While you could always shell out $60 for a pointlessly long Windows 7 book that teaches you everything from how to use a mouse to the vagaries and history of TCP/IP networking, I think there's a better way. You're already a Windows user, so we can make certain assumptions about your needs and wants. And when it comes to the next version of Windows, what you want to know--what you need to know--is what's changed, what's different. And that's why I'm writing this Feature Focus series: To focus on the new features in Windows 7, Microsoft's new client operating system.
It won't happen overnight. But with Windows 7 now completed and generally available, I will be filling it out throughout 2010. (And if you do want to take it to the next level, please check out my latest book, Windows 7 Secrets.)
Here are the new features I've identified in Windows 7. If you find a missing feature, or would prefer for me to cover certain features first, please do let me know. I will be adding new articles to this series on a regular basis going forward.
While previous versions of Windows included a feature called Windows Security Center that monitored the various security features of the system, Windows 7 takes this functionality to the next level with Action Center. In addition to monitoring security, Action Center also monitors the OS's maintenance features and consolidates alerts from numerous Windows features into a single interface.
This replacement for Show Desktop in Windows 7 lets you "peek" behind all of the open windows on your desktop and easily view and Windows Gadgets or files on your desktop. You can also peek into the contents of specific open windows.
Windows 7 includes a unique new way to minimize all windows except for the currently selected window: Just grab it by the title bar and shake vigorously. It's called Aero Shake!
By dragging open windows in certain ways, you can "snap" them to the edges of the screen, maximize, or minimize. This obviates the need to click tiny onscreen elements, making these features more accessible to users.
In Windows 7, Microsoft combines various system preferences--including the desktop background, the Aero glass window color, the system sounds, and the screen saver--into Aero Themes you can customize, save, and share with others.
Backup and Restore
Windows Vista's stellar backup and restore features have been streamlined and simplified in Windows 7. Like its predecessor, the version of Backup and Restore in Windows 7 supports both data backup and image-based system backup, but now the capabilities are more consistent across product editions.
Bitlocker To Go
The full-drive encryption feature that first debuted in Windows Vista has been updated in Windows 7 to support removable USB storage devices like flash memory drives and portable hard drives.
The Windows Calculator utility inexplicably receives a major upgrade in Windows 7 with calculation history, unit conversion, calculation templates, data calculations, and other new features.
Windows 7 includes numerous improvements related to computer displays, including integrated display color calibration, improved high DPI support, ClearType, and improved support for external displays. A new Windows Key + P keyboard shortcut helps you easily switch between connected displays.
Microsoft provides several unique Windows 7 features related to hardware device support, including Device Stage, Devices and Printers, location-aware printing, improved power management, and integration with the Windows Troubleshooting infrastructure.
Microsoft has consolidated the most common network-based sharing tasks into a single simple interface called HomeGroup. Computers in a HomeGroup can easily share documents, digital media files, and printers over a home network.
Internet Explorer 8
Windows 7 ships with the latest version of Microsoft's web browser, Internet Explorer 8, which offers such new features as the Favorites Bar, Web Slices, Accelerators, Visual Search, and InPrivate browsing.
In Windows 7, Microsoft has realized a long-term goal to replace the static special shell folders from previous Windows versions with virtualized shell locations that aggregate content from a variety of physical locations. Libraries are implemented as virtual folders and the views they present are the results of search queries. Libraries are also the basis for HomeGroup file and digital media content sharing.
Parental Controls and Family Safety
The parental control functionality that debuted in Windows Vista is updated in Windows 7 to support multiple games rating systems and parental control providers.
Problem Steps Recorder
Windows 7 includes a new utility called the Problem Steps Recorder that captures screen shots of the steps a user is taking so that help desk personnel can provide a fix without physically having to visit the desktop.
ReadyBoost first appeared in Windows Vista, providing users with a way to cheaply and easily improve the performance of their PCs by utilizing a USB memory key as a memory cache. In Windows 7, ReadyBoost is enhanced in numerous way: It supports multiple memory devices, can work with USB memory keys, Secure Digital (SD) memory cards, and other internal flash devices, and supports over 4 GB of storage per device.
