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Windows 7 Review, Part 4: New User Experiences

If you're one of the millions of people who use Windows Vista, your very first reaction to Windows 7 may be somewhat mixed. After all, the obvious, up-front user experiences in Windows 7 appear to be simply carried over from its predecessor. But it doesn't take long to notice the differences. Windows 7 installs more quickly than does Vista, and with less effort. It boots up and resumes from sleep and hibernation more quickly. It features major UI innovations in its new taskbar, Jump Lists, and virtualized Libraries. It provides the native ability to interact with the entire system using multi-touch and gesture functionality, the first desktop OS to do so.

Dig a little deeper, and more and more new features become apparent. Microsoft went over virtually the entire Windows OS, fine-tuned every single feature to be simpler, easier, and more efficient, and then made sure it was all as attractive and usable as possible. People have deridingly called Windows 7 "Windows Vista done right," and while there's some truth to that, a better way to look at it is this: Microsoft took the solid foundation it created with Windows Vista and tweaked, prodded, and improved every inch of the damn thing. And what they came up with was Windows 7, the sexiest version of Windows ever created.

That's right, I called Windows sexy. Get used to it.

For the first time ever, Windows fans have nothing to be ashamed of. Sure, previous Windows versions provided a number of real world advantages over the competition, but in this release, finally, Microsoft has come up with an upgrade that is simpler, better looking, easier-to-use, and superior in every meaningful way to what Apple has created with the latest version of Mac OS X. Windows 7 is the no compromises version of Windows, and by focusing on what really matters in this release--every single point at which the user interacts with the system--Microsoft has created the superior product. They got the underpinnings right with Windows Vista. And now, Windows 7 is all about dotting the i's and crossing the t's. (Maybe Apple will catch-up with the next version.)

In this part of my review of Windows 7, I will focus on improvements to the overall Windows 7 user experience, with an emphasis on those user interface features that have changed the most. There's a lot here, so buckle up.

Less is more

One of the first things you'll notice when you boot into the Windows 7 desktop for the first time is how pristine things are by default. There's only a single icon on the desktop, Recycle Bin, and Microsoft no longer throws up unwelcome, in-your-face UIs like the Welcome Center, Windows Sidebar, and various notification area balloon pop-ups. The taskbar includes only three buttons by default--Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, and Windows Explorer--and the notification area has just three, Action Center, Networking, and Volume. (Mobile computers will see a fourth notification icon, for Power Options.

Windows 7 user experience
The Windows 7 desktop: Clean, simple, efficient.

Yes, PC makers can and will screw things up with crapware, unwanted icons, numerous startup programs, and other nonsense. But the stock Windows 7 user experience as defined by Microsoft is one of Spartan efficiency and quiet. Over time, Windows will of course prompt for things--Maybe you'd like to consider backing up? Is your anti-virus solution installed and up-to-date?--but that will only happen after a quiet period, providing you with time to get situated.

You are also free to customize the system as you see fit, adding icons to the desktop, pinning shortcuts to the Start Menu and/or taskbar, organizing the notification icons in the notification area. There are pretty new Aero Themes to enable, if desired. Dig a little deeper and a world of customization appears. But unlike with previous Windows versions, nothing is assumed. Finally, your computer acts like it's your computer.

The Windows desktop

As noted previously, the default Windows 7 desktop is a sea of open space, with just a single icon planted there. (And you have to think that icon, for Recycle Bin, will simply become part of the taskbar in a future release.) Those that like to populate the desktop with shortcuts are still free to do so, of course. You can also add a selection of Desktop Gadgets to the desktop, if you're so inclined. In Vista, these gadgets were part of an extraneous bit of UI called the Sidebar, and it was enabled by default. This time around, the Sidebar is gone but the gadgets remain. Indeed, the stock collection of gadgets is largely unchanged from that which was offered with Vista, an odd shortcoming.

Windows 7 user experience
The bland selection of gadgets from Vista comes over largely unchanged.

Microsoft didn't skimp on desktop customization, however. The familiar right-click desktop menu has been simplified since Vista, with the screen resolution and other personalization options separated for quicker access. The Personalization control panel has been significantly overhauled with support for new Aero Themes which combine wallpaper (or, optionally, constantly rotating sets of wallpaper), an Aero window color, a sound scheme, and a screensaver into a single, savable, and shareable entity. Windows 7 ships with a number of very high quality themes, and you can download more online from a variety of places or make your own.

Windows 7 user experience
Awesome new Aero Themes make customizing Windows 7 fun and easy.

