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Windows 7 Review, Part 10: Bundled Applications

When it comes to the quality and volume of bundled applications in Windows 7, Microsoft's latest operating system is in an interesting position. On the one hand, several previously bundled applications are no longer provided with Windows 7, though many are available for free as separate downloads. (Others, however, are simply gone for good, as we'll discuss below.) On the flipside, the exodus of often superfluous utilities from Windows 7 can be seen as a good thing: The OS is smaller and more lightweight thanks to the absence of what was, in Windows Vista especially, an eclectic, confusing, and overly-voluminous collection of applications and other utilities. How you view the situation in Windows 7, then, will depend largely on your perspective.

As far as I'm concerned, Microsoft has mostly done the right thing. Many of the bundled applications in Windows Vista (Meeting Space? What?) were just weird and went largely unused. And for the truly high-value applications that were spun out of Windows and provided instead with the Windows Live Essentials suite, there's an argument to be made that the unbundling will lead to more frequent updates. We'll see if that happens.

There are some illogical aspects to the new Microsoft strategy. For example, Windows 7 includes Windows DVD Maker, but it does not include Windows Movie Maker. Why one is still present and not the other is unclear and, I think, will be confusing to users. Also, previously obvious applications like Windows Calendar and Windows Contacts are now gone for good. You can get back much of the functionality from these apps, as it turns out, but via a download-only application called Windows Live Mail. What? A mail application manages my schedule? Sorry, but that doesn't make sense to me. And it certainly won't make sense to most typical users.

These are mostly minor concerns. But they're worth noting because they will confuse users. But then that is where myself and other reviewers come in. And in this part of my Windows 7 review, I'll highlight which bundled applications do--and do not--come with Microsoft's latest operating system. Fortunately, many of those that do not technically ship with the OS are easy to acquire and, when installed, act like native parts of Windows 7. Too, many PC makers will simply opt to bundle these applications with their Windows 7-based PCs. So for many users, the line between bundled and unbundled will be greyer than ever.

Here's what's happening.

Applications that are bundled with Windows 7

Microsoft bundles a number of applications and utilities in Windows 7, and several are worth longer discussions. Some, of course, have been covered elsewhere in this review. Internet Explorer 8, for example, is discussed in Part 7: Internet Features. And the many digital media solutions, including Windows Media Player, Windows Media Center, Windows DVD Maker, are all covered in Chapter 8: Digital Media Features.

Two applications, Paint and WordPad, have been updated fairly dramatically, both for the first time in years. The most obvious change to both, of course, is the addition of the second-generation ribbon user interface called Scenic Ribbon. This toolbar-like construct exposes features that were previously hidden and you're probably at least passingly familiar with the first generation ribbon that debuted in Office 2007.

Windows 7 Bundled Applications
The Scenic Ribbon appears in Paint and WordPad (and Windows Live Movie Maker) and is available to third party app developers.

Paint, in particular, has gotten a surprisingly thorough makeover in Windows 7. I've been using this tool daily for several years now as part of my image creation and editing workflow, and the version in Windows 7 is simply excellent. There are many new capabilities, including numerous brushes and shapes, easy transparent selections, and more. If you've seen any of the promo graphics I've created for this site in the past year, chances are it passed through Paint at least once before appearing on the site.

WordPad picks up the ribbon too, but the changes there are less dramatic. It does support the new Open XML (*.docx) and Open Document (*.odf) document formats, however, so this app is a great tool for those with older Office versions who need to read newer documents. It's largely unsuitable for mainstream work, however, and doesn't even support basic features like grammar and spelling corrections.

On the utility front, there are some interesting changes and additions. The age-old Calculator utility has been dramatically updated for Windows 7, and now sports numerous modes and built-in functions and worksheets. (It's so different from previous versions, I've written up a detailed Feature Focus article describing the changes.)

Windows 7 Bundled Applications
Calculator picks up a bunch of new functionality, including this handy mortgage calculator.

Windows 7 also includes a Sticky Notes application instead of the Notes gadget that graced Windows Vista. This one runs like a normal application and so provides a taskbar button along with an associated (if not hugely useful) Jump List.

Windows 7 Bundled Applications
Sticky Notes.

XPS Viewer staggers in from Windows Vista--does anyone ever actually use this thing?--along with the Snipping Tool screen capture utility that debuted in Windows XP Tablet PC Edition and is now available in all mainstream Windows 7 versions. (Don't worry, the PRTSCN screen capture methods still work too.) For you old-timers, Windows Fax and Scan soldiers along in Windows 7, as does the Windows Journal application, which also debuted first on tablet PCs.

On the games front, what you'll see will depend on which version of Windows 7 you get. All versions have a basic complement of games (FreeCell, Hearts, Minesweeper, Purble Palace, Solitaire, Spider Solitaire), while Home Premium and above also get premium games like Internet Backgammon, Internet Checkers, Internet Spades, and Mahjong Titans. These games were all updated for Windows Vista and carry across unchanged in Windows 7 for the most part. (Those who purchase multi-touch PCs will also likely get a number of touch-based games as part of the Microsoft Touch Pack for Windows 7 as described in Part 9 of this review, Mobility and Touch.)

