The Windows 7 Public Beta Arrives

Late last week, Microsoft released its one and only beta version of Windows 7 to the public, ushering in a several month period of unprecedented feedback. Originally, Microsoft had planned to let only the first 2.5 million downloaders access the beta, but after capacity snafus temporarily paused downloads for a few hours on late Friday, the company made an unexpected announcement: It would allow anyone who wanted the Windows 7 beta to access the beta for two weeks, ending January 24, 2009.

With that in mind, I'm recommending that you give it a shot. Windows 7 is everything that was right about Windows Vista--the security, the capabilities and, beginning with SP1, the compatibility--but it's also fixed many of Vista's shortcomings. There are many surprises awaiting you in Windows 7. A few that I feel are worth calling out include:

A completely tweaked UI. Microsoft has literally rethought every single UI piece in Windows 7 and made small but meaningful improvements where needed. Chief among these are the new Taskbar, which now combines running window management with application shortcuts; the melding of gadgets into the Sidebar; and the excellent new Aero Snaps window management features. Power users, fear not: Keyboard shortcuts still abound, including both old favorites and new ones, like WinKey + Space, which triggers Aero Peek (show desktop).

Bitlocker To Go. Since releasing the original version of its BitLocker full-drive encryption technology in Vista, Microsoft has upgraded this technology several times, adding support for non-system drives, simpler configuration, and other features. In Windows 7, BitLocker moves to the final frontier, removable storage, including USB memory keys and hard drives. Now your data will be safe even when it's not in the office.

A sleeker, smaller system. In a startling reversal from previous Windows versions, Windows 7 actually includes fewer bundled applications than its predecessors. Gone are such things as Mail, Calendar, Contacts, MovieMaker, Messenger, and Photo Gallery, among others. Those that do need these applications can download the free new Windows Live Essentials suite. But those that don't, no longer need to support these applications.

Better out-of-box compatibility. Unlike Vista, which initially broke compatibility with a generation of software applications and hardware devices because of its new security model, Windows 7 promises identical compatibility with Vista (with SP2, due around the same time as Windows 7). That means that Windows 7 will be exactly as compatible as its predecessor the day it's released, a huge improvement over previous Windows versions.

Works on low-end hardware. Unlike Vista, Windows 7 runs just fine on low-end Atom-based netbook computers with just 1GB of RAM. (It will not, however, resuscitate truly ancient computers: In my tests on an Ultra-Mobile PC utilizing an 800GHz Celeron chip, Windows 7 failed as miserably as did Vista.)

ReadyBoost improvements. And speaking of better performance, if you really do need to bump up a low-end machine, Windows 7 now supports multiple ReadyBoost devices (where Vista supported just one). And you can use different device types now, too: Where Vista supported just USB memory devices, Windows 7 also supports Secure Digital (SD) memory cards and other internal flash devices, and more than 4GB of storage.

Superior power management. One advantage that users of Apple Macs have always enjoyed is the superior power management capabilities of those systems. This time around, Microsoft joins the top tier as well: Windows 7 is very aggressive about power management and you'll typically see improved battery life (as well as faster boot times) as a result. There are numerous reasons for these gains, but for end users, the difference will surface in the form of the power management applet, which offers only "balanced" and "power saver" power profiles by default: If you're looking for the wasteful (and largely pointless) "high performance" plan, you'll have to dive deep into the UI. And IT admins can enforce power profiles through policies.

Recovery improvements. If Windows 7 won't boot, users won't have to turn to the Setup DVD or manually install recovery tools. That's because Windows 7 installs them by default and runs them automatically when something goes wrong. Nice.

There's a lot more, but you've got some installing to do. Let me know what you think about the Windows 7 beta: I'm really excited about it, and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised as well.

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