Let me ruin the surprise right up front by simply stating the obvious: Windows 7 is the best OS, ever, for portable computers. And I'm not just talking traditional notebooks here. I mean low-end netbooks. Tablet PCs. Touch-based tablets (and, go figure, touch-based notebooks and desktop PCs too). Ultra-Mobile PCs. Whatever. If it's even remotely identifiable as a personal computer and it can run off of battery power, you won't find a better OS than Windows 7.
Sure, Windows XP is small and lightweight, relatively speaking, but the power management is outdated and the mobile-aware functionality is wanting. And yes, Windows Vista came with improved mobile technology and better power management, but let's face it: The sudden rise of low-end netbooks caught Microsoft by surprise and Vista wasn't ready to answer that challenge. Vista's great, but it required a real computer.
And then there's Windows 7. It's about as small and lightweight as XP. But it offers advanced power management and mobility functionality that's been evolved and enhanced since Vista. And Windows 7 runs just great on low-end netbooks, thank you very much. It's the best of both worlds, from a mobility perspective.
But Windows 7 takes it up to 11 by making multi-touch a native, first-class interface scheme, one that is on par with mouse, keyboard, and the stylus-based Tablet PC interfaces that debuted in earlier Windows versions. With this democratization of multi-touch, Windows 7 takes computing to new places, literally. It delivers on the casual and natural computing promises that Bill Gates and Microsoft first made seven years ago when they began plying Windows-based tablets. And it returns a sense of whimsy to the PC for the first time in, well, forever. Windows Touch, as the interface is called, makes computing fun again. Yes, it's more productive, too, Mr. Bean Counter. But multi-touch isn't just about entertainment. It's about making computers and computing a more seamless part of our everyday lives.
It's good stuff. And it really works. Let's jump right in.
Mobility features in Windows 7
Microsoft did a lot of work to improve the core mobility features of its client OS in Windows Vista, and that work carries through in evolved form in Windows 7. It works well with different network types, including 3G wireless networks, and can move seamlessly between them, choosing the highest bandwidth option without any user input. On the flipside, Windows 7 will also silently disable networking hardware on the go, so you won't need to do that manually anymore. Now, if you're working away on an airplane or other disconnected location, Windows will simply disable the wireless and Ethernet-based connections for you.
Of course, in keeping with the general Windows 7 mantra, everything is simpler now. On mobile systems, you'll see the new Wireless Network notification icon, which provides a simple Jump List-like menu of available wireless menus when clicked. Generally speaking, this is the only interface you'll ever have to access to connect to a wireless network, and then only once unless you're really paranoid. Windows 7 even provides a handy pop-up menu if the network you've connected to requires additional logon information, as might be the case with a web-based form at a hotel, airport, or other public wireless access point.
The new Wireless Network interface, with simple fly-out listing available wireless networks.
Connecting to a wireless hotspot? Windows 7 will let you know if additional logon info is required.
Windows 7 also improves on the power management functionality that debuted in Windows Vista by making it both more efficient and easier to use. On the efficiency side, Microsoft did a lot of work under the covers to increase battery life on portable computers, often in fairly dramatic fashion. (This work is covered a bit more in Part 6 of this review, which details the performance improvements in Windows 7.)
For users that need to attach an external display, a new Display Switch utility makes it easier than ever to connect, duplicate the display, extend the display, or display only to the external display. To find it, tap Windows Key + P, or look for "projector" with Start Menu Search. (This works with non-portable PCs, too, of course, but it's particularly nice for those of us who spend a lot of time on the road and often have to use projectors and other external displays.)
One of my favorite Windows 7 utilities captures everything that's right about the OS: It's automatic and simple to configure if you really want to mess with it.
For the corporate set, Windows 7 also supports a number of mobility-oriented features that enable anytime/anywhere access. Among these technologies are VPN Reconnect, which works in tandem with existing third party VPN solutions to automatically reconnect lost VPN connections, which is especially useful on unreliable WAN links at branch offices. There's DirectAccess, Microsoft's HTTPS-based alternative to VPNs. And of course further improvements and refinements to the folder redirection and Offline Files functionality that's been in Windows for years. (Some of these features also require Windows Server 2008 R2 on the server.)
In many ways, the biggest mobility news is that Windows 7 runs great on increasingly popular netbooks, which typically feature very low-end hardware like a 1.6 GHz Atom processor, 1 GB of RAM, a 160 GB hard drive, and a 10.1-inch or smaller screen. Windows 7 runs about as well on netbooks as does Windows XP, and when you consider the numerous functional advantages in Windows 7, it becomes a no-brainer from a choice standpoint.