Finally, like Windows Vista, Windows 7 also includes a number of lightweight software gadgets, though Windows 7 dispenses with the separate Windows Sidebar environment and instead presents the gadgets directly on the Windows desktop. (This was optional in Windows Vista.) With one exception--Windows Media Center--all of the gadgets in Windows 7 carry over from Windows Vista almost without change (they've been modified in minor ways to accommodate touch interfaces and high-resolution screens only). As such, they are almost completely uninteresting.

Windows 7 Bundled Applications
In Windows 7, gadgets can appear only on the desktop.

Applications that are not bundled with Windows 7 but are available separately

To adhere to antitrust requirements in the US and abroad, Microsoft has removed a number of applications from Windows and made them available as part of a free download called Windows Live Essentials. This software bundle includes a number of excellent applications and utilities, but the following are successors of (or replacements for) applications that previously came bundled with Windows:

Windows Live Mail. Contrary to its name, this excellent multi-function application replaces not just Windows Mail from Windows Vista (Outlook Express in XP) but also Windows Contacts and Windows Calendar.

Windows Live Messenger. Microsoft's newest instant messaging (IM) client was previously available in Windows XP as Windows Messenger. Thanks to South Korea, that's no longer the case.

Windows Live Photo Gallery. An excellent photo (and home video) management tool that replaces Windows Photo Gallery from Windows Vista.

Windows Live Movie Maker. Previously available as Windows Movie Maker in Windows XP and Vista, this application can acquire, edit, and share digital video.

Windows Live Family Safety. Though Windows 7 includes some of the parental control functionality that debuted in Windows Vista, some of that functionality has also been broken out and put into the separate Windows Live Family Safety package. This is the one case where the new solution offers less value than the original: Family Safety is difficult to configure and use, and by separating parental controls into two separate UIs, Microsoft has made this functionality less coherent and simple.

[ Learn more about these and the other applications in Windows Live Esssentials. ]

It's also worth mentioning that Microsoft creates a free anti-virus and anti-malware solution called Microsoft Security Essentials (see my review). I've had excellent results with this application and recommend it to all Windows users.

Windows Vista applications that are no longer included in Windows 7

While many of the applications that came in Windows Vista but were stripped out of Windows 7 are available as separate downloads, some are simply gone for good. The following list documents a few of the major Vista applications that are simply missing in action in Windows 7.

Windows Sidebar. As noted above, Windows 7 does include the software gadgets that came in Windows Vista, but it does not include the Sidebar environment for displaying them. This isn't a huge loss, and if you really want to, you can configure Windows 7's desktop gadgets to display alongside the edge of the screen. But what you lose is the ability to place the Sidebar (and thus all the gadgets it contains) "on top of" other windows, and outside the area used for maximized windows. Microsoft provides a partial solution for this in the form of Aero Peek, which lets you "peek" under open windows to see icons and gadgets on the desktop.

Windows Calendar. While much of Windows Calendar's functionality is available through Windows Live Mail (I know, I know), some important functionality is missing. For example, calendar groups, tasks, and calendar publish and subscribe didn't make the transition, at least not yet. And to be truly useful, Windows Live Mail's calendar functionality needs to be tied into a Windows Live ID and the Windows Live Calendar online service. That wasn't the case with Vista's Windows Calendar.

Windows Meeting Space. Windows Vista included a weird peer-to-peer (p2p) collaboration solution called Windows Meeting Space that supported ad-hoc networking (for collaborating with wireless cards even when no wireless network was available, participant detection (People Near Me), sharable workspaces, and more. It's not present in Windows 7, and I don't expect anyone to actually miss it.

Windows Ultimate Extras. In a half-hearted bid to entice users to select its most-expensive Windows Vista version, Microsoft created a sorry set of add-on applications, games, and services called Ultimate Extras. The collection of Extras grew slowly over time, but Microsoft clearly didn't care a bit about it, and eventually discontinued the feature. It's not present in Windows 7 and, worse yet, if you upgrade a Windows Vista machine to Windows 7, you actually lose any Ultimate Extras you previously installed.

Applications you can remove from Windows 7

Finally, Microsoft has made it easier than ever to remove bundled applications from Windows 7. But it's curious which applications you can remove and which you can. All (or any) of the games, IE 8, Windows DVD Maker, Windows Media Player, Windows Media Center, Windows Fax and Scan, the Windows Gadgets (only as a set), and the XPS Viewer can all be removed. Other tools--like Calculator, Sticky Notes, and more--cannot be removed. It's unclear what the dividing line is here.

Windows 7 Bundled Applications
Using this simple interface, you can remove many bundled applications from Windows 7.

Final thoughts

Windows 7 doesn't offer any dramatic surprises in the bundled applications department, but many of these applications have received significant upgrades that provide real value to users. Internet Explorer 8, Windows Media Player 12, Windows Media Center, Paint, and Calculator are all notable updates, for example. Others, like Sticky Notes and Snipping Tool, don't really improve Windows per se, but should prove of interest to some users.

A bit more alarmingly, Microsoft's decision to unbundle email, contacts, and calendaring functionality from Windows has resulted in a confusing new solution, Windows Live Mail, which has to be separately downloaded. But it's not just a separate download; most people would never suspect that this application has calendar management functionality as well. Why there isn't a separate Windows Calendar application is unclear.

In any event, Windows 7 users are well-served by a solid collection of bundled applications and utilities. You just have to know where to find them, in some cases.

Continue to Part 11: Compatibility and Reliability...

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