if you get the joke. Enjoy Windows 7.