Windows 7 also includes dramatically better window management than its predecessors. A new Aero Peek function, curiously exposed as an unmovable rectangular glass panel to the right of the system clock, hides any floating windows on mouse-over so you can see icons and gadgets on the desktop.

Windows 7 user experience
Aero Peek lets you "peek" under open windows at the desktop.

Windows Flip--what most people think of as "ALT + TAB" since that's how you access it--has been updated to provide full-screen previews of the currently selected window only. So as you scroll through the list of open windows, all windows but the currently-selected one will be hidden. It's a nice effect.

Windows 7 user experience
Windows Flip picks up a nice windows preview capability.

A new set of Aero Snap window management features cause windows to snap intelligently to screen edges, making window resizing and placement easier than ever. For example, you can "snap" a floating window into a maximized window simply by dragging it to the top of the screen. Want to snap a window to the left half of the display? Just drag it right to the left edge.

Windows 7 user experience
Aero Snap lets you "snap" windows to the edges of screens and perform other window management tasks.

And, yes, there's a frivolous Aero Share feature that minimizes all other windows when you grab onto a floating window and shake it with the mouse. Shake it again to restore all those minimized windows. And you thought the Mac was fun.

New taskbar

In Windows 7, the taskbar has been significantly elevated from its previous pedestrian use as a way to track open windows. Now, it takes on double duty, managing both running and non-running applications (and open and unopened windows). In this way, the taskbar behaves like the Mac OS X Dock, which has been widely derided as a UI disaster. But familiarity does wonders, and after using the Windows 7 taskbar for almost a year now, I'm certainly getting used to it. (That said, I don't feel that the default taskbar configuration is appropriate for most users. A simple configuration change, described below, solves this problem nicely.)

To understand what's changed in the Windows 7 taskbar, consider the taskbar from Windows XP or Vista. Looking at this UI construct, you'll see a Start button, a Quick Launch toolbar, the main taskbar area, and then the notification area and system clock. The Quick Launch toolbar was basically a small toolbar with shortcuts for those applications and shell locations you accessed most often. Some people never used or customized Quick Launch. Others over-populated it dozens of icons, missing the point in my mind. But for those that did use it in previous Windows versions, Quick Launch was an indispensable tool, and it offered far quicker access to much-needed tools than the Start Menu ever could.

So in Windows 7, Microsoft has combined the Quick Launch toolbar right into the taskbar. The goal, Microsoft says, is to improve efficiency: Now, everything you need is right where you want it, "at your fingertips." (This is literally true on Windows Touch-enabled systems.) I guess I buy this. But if you follow Microsoft's new paradigm and stock your taskbar with shortcuts to applications you use the most often, what you're left with is a weird two-tiered system for launching applications. Some are on the taskbar. Others are in the Start Menu.

Windows 7 user experience
The new Windows 7 taskbar combines shortcuts for non-running applications with buttons for running applications.

Adding to this weirdness is that shortcuts you've pinned to the taskbar no longer show up in the Start Menu's most recently used list. (Apparently, the list only applies to those items you most recently used from the Start Menu only.) It makes me wonder if the Start Menu's years of application launching functionality are coming to a close.

In any event, it's not a total disaster. The Windows 7 taskbar is bigger by default than previous versions, with bigger, easier-to-see and read buttons. (You can put it back to a smaller size, but you won't want to.) It's pre-populated with the aforementioned IE 8, Windows Media Player, and Windows Explorer shortcuts, but you can pin your own shortcuts there and remove ones you don't want. And finally, you can reorder shortcuts in the taskbar, an oft-repeated request from previous Windows versions.

Windows 7 user experience
Finally, it's possible to reorder taskbar buttons using your existing drag and drop skills.

Where the Windows 7 taskbar really falls apart, however, is its new default view style where each shortcut or button only displays an icon, but no text label. Furthermore, taskbar buttons are grouped by default, so if you have, say, three Windows Explorer windows open, there's still only one taskbar button (with a too-subtle graphical treatment that suggests there are multiple windows, but does nothing to tell you how many). This default view is too confusing for most people, I feel, and is inefficient. In cases where you have multiple instances of a single application or window, it would be better to have separate buttons for each window. Fortunately, you change the default behavior to do this: In the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties window, navigate to the Taskbar tab and choose "Combine when taskbar is full" from the Taskbar buttons drop-down list. Voila! Fixed.

Windows 7 user experience
A better taskbar: Customize the taskbar to show button labels and separate buttons for each application window.