Scenic Ribbon, Paint, and WordPad
Microsoft has evolved the Ribbon control from Office 2007 and made it part of the operating system in Windows 7. This new version of the Ribbon, called the scenic Ribbon, is used by two Windows 7 applications, Paint and WordPad, and can be used by third party applications going forward as well.
The Windows 7 Start Menu is an enhanced version of the Start Menu that debuted in Windows Vista, and features Jump Lists and an improved Start Menu Search. But the single biggest feature, perhaps, is that the Start Menu is being deemphasized as an application launcher because of the new taskbar.
The Sticky Notes utility loses the bizarre Windows XP-style interface from previous Windows versions and supports both ink and text input.
Tablet PC and Windows Touch
After making Tablet PC functionality available more broadly in Windows Vista, Microsoft is improving this technology in Windows 7 with better handwriting recognition that has improved accuracy, speed, and support for math expressions, personalized custom dictionaries, and 13 new languages. Additionally, Windows 7 builds on the Tablet PC and touch capabilities from previous Windows versions and adds pervasive support for multi-touch. All of the major UI components, including the Start Menu, Windows Taskbar, and Explorer, are touch-friendly in Windows 7.
User Account Control
While much reviled by certain users, the User Account Control (UAC) feature that debuted in Windows Vista played a huge role in making that system the most secure Windows version yet. In Windows 7, UAC is extensively updated to be less annoying, and the overall system has been fine-tuned to minimize the number of UAC prompts that interrupt users.
View Available Networks
Windows 7 includes a new Jump List-like utility for finding and connecting to Wi-Fi, mobile broadband, dial-up, and VPN connections. Unlike the similar UI in Windows Vista, this utility, called View Available Networks, does not require you to navigate through a series of dialogs and windows.
Windows Experience Index
The Windows Experience Index continues in Windows 7, but like Nigel's amp in "Spinal Tap," it now goes to 11. Well, to 7.9.
Microsoft has significantly updated Windows Explorer yet again in Windows 7, this time with a new toolbar, a resizable search box, and a new navigational pane.
The Windows Sidebar disappears in Windows 7, but the Gadgets continue on and are integrated with the desktop.
Windows Live Essentials 2011
Available as an optional download, Windows Live Essentials 2011 is an application suite that includes a number of new versions of classic Windows applications, including Windows Live Mail (email and calendar), Windows Live Photo Gallery (photos), Windows Live Messenger (instant messaging), Windows Live Movie Maker (video editing), Windows Live Family Safety (enhanced parental controls), and more. And the 2011 version, currently in beta, is the best yet.
Windows Media Player
Microsoft's media player received a major makeover in Windows 7 with several new features, including enhanced DVD playback, a sleek new Now Playing mode, dramatically improved format compatibility (including AAC and H.264), Windows Taskbar Jump List customization, PC-to-PC and Internet-based media streaming, and a new Play To feature.
Windows Recovery Environment and Startup Repair
The Windows Recovery Environment was included with Windows Vista but wasn't installed by default. In Windows 7, it is installed into the OS partition automatically, providing access to a suite of recovery tools including the excellent Startup Repair, which automatically fixes boot problems and returns the PC to its normal booting state.
The Windows Taskbar has been dramatically enhanced in Windows 7 to minimize clutter. New Taskbar features like Jump Lists, fly-over and full-screen icon previews, and more.
This new Windows 7 feature diagnoses and resolves common operating system and hardware issues. It works automatically, or you can visit the Troubleshooting control panel to find problems to troubleshoot. Windows Troubleshooting integrates with Action Center so you'll be notified when relevant new troubleshooters from Microsoft and third parties are made available.
Windows Virtual PC and Windows XP Mode
This combination of solutions provides users with the ability to run many older Windows XP applications in a virtual Windows XP environment, side-by-side with native Windows 7 applications. It's the final piece of the Windows 7 application compatibility functionality.
More new Windows 7 features
Accessibility improvements. Microsoft has revamped the accessibility features in Windows 7 with improved speech recognition and a new Magnifier utility with full-screen and lens-mode views.