In Windows Vista, Microsoft took the Tablet PC functionality it created for Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, enhanced it, and made it more broadly available across more mainstream Vista versions. In Windows 7, Microsoft is taking a similar approach with multi-touch technology, though this is the first version of Windows to offer such support. If you are using Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise, or Ultimate, you can take advantage of Windows Touch.
Windows Touch provides Tablet PC-like functionality, but via touch. You can tap the screen, double-tap the screen, and perform different onscreen gestures. But it also goes beyond the Tablet PC by offering further casual computing enhancements like pinching, saying for zooming an image or web page, spinning fingers across the screen for rotating, and so on. If you've ever used an Apple iPhone or similar device, you are already familiar with the benefits of multi-touch (and Microsoft previously offered this interface via its Surface tables). But when added to the PC, a whole new world of more natural computing emerges.
The reason Windows Touch is so exciting is that it mirrors the way we interact with objects in real life. The act of reaching out to touch a book, electronics device, or even another person is so natural and so obvious it almost doesn't even need to be described. But then adding this capability to the PC works well, too. In fact, it works so well, you miss it when it's gone. After getting used to multi-touch interfaces on an HP TouchSmart PC (which is a desktop machine), and two multi-touch enabled portable machines, a Lenovo ThinkPad 400s notebook computer and a Lenovo ThinkPad X200 Tablet PC, I found it hard to return to my traditional PCs. In fact, I've reached out to "touch" objects on my regular display, which has proven disappointing since this display doesn't support the functionality.
So, how might you use such a feature? With Windows 7 and a touch capable PC, you can navigate around the Explorer shell much as you would with a stylus on a Tablet PC, but with your finger instead. Windows 7 detects compatible hardware and automatically enlarges onscreen elements, like the Aero Peek button, to be more finger-friendly. You can hold down your finger on an object to emulate right click, double-tap for double-click, and so on. It all works as expected.
Add multi-touch to the equation and things get a lot more interesting. (Windows 7 identifies multi-touch capabilities in the System control panel; On the ThinkPad X200, for example, it says that the Pen and Touch capabilities are "Pen and Touch Input Available with 2 Touch Points.") Open an image file, for example, and you can zoom in and out by using a standard pinching motion on the screen with your thumb and forefinger. You can rotate the image left and right by placing your thumb in the middle of the screen and spanning the finger in an arc left and right.
If you have multi-touch capable hardware, Windows 7 will let you know.
Open a web page, Word document, or similar document, and you can perform the same zooming actions, but you can also scroll up or down by flicking your finger, an action that is so natural you almost laugh out loud the first time you experience it. In fact, it's so natural, that I've started simply keeping the X200 with me in tablet mode in the living room for casual browsing and email purposes. It's so much better than using a normal notebook.
Windows 7's virtual software keyboard supports multi-touch too.
There's more. You can change view styles in Windows Explorer by using the multi-touch pinching gestures for zoom. The onscreen software keyboard--also available on traditional Tablet PCs--provides multi-touch capabilities on multi-touch hardware, allowing you to perform true multiple key presses like CTRL + C or SHIFT + H for the first time.
Windows Touch supports a full set of gestures that work across all applications, a benefit of this technology being added directly into Windows itself. There's no need for developers to specifically target Windows Touch, as their applications will simply work with the new gestures. Or, they can target unique gestures of their own, if they'd like. (For example, you might create an app that responds in a unique way to double-taps, where two fingers tap the screen simultaneously.)
Touch and multi-touch gestures supported by Windows 7. (Image from Microsoft.)
Most PC makers that ship Windows Touch-based PCs will also include the optional Microsoft Touch Pack for Windows 7. This package includes a number of utilities and games that were written specifically for Windows Touch (though many debuted first on Surface, where this technology got its start.) Some of the more noteworthy applications include Microsoft Globe, Collage, Lagoon, Blackboard, Rebound, and Garden Pond. If this package is installed on your PCs, you'll see the touch-compatible games appear in the Games explorer.
Blackboard, one of the fun games included in the Microsoft Touch Pack for Windows 7.
The mobility features in Windows 7 provide better performance and battery life than was previously possible and simpler, more obvious wireless networking capabilities. I'm particularly fond of the Display Switch utility, which I suspect will become a favorite with the presentation set. On the multi-touch front, Windows 7 provides a first-class multi-touch environment that is unparalleled in the industry. With this OS and compatible hardware, you'll find yourself interacting with the PC in ways that are both natural and jaw-dropping. The mark of a great upgrade is that you miss it when it's gone, and on that note, Windows Touch is amazing: I want all of my PCs to offer this functionality. And I absolutely miss it when it's not there.