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Windows 7 Beta: Notes and Observations

I've been putting Windows 7 Beta candidate builds through their paces for over a month now, and with build 7000 finally making its way into the hands of testers around the world, I thought it might be time to highlight a few of the more interesting changes that have appeared or evolved since Microsoft issued its M3 ("milestone 3") release back in October. In no particular order...

Not so enhanced taskbar

I've written at length about the user interface disaster that is the enhanced taskbar in Windows 7: In this single UI construct, Microsoft has opted to follow the broken model of the Mac OS X Dock and comingle shortcuts for running and non-running windows. (See my editorial, Windows 7: Simple vs. Easy, for a complete breakdown of the problems with this model.) But opinions aside, what can one do to actually fix this problem?

It turns out that there is a perfectly acceptable middle ground, and I'm calling on Microsoft to make this change the default taskbar view style in Windows 7. So instead of the current default view, which feature square shortcut icons with no text--and little differentiation between running and non-running windows--you can configure the taskbar to display icon labels and only combine into less intuitive and usable square icons (sans labels) when the taskbar fills up. Here's a comparison of the two styles:

On the top is the default taskbar view. But the superior bottom view style is optional and recommended.

And here's how you change the taskbar to work better. Right-click on an empty area of the taskbar and choose Properties from the pop-up menu. You'll see an option on the Taskbar pane of the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog called Taskbar buttons. This option has three possible values:

Always combine, hide labels. This is the default view style, and it causes square taskbar buttons with no labels.

Combine when taskbar is full. This is the optimal view style. Taskbar buttons for running windows will have labels, while buttons for non-running windows will not. If the taskbar fills up with too many icons, multiple windows will be combined into a single button.

Never combine. This view style works almost identically to the previous one except that buttons are never combined.

My recommendation is to choose the middle option, Combine when taskbar is full. This is superior to Never combine because that last option triggers a difficult-to-find and use taskbar switcher UI to appear if the taskbar fills up.

Of course, re-configuring the taskbar doesn't solve all of the problems with this ill-conceived UI construct. Anything that's pinned to the taskbar still disappears from the Start Menu's most recently used (MRU) list. But if you really want a particular shortcut to appear on the Start Menu, you can do so, sort of: You can pin items to the Start Menu, too. They don't technically appear in the MRU but will instead appear above the MRU in the top left portion of the Start Menu. You can't do this from the taskbar (that would be too logical), so you'll have to navigate into the Start Menu's All Programs list, find the item(s) you want, right-click, and choose Pin to Start Menu.

Here, I've pinned IE to the Start Menu.

Desktop gadgets

This is just a neat observation: In recent builds of Windows 7, including the Beta, Microsoft has changed the behavior for Desktop Gadgets (previously called Sidebar Gadgets) so that they now appear on screen arranged along the right side of the desktop as they used to in Windows Vista when the Windows Sidebar was still available. To see what I mean, open the Gadget Gallery (right-click the desktop and choose Gadgets) and then double-click on a few gadgets in the window. They'll lineup right there on the right side of the screen. Just as they did in Windows Vista.

Now, gadgets line up just like they did in Windows Vista.

Devices and Printers

I mentioned this feature in my Windows 7 Beta review, but I'd like to point out again that it's not just Device Manager for Dummies: This new Windows 7 feature can actually find and fix problems with your PC. And it really works. I've used this feature to find missing drivers on two different PCs now, and in both cases a similar search via Device Manager netted no lover at all.

Here's how it works. Launch Devices and Printers (use Start Menu search) and locate any devices with a yellow bang graphic on its icon. Right-click and choose Troubleshoot to launch one of Windows 7's stealthy new features: A troubleshooting infrastructure that links back to Microsoft's data center to always provide the most up-to-date help. The troubleshooter will detect the problem and look for solutions. And while I can't claim a 100 percent success rate quite yet, it's certainly worked better than device manager: I found a biometric driver and fixed a Bluetooth problem on my laptop, and found a system management bus driver on my desktop using this tool. Nice!

Devices and Printers could end up being one of the greatest stealth features in Windows 7.

UAC problems are a thing of the past

Back when Windows Vista was still new, I was one of the few people trying to explain that the much-reviled User Account Control (UAC) security measure actually got much less annoying over time (which it did). But perception means a lot, and Microsoft has reengineered UAC to be much less annoying out of the box in Windows 7. So much so that you will rarely if ever notice it. In fact, I almost never encounter UAC in the Windows 7 Beta. It's a complete non-issue.

Stability issues

While most of the Windows 7 Beta experience is overwhelmingly positive, there is one dark side I've encountered: Sporadic stability issues with key applications. One of these applications, Internet Explorer 8 (IE 8), is core to Windows 7, while the other, Microsoft Office Word 2007, is the most recent version of the most popular productivity application on earth.

In the case of IE, what I'm seeing is tab crashes on seemingly random Web sites, and while these crashes usually result in a tab being successfully restored, they often bring down the entire application. The Word 2007 issues are, perhaps, more perplexing. Word is, in my opinion, one of the most stable applications I've ever used, and I use Word all day long. In Windows 7, however, the application just freezes up occasionally. It doesn't appear as "not responding" in Task Manager, but it's dead. I have to manually restart the application, losing data every time. It's happened twice just this morning. I don't think I crashed Word twice in a year before moving to Windows 7.

Tray pop-up inconsistencies

In the Windows 7: Simple vs. Easy article mentioned above, I mentioned Microsoft's inconsistent use of Jump Lists, another new Windows 7 feature. But Jump Lists are at least attractive, utilizing a glass-edged new window style. So attractive, in fact, that Microsoft is using this window style elsewhere in the OS. For example, all of the pop-up windows that are triggered by the default tray icons in Windows 7--Action Center, Battery Meter, Wireless Networking, and Volume--look exactly like Jump Lists.

Why is this a problem, you ask? It's inconsistent. To get to Jump Lists for taskbar buttons, you have to right-click. But to get to Jump List-like windows for those Tray icons, you just click. (And if you just click such an icon, you get an old-school pop-up menu.)

So similar ... and yet they're accessed in completely different ways.

So. Is this a huge issue? I guess not. But it is hugely inconsistent. And so typically Microsoft.

Start Menu search inconsistencies

When you search for note why does Sticky Notes appears in the results list ahead of Notepad? I'm just wondering, because you'd think that these results would be returned alphabetically or in order of preference. But while I access Notepad all the time, and never use Sticky Notes, Sticky Notes is always first. That's dumb.

You can see this in other searches too, of course. Just type in Windows and watch the bizarre ordering. If this feature is going to be truly useful and efficient, it needs to work better.

That's all for now...

While I'm sure I'll have more random notes about the Windows 7 Beta, that's all I've got for now. Drop me a note if you've found anything fun, unexpected, or annoying in the Beta, and I'll see about following this article up with more observations. Thanks for reading.

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