Tuesday, 5 May 2009

8 new features in Windows 7

Most of us still use Windows XP, the operating system (OS) that Microsoft first developed way back in 2001. Though the company released Windows Vista in early 2007, few upgraded to it.

Vista came with substantially enhanced security features that also lent the system greater stability, helping to avoid the kind of 'hanging' and 'crashing' that one suffered with previous versions of the OS. But the enhanced features also made Vista so computing-resource hungry that it slowed down all applications. The only way you could make it run well was by substantially upgrading your hardware.

That would have meant significant expenditure. And most Indians -- consumers and enterprises -- thought it just not worth the money. Vista's failure pushed Microsoft to work quickly towards another version. It's called Windows 7 and is expected to be commercially launched later this year, may be October 23, as some reports speculate. A beta version has been under test for a while, and what's called a release candidate (RC) -- a version with potential to be the final product -- has just been launched.

Last week, Mike Nash, corporate VP in Microsoft, gave TOI a demo of the beta version from Redmond, US. Here’s looking into the new features.

Windows 7 addresses Vista's problem of resource hungriness. The boot time was fast, and so was the time taken to come out of the hibernation mode. Reviewer Benny Har-Even in IT PRO found that "Windows 7 brings a more responsive and sprightly feel."

It also seems to work with the smaller and cheaper netbooks that’s fast getting popular. Reviewer Adrian Kingsley-Hughes writes in ZDNet, "Windows 7 works on netbooks, but if you push the system the same way as you push a desktop system then you might need to add more RAM. On top of that, remember that Windows 7 takes some 7.5GB of disk space, so you need to factor this in. My advice would be not to bother upgrading an existing netbook unless you really feel you want a particular Windows 7 feature. Wait for Windows 7 netbooks to arrive on the scene as some of these will hopefully come with 2GB of RAM fitted."

Better desktop organization
For those who use a number of applications and files at the same time, there's a new facility that helps to reduce desktop clutter. You can now drag them and stack them in groups on the taskbar.

And what's more, if you hover the mouse over, say, the Windows Explorer stack, each window in it will appear horizontally as thumbnails, and you can click on the one you need to start using it.

Right clicking on a stack gives a 'jump menu' that lets you see your most recent files. You can also 'pin' files that you use regularly on to a stack, so that they are always there on top of a stack.

Also, if you have a number of windows open and you want to focus on one and avoid the clutter around it, just take the mouse to that window's titlebar and shake it. Everything else disappears. Shake the same way again, and all others reappear.

Viewing documents side by side
In XP, if you want to compare, say, a set of figures in one document with those in another, you have to go alternately into the two documents.

In Windows 7, you can just drag one document or window to one side of your screen and it will snap to that side filling half the screen, and then you can drag the other document to the other side, and it will fill up the other side. Easy to compare, or copy from one to the other.

Remote media streaming
This one wasn't there in the beta version but is available on the RC. It allows you to access all the files on your home computer remotely, somewhat like how Slingbox allows you to remotely access the TV channels you get on your home TV. We didn't see a demo, so not sure how well it works in India.

Windows XP mode
Indians who like to keep their old stuff longer will like this. It allows you to run a XP application on Windows 7. But Preston Gralla of ComputerWorld who tested the feature says home users are not likely to have a great experience with it.

"Sharing files between the two environments (XP and 7) will be a challenge... (and) it's not designed for games," he says. However, he finds it a great tool for businesses that have already sunk money into XP applications. Microsoft says small businesses using, say, Tally accounting solutions on XP will be able to continue using those on Windows 7.

Device compatibility
Microsoft's Nash says almost all devices will work with Windows 7. "The customer will not have to enquire whether a device he is buying (printer, fax machine, smart card reader, network controller, in fact, anything) will work with the OS," he says. The OS also identifies the device being installed and offers appropriate follow-on options.

Less annoying security
One big trouble with Vista was that each time a change was made to the system, a dialogue box would pop up asking you if you were ok with the change being made. It was designed as a security measure, to keep you aware of hackers trying to write on to your system.

But it proved a huge annoyance for users installing new applications frequently. Windows 7 now allows you to set the level of information you desire.

Enabling touch
Windows 7 comes with touch capability, which means you can use your fingers on the screen to perform many functions. Now, that can be really fun in certain applications. But you need a PC that's touch enabled. Windows 7 may encourage many now to look at that option. So, should you upgrade from XP to 7 when it is released?

The new version has won mostly good reviews. Benny Har-Even says Windows 7 makes for the most exciting upgrade for Windows users since the arrival of Windows XP. Jamshed Avari of Chip magazine, who has been testing the beta version, says Windows 7 still has many bugs, is not stable and does not still have technology support. He believes a stable version may take another 7 to 8 months.

Jason Hiner of ZDNet, however, thinks there's nothing in Windows 7 that matters. "In fact, the computer operating system has never mattered less than it does today," he says, considering the way the web is taking over our most important requirements.

Finally, here's an interesting comment found on Trusted Reviews: "I'd rather save my money in times like these than upgrade an OS, which could mean bugs, lack of drivers, upgrading older printers and peripherals, maybe even the PC, as well as application software and utilities, plugins, shareware, codecs... I have better things to do and buy with my time and money, when XP is doing everything I really need."

-- TNN (Sujit John and Shivani Mody)