Regardless of the view style you use, the new taskbar does provide some other interesting new capabilities. If you mouse over the button for an open window or running application, the taskbar displays a handy pop-up thumbnail of the underlying window.

Windows 7 user experience
Taskbar thumbnails provide at-a-glance previews at the underlying window.

(In the case of grouped windows, you'll see multiple thumbnails, arrayed horizontally.)

Windows 7 user experience
Multiple windows? No Problem: You'll see multiple thumbnails.

To see a full-screen preview of the underlying window, simply mouse-over the thumbnail.

Windows 7 user experience
Mouse over a taskbar thumbnail to see a full-sized preview of the underlying window.

And here is where the system falls apart. Most people, I suspect, will discover this thumbnail behavior just by mousing around, and while it's pretty handy, the first reaction of most who mouse over a taskbar button and then mouse over a full-screen preview will be to move the mouse off of the thumbnail to access that window. And when they do--woosh!--the window will simply disappear. The trick is to click the thumbnail. You've been warned.

The taskbar buttons and previews are all live. So if you minimize, say, Windows Media Player while it's playing a video and then mouse over the application's taskbar button, you'll see the video playing in the thumbnail that appears.

Windows 7 user experience
Taskbar thumbnails are live: Here, a video continues to play in the thumbnail even though Media Player is minimized.

Likewise, file copy operations and IE 8 downloads will replicate their progress bars (and thus the progress of the operation) right in the taskbar button.

Windows 7 user experience
Progress indicators are also exposed via taskbar buttons, a nice (and useful) touch.

This effect is much more attractive and useful if you've enabled the "Combine when taskbar is full" option mentioned above, by the way.

Windows 7 user experience
Even better.

Taskbar buttons can also display a useful new UI called a Jump List. We will discuss that feature separately in the next section.

The new taskbar has some weird limitations which highlight, I think, how immature this thing really is. For example, you cannot pin multiple folder shortcuts to the taskbar. Instead, you can only have a single Windows Explorer button; any folders you try to pin to the taskbar will be added to the Windows Explorer button's Jump List. (Again, Jump Lists are discussed below.) That's just dumb, and a very obvious limitation that should never made it through the final version of the OS. And while you can, in fact, pin Control Panel to the taskbar if you look hard enough, it suffers from the same problem as Windows Explorer: Individual control panel buttons are not possible.

Over in the notification area, Microsoft's simplification efforts have, perhaps, gone too far. I love that the notification area is simple and clean by default. After all, we've all seen those PCs with 26 different tray icons. And you can drag and drop notification icons to reorder them, nice. But the Windows 7 notification area has two serious flaws. First, it behaves inconsistently compared to the regular taskbar. And second, the notification area, while clean and simple, does absolutely nothing to prevent the build-up of unwanted notification icons.

The inconsistency issue is particularly bizarre given that Microsoft just completely retrofitted the taskbar. So, where mousing over a taskbar button provides a nice thumbnail, mousing over a notification icon simply displays an old-school tooltip. To get an informational window with thumbnail-like ornamentation, you must click the notification icon. Meanwhile, while right-clicking a taskbar button provides a Jump List (see below), doing so with a notification icon simply displays an old-fashioned text menu.

Inconsistencies are, of course, a hallmark of Windows, though they are far less common in Windows 7 than in previous versions. I think the notification's handling of unwanted icons is, however, far more serious. That is, it doesn't so much "handle" them as hide them. Instead of providing a means for you to permanently prevent applications from adding icons to the notification area (and thus increasing the system's boot time and reducing its available memory and other resources), Windows 7--gets this--simply lets them load and then hides them under the "Show hidden icons" button that appears to the left of the notification area.

As time goes by and you install more and more applications, many of these applications will be adding unnecessary and unwanted icons to the notification area. But you'll never know, because Windows 7 hides that fact from you. It just seems to be contrary to this system's "the user is in charge" mantra. At least Vista had a nice UI--the Software Explorer from Windows Defender--for removing unwanted notification icons. Windows 7 has removed this UI, though I'm told a replacement is scheduled for the next Windows version.

Windows 7 user experience
Surprise! The notification area hides icons but does nothing to prevent the problem in the first place.

The inconsistencies and weirdnesses of the Windows 7 taskbar suggest to me that there will be improvements aplenty in future Windows versions. But even in this nascent stage, the changes are generally appreciated.

Jump Lists

Though the Start Menu has lost some of its mojo to the new taskbar in Windows 7, one long-time bit of Start Menu functionality is being made more broadly available in this system courtesy of a new feature called Jump Lists. Whereas the global Start Menu was a central jumping off point for all applications and documents, however, Jump Lists are like mini, application- and control panel-specific Start Menus. They appear, attached to applications (and control panel) shortcuts, in both the Start Menu and on the new taskbar. And like the Start Menu itself, Jump Lists are highly customizable, by both application developers and users.