Blu-Ray support. Windows 7 natively supports Blu-Ray optical discs and enables you to write to Blu-Ray recordable media.
Credential Manager. The new and improved Windows 7 Credential Manager lets you save credentials, like user names and passwords, so that you can more easily logon on to Web sites, networked computers, and other resources automatically. Credentials are saved in the Windows Vault and can be backed up and restored to encrypted Managed Information Card (MIC) files. (Credential Manager uses Windows CardSpace technology.)
DirectAccess. This feature is aimed at business users who need to securely access corporate network resources while away from the office. Essentially a simple replacement for VPN connections, DirectAccess requires Windows Server 2008 R2 on the server-side.
DirectX 11. Windows 7 includes the latest version of the DirectX multimedia libraries.
Getting Started. This replacement for Windows Vista's Welcome Center no longer appears the first time you boot into the Windows desktop, but it still provides a central location for discovering new features, personalizing the system, transferring data from your previous Windows PC, and discovering and launching other common tasks.
MinWin. The componentized core of Windows 7, which includes both the traditional operating system kernel as well as the minimum necessary surrounding support technologies to create a bootable (and, for Microsoft, testable) system. Note that, in Windows 7, MinWin isn't a feature per se but is rather the foundation upon which the rest of the OS is built.
System Restore. The Windows 7 version of System Restore works as before, providing a way to non-destructively return a PC to a previous point in time, but is more reliable, predictable, and effective than its predecessors.
Virtual Hard Disk support. Windows 7 allows you to mount a Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) as a drive in Explorer so that you can navigate its contents like a physical hard disk. It also supports the ability to boot from VHD images.
VPN Reconnect. Windows 7 users who still need to make traditional VPN connections will benefit from a new VPN Reconnect feature that automatically reestablishes a VPN connection when you temporarily lose Internet connectivity.
Windows Defender. The malware and spyware protection utility from Windows Vista continues in Windows 7 with a few changes: It's been integrated into the new Action Center and its centralized notification system. But Defender also drops the useful Software Explorer feature, so users will have to look elsewhere for a way to prevent unwanted applications from running a startup.
Windows Easy Transfer. The Windows Easy Transfer utility that debuted in Windows Vista has been substantially updated with a new user interface and new capabilities. As before, Easy Transfer helps you transfer files, folders, and program and system settings from your previous Windows install to your new one. This time around, however, the process is simpler and more streamlined.
Windows Live. Windows 7 integrates with a growing collection of Windows Live services, including Windows Live Photos, Windows Live Profile, Windows Live People, Windows Live Spaces, Windows Live Home, Windows Live SkyDrive, Windows Live Groups, Windows Live Calendar, Windows Live Events, Windows Live Hotmail, and more.
Windows Media Center. Microsoft's ten-foot UI for digital media content is improved with a slightly enhanced user interface, multi-touch support, HomeGroup integration, and various global broadcast TV standards.
Windows PowerShell. Windows 7 ships with the Windows PowerShell 2.0 scripting environment and the Windows PowerShell Integrated Scripting Environment (ISE).
Windows Search. Windows 7 comes with the latest version of Windows Search, and unlike the version that first shipped with Windows Vista, you can now obtain instant search results from network-based file shares as well as local hard drives. Microsoft has also improved the performance of local searches, sorting, and grouping.
Windows Update. Microsoft's utility for downloading and installing system updates has been enhanced in Windows 7 to take advantage of changes in the security model and to better expose optional and featured updates.
XPS Viewer. While Windows Vista users are forced to use Internet Explorer to view XML Paper Specification (XPS) documents--essentially Microsoft's PDF knock-off--Windows 7 gains a dedicated XPS Viewer application.
Sometimes, Microsoft adds features during the beta and then removes them for various reasons. Maybe they'll show up in Windows 8 or other Microsoft products. Who knows? What we do know is that these features were originally going to be included in Windows 7. And now they're not.
Aimed primarily at families, Guest Mode allows you to configure accounts for children and other guests that cannot affect or permanently change the underlying system. Once the user logs off, all changes are wiped clean and the account is returned to its initial state.