A look at what’s new in Windows 7

October 20, 2009 at 1:58 PM Leave a comment

The BBC’s Jason Palmer gets his hands on Windows 7

The newest release of Microsoft’s flagship product Windows is to be released on Thursday.

Check out the video

There are a great many changes to the operating system, which has already been described by one analyst as “a polishing release of Windows Vista”.

Here, BBC News takes a quick run through the most noticeable changes.

Fresh start

From the very start, then: installation. Windows 7 is designed to be a markedly less bulky and resource-intensive OS, so the installation should be comparatively quick, and there’s a particularly lightweight version for netbooks.

The difficulties that plagued upgrades from XP to Vista are gone, because the architecture of Windows 7 rests on the changes made in Vista. Equally, however, that will make upgrading from XP difficult.

If you are aiming to upgrade directly from Windows XP to Windows 7, be aware that Microsoft doesn’t recommend it. Not only is it likely to take significantly longer, the directory structure is different between the two and many applications may not work if not run after a “fresh” installation.

Win 7 screenshot (Microsoft)

The release offers many new personalisation options like desktops

If installing Windows 7 on an older machine, it’s probably best to check with the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor program to see whether your machine is compatible or if you are likely to see the improvements in speed that the OS can in principle offer.

For the most part, software that runs on Vista will run on Windows 7; many big-name software vendors of programs that don’t upgrade easily have free upgrades available on the web.

Microsoft promises that its Windows Easy Transfer will smooth the process of moving your files from an older machine to your new Windows 7 computer.

However, be aware that many simple programs for handling things like instant messaging are missing from Windows 7 on install; instead, the idea is that users will begin to use the cloud-based services that form Windows Live.

First look

With Windows 7 installed, the first thing to note is that it doesn’t look – or, on startup, sound – all that different from Vista.

One quickly noticeable difference is that the desktop widgets, or Gadgets, can now be placed wherever you like on the desktop.

The taskbar along the bottom of the screen has had a few new features added to it: hover over the Internet Explorer bar, for example, and up pop small previews of all the open Explorer windows, even if they’re running live video at the time.

Win 7 screenshot (Microsoft)

Thumbnail previews of open windows

Hover over the previews, and just that window will pop up in full size, with all other windows minimised.

The taskbar also harks back to earlier Windows releases with the return of the “quick launch” menu: put your favourite programs there and they can be run straight from the taskbar.

Continuing in the theme of simplifying your workspace, the stylistic “Aero” features first shown off in Vista have been explored, leading to new features.

Too many windows open? Grab the bar at the top of a window, give it a shake with the mouse, and all other windows minimise. Repeat the process to re-maximise the other windows.

Aero Peek isn’t really a feature per se – a little patch of the right of the taskbar performs the function of the prior “show desktop” icon – but it simply makes the windows transparent, leaving behind their outlines.

Networking opportunity

Microsoft has added a few new bells and whistles for home networking, as well. Each computer that is running Windows 7 on a network can dictate what kinds of files will be shared – documents, videos, or music – and which will remain private.

Win 7 screenshot (Microsoft)

The release allows detailed control of files shared on a home network

Also, there is new functionality in the “Play To” menu for media: users can play a multimedia out to other computers in the network or even an XBox.

Microsoft has also refined the search function that was wholly revamped for Vista. As before, it searches across all hard drives, and keeps a running tally so that results are displayed more or less instantly, as you type – reminiscent of Apple Mac’s search.

In Windows 7, the search results are broken down into sub-lists by type, such as documents, multimedia, programs, and so on.

Users can also create “libraries” of certain types of files – not unlike Mac OS’s “smart folders”: a sort of virtual directory that contains for instance all of your image files, regardless of the folders where they actually reside.

Lastly, Windows incorporates some familiar tricks having to do with “multitouch” functions, either on a mousepad or a touchscreen device, should you have one.

However, these multitouch features work with all applications.

Holding one finger down on an icon while tapping with another functions like a right-click and two fingers can be used to zoom in and out of images or webpages, or rotate them.

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