Jump Lists exhibit two types of behaviors: Those that are automatic and those that are customized. By default, application Jump Lists will display a list of the most-recently-used documents that are associated with that application. In the Start Menu, those lists appear like so, expanding out into the right-hand side of the Start Menu:

Windows 7 user experience
A Jump List in the Start Menu.

To display a shortcut's Jump List via the taskbar, a little more work is required. Instead of just mousing over the button, you have to right-click the button to display the underlying application or control panel's Jump List.

Windows 7 user experience
In the taskbar, Jump Lists appear as pop-up menus.

At first, you won't see much in an application's Jump List: Just the name of the application (which can be clicked to launch a new instance of that application, or window) and a Close window option. If you have pinned the shortcut to the Start Menu or taskbar and enable the Jump List from that location, you'll also see an option related to unpinning it. Document-based applications will auto-populate their Jump Lists with links to the 10 most-recently-used documents.

Windows 7 user experience
The Jump List for Microsoft Word displays the ten most recently-accessed documents.

Developers are free to customize their application Jump Lists, and Microsoft has provided a few examples in Windows 7. The Jump List for Internet Explorer 8 lists frequently accessed sites, of course, but also some IE 8-specific tasks, such as opening a new tab and starting an InPrivate browsing session. Windows Media Player Play all music and Resume previous list tasks in addition to a list of previously-accessed content.

The best part of Jump Lists is that you're not relegated to accepting what the application (or the system) gives you. You can also pin items to Jump Lists, just as you can pin them to the Start Menu and taskbar. These pinned items can be documents (attached to applications like Microsoft Word), Internet URLs (IE 8), folder locations (Windows Explorer), and the like.

Windows Explorer and Libraries

Windows XP, Vista and now Windows 7 have all included completely new versions of Windows Explorer, each in turn offering a variety of advantages of their predecessors but confusing users with new layouts and capabilities. In the case of Windows 7, the Explorer rev is almost universally good news, however. First, Explorer windows in Windows 7 pretty much retain their size, position, and customization options, a feat that was well beyond the capabilities of the Explorer version in Windows Vista. (And one of the most annoying shortcomings in that system.)

Second, Explorer benefits greatly by Microsoft's simplification jihad in Windows 7. There's a weirdly bland new light blue toolbar and a super-simple (but easily customized) navigation pane. Icon view styles, as before, are intelligently picked based on the content of the current folder. The windows are just simple and elegant looking.

Windows 7 user experience
Like much in Windows 7, Explorer is simpler, cleaner, and more efficient.

And then there are the Libraries, the glorious, wonderful Libraries. In previous Windows versions, we had special shell folders like My Documents and My Music that mapped to specific locations in the shell hierarchy. In Windows 7, these locations still exist--that is, each user has their own My Documents folder--but they've been deprecated. Instead, Microsoft provides four virtual folders, or Libraries--Documents, Music, Photos, and Videos--which aggregate content from a variety of shell locations and provide the basis for Windows 7's document and media sharing capabilities.

So when you click Documents in the Start Menu, the window that opens up is a library not a folder. By default, it displays content from your own My Documents folder as well as from Public Documents. But you can customize this (and other Libraries) to aggregate content from any local or network-based location(s) you prefer. So if you keep your video collection on a Windows Home Server, you can configure the Videos library to automatically display items from that share too. Nice.

Windows 7 user experience
Libraries make it easier to documents, music, photos, and videos scattered around your PC and home network.

Aside from the organizational capabilities--and the evolution away from drive letters and reliance on physical shell locations that it facilitates--Libraries also provide some unique arrangement views that are not available in normal folder views. These arrangements are particularly good for displaying picture collections.

Windows 7 user experience
Some unique arrangement views are available only in Library windows.

Final thoughts

Overall, the Windows 7 user experience is clean and simple, and more Mac-like than any previous Windows version. But in making the transition to a more Spartan UI, Microsoft has had to make some tradeoffs, and some changes--like the new taskbar--appear to be half-realized. Still, the new UI stuff is one of Windows 7's primary draws, and anyone using Windows XP or Vista today will be blown away by the new visuals. As for you Mac users, sorry. Your time in the sun is over: Windows 7 is better looking and more efficient than anything coming out of Cupertino this year.

Continue to Part 5: Security...

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