With a heightened hype factor typical to that of any Microsoft product launch, Windows 7 Beta 1 was recently made available to those of us within the industry willing to put our necks on the block and install this operating system "work in progress" to see if it is likely to change our lives.
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With many users hovering in the "once bitten twice shy" shadow of Windows Vista, a key concern for many now will be whether Microsoft has made good on its promise to deliver a product that is fully compatible with users' existing hardware, device drivers and popularly installed applications.
Individuals who have experienced incompatibility problems may take some comfort from knowing that, at heart, Vista is an arguably more stable operating system than XP was and it has experienced respectable enterprise deployment in some sectors. If Microsoft can build on this "stability" with additional usability then it may just be good news for all of us.
We approached this task with an installation of the 32-bit version on a five-year old machine running 512MB of RAM and 80GB of available hard disk space. This Beta 1 version of Windows 7 is specifically for "test purposes only", so if you do not have an old machine to use, think very carefully before doing this.
It loaded up just fine on our Acer Ferrari 3200 powered by an AMD Athlon-64 processor (although as stated, the 32-bit Windows 7 was used) with 128MB of graphics memory, which is the minimum Windows 7 will allow.
Some reports have suggested that installation creates a 200MB partition in addition to the computer's main drive, but ours partitioned only 9MBs when selecting the "custom" (advanced) version. It may be the case that users who install the "upgrade" option experience this partition for rollback purposes if needed.
This configuration may be done to protect a user's BIOS and this could well change before the final product ships anyway.
Out-of-the-box driver support turned out to be good as promised and overall installation impressions were comfortably trouble-free.
We needed four reboots after accepting the end-user license agreement before we could get going (yes, Microsoft still makes you do this even for pre-release software). But the install-wizard warned of "several" restarts and the number we experienced could simply have been down to the configuration of the system being used, so be patient.
The installation resulted in the previously installed version of Windows being shunted aside and placed into a 20GB folder called Windows .old, which was fully accessible. The previously mentioned 9MB partition was, however, not accessible or usable, but once again this may change as we move towards the final product.
Once settings were finalised, this Beta version appeared to generally run faster than Vista had done on the same machine despite it being a five-year old piece of hardware.
The much-anticipated first look is appealing and distinctly reminiscent of Apple's current Mac OS X Leopard. Microsoft has in the past hinted that there will always be some "crossover" between the Mac and Windows operating systems and looking at the new Windows 7 task bar and the "full-screen file preview" option, it is not hard to see this in evidence. Now we just need to decide whether to call it a task bar or use Apple terminology and call it a "dock".
As expected the following applications that had previously been part of the basic Vista install are now absent: Windows Mail, Windows Calendar, Windows Movie Maker and Windows Photo Gallery. However, all are available free as part of the Windows Live Essential suite and you do still get Windows Fax and Scan, Media Player, Media Centre and DVD Maker.
A neat little addition comes in the form of "Jump Lists" which spring up from popular applications to offer a variety of regularly used options such as recent browsing history in your browser or recently opened files in Microsoft Word.
These Jump Lists appear when the mouse pointer is hovered over an item and remain in place as long as the pointer stays in the task bar area.
Bill Gates suggested to Newsweek that he hoped Windows 7 would be a better more user-centric product and the User Account Control (UAC) functions have been stripped back to a basic default level. This means that security is now in the hands of the Windows 7 Action Centre and the pre-installed Defender security package.
What level of robustness this pair offers, it may be too early to say. We found the UAC easier to use as it offers more controllability than previous tools.
So what else is new from Microsoft in Windows 7 Beta 1? Well, it handles and ejects USB storage devices in a slightly less painful manner. It appears to allow video playback through Media Player whilst browsing multiple windows with relative ease (doing this using Vista would grind things to a near halt on our test machine).
Also, there is a more unified approach to some of the most commonly performed tasks you will want to carry out.
At the same time as this more simplistic GUI-driven approach, Microsoft has clearly taken the trouble to make sure that there is plenty going on in the engine room behind the user interface. The Task Manager seems to be evidence of a greater degree of functionality with management, and monitoring options more varied and presented in a quite appealing new skin.
On-screen life could be better too if users take to some of the new drag and drop options. A user can now maximise a window by dragging its border to the top of the screen and copy files or compare the contents of two windows by dragging the windows to opposite sides of the screen. As the cursor touches the edge, the window will resize to fill that half of the screen.
Windows 7 might just finish the visually-driven approach that Vista tried so hard to start. Device management and disk navigation appears to have been given another makeover with a view to trying to radically alter users' experiences if they are still tied to XP's apron strings.
A single-screen view of all devices from iPods to cameras to familiar items such as mouse, keyboard, printer and screen is now available.
So does Windows 7 represent a fundamental new plateau for Microsoft and perhaps even for operating systems in general? Turning once again to Bill Gates' comments in Newsweek magazine, "In every product we ship, the team knows of features that I asked them to put in that they did not get in.
So you never ship a perfect software product," said Gates. It would be hard to imagine that we will not be conducting the same kind of analysis again for the next iteration of Windows sometime soon next decade.