The Microsoft keynote that opened CES this year was all over the map — one tech-news site called it outright “schitzophrenic” — but it did break one morsel of news between the video montages and the demos of unreleased products.That news is this: Windows 7, the company’s successor to Windows Vista, is available now as a public-beta download (or will be once its servers recover from the initial demand).
Yesterday afternoon, two Microsoft reps walked me through some of the changes Windows 7 is supposed to bring to the Windows experience. Most dealt with managing one of the busier elements of Windows computing, managing multiple open windows and applications.
In 7, the taskbar, that blue strip at the bottom of the desktop, looks and acts a lot more like the Dock in Mac OS X. It lists open and favorite applications as buttons labeled with icons, not names, and provides “jump lists” — access to some oft-used commands and recently-opened documents — that pop up from each button with the right click of a mouse. Hovering over each taskbar button brings up previews of windows open in that program, or in Internet Explorer 8, each tab open in that Web browser. You can also rearrange the order of taskbar buttons by dragging and dropping them left and right.
Windows 7 also brings some new gesture-based window-management tricks. Dragging a program or document window up against the top of the screen maximizes that window to fill the screen; slapping it against the left or right side fills the left or right half of the screen with that window (which allows easier side-by-side comparisons of two documents or Web pages). A click on the bottom right corner of the screen reduces every open window to a transparent outline, allowing you to see what’s behind them on the desktop. To hide every other window besides the one in the foreground, grab that window with the mouse (or, on a touch-sensitive monitor, your finger) and shake it, then shake it again to bring back the other windows.
Finally, in Windows 7, users can control what programs put icons in the “tray” — the junkyard of inscrutable icons at the right end of the taskbar that Microsoft labels the “system notification area.” I know, XP was supposed to allow that, and then Vista renewed but couldn’t keep that promise; this time, Microsoft’s Nash said that Windows directly governs this part of the screen instead of allowing individual programs to handle things.
Windows 7 also revises one of Vista’s least-beloved features, User Account Control. It allows the user to select four levels of system oversight, with the default bringing up this continue-or-cancel dialog when programs try to change Windows settings but not when you do the same yourself.
Music and video playback in Windows 7 seems to borrow a little more from Apple: Its Windows Media Player 12 program presents music libraries shared on other copies of WMP on the same local network, and a “Play To” command sends an item to another device on the same network. Nash demonstrated this by playing a song from WMP to a Roku SoundBridge wireless media receiver, then playing a video from the program to an Xbox 360 game console.
Another Windows 7 component, the “device stage” module, aims to improve working with devices like phones. When they’re updated to provide the right data to the system, Windows 7 will read their capabilities when you plug them in, then present the appropriate options, such as offering to sync your calendars or contacts or copy over your music.
Nash also demonstrated how a beta copy of Windows 7 correctly took a Dell laptop in and out of sleep mode without any hesitation at either end: The machine woke up in a second or two after I pushed the power button. (Tapping the keyboard didn’t have any effect.)
He said that while the public beta of Windows 7 isn’t missing any features Microsoft plans to add, the company will not provide an estimate of when Windows 7 might ship: “We don’t know when Windows 7 is going to be done.” Instead, it plans to collect feedback from users of the beta to see what needs to be fixed first.
I wonder what that feedback will be like. Most of the Windows 7 features I saw demonstrated yesterday represent promises that Microsoft made when shipping earlier editions of Windows–in some cases, like getting standby mode to work right, in more than one past release. How does a company pitch a product to users when its selling points can be translated as “forget what we told you the last time or two, now we really mean it”?
I’m coming home from CES with a copy of Windows 7, which I’ll put on a review laptop on Monday. Have you done the same with the public beta? Tell me how it’s working out in the comments.