A preview of Microsoft Windows 7.

A preview of Microsoft Windows 7.

A preview of Microsoft Windows 7.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Dec. 31 2008 5:39 PM

Vista Revisited

The new version of Microsoft Windows is a lot like the old one. But better.

Screenshot of Windows 7. Click image to expand.
A screenshot of Windows 7

Last summer, Microsoft's marketing department pulled a strange stunt to prove that its latest operating system, Windows Vista, isn't as terrible as everyone on the Internet claims. The company invited 140 people who said they hated Vista to take part in a focus-group review of the new Microsoft OS, Windows Mojave. The malcontents were blown away by all of Mojave's amazing features, like how well it organized photos and music—why didn't the company put all this great stuff in Vista? That's when Microsoft's sales team dropped the bomb: Windows "Mojave" was actually Windows Vista! The company had rebranded its beleaguered OS to prove that much of what troubled the software was in people's heads, not in the program itself. As long as customers don't know they're using Vista, they love it.

Microsoft seems to have taken the results of that zany focus group to heart. Last week, copies of Windows 7, the first beta version of the new OS, leaked to file-sharing sites online. (The company plans an official release of the beta to developers and the public early in 2009.) I downloaded Windows 7 and installed it to my laptop, and after a couple days of using it, here's what I can report: "Windows 7" is actually Windows Vista—or at most a tidied-up retread.

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Microsoft's next OS is not a whole-cloth reimagining of the sort you'd expect after a stinging failure. In building Windows 7, engineers didn't go back to the drawing board—they went back to the body shop. They tweaked many small details, fixing some of Vista's most persistent problems and adding several user-interface features that I found very handy. They also improved its speed and handling, rendering it snappier than Windows XP, the long-lived OS that many people—myself included—used in place of Vista.

The results are pretty great. Though still in beta, Windows 7 runs like a final version; it'll only improve as it nears its final release date (sometime in the summer or fall) and thus looks certain to strengthen Microsoft's hold over the PC desktop now and for years to come. That should come as no surprise: For all the bad press it received, Vista never posed any long-term danger to the Windows hegemony. True, sales of Macs have been up lately, but that's sort of like pointing out that soccer is gaining ground as an American spectator sport—perhaps technically true but somewhat beside the point. Nine out of every 10 PCs in the world run Windows. With this new version, the Windows world will now have a chance, after too long, to use an OS that doesn't feel like drudgery.

I installed Windows 7 on a new partition on a new hard drive—that is, uncluttered by a stack of old programs and any previous installation of the OS and thus probably not representative of what people will encounter when they install 7 over their current version of Windows (or on a new computer that's clogged with unnecessary apps installed by the manufacturer). That said, the results were impressive: With Windows 7, my machine booted up in less than 20 seconds and returned from sleep mode instantly. Under previous versions of Windows, rebooting the machine was an occasion for a long coffee break, and putting it to sleep went pretty much as that phrase suggests—sometimes, the sleep was permanent.

The speed improvements are of a piece with Windows 7's generally streamlined packaging. Ten years ago, Microsoft's practice of "bundling" extra applications into its OS blew up into a federal case. The company insisted that integrating programs like a Web browser benefited users while the government argued that Microsoft was aiming to leverage its OS monopoly into other areas of the software business. The feds won that argument in court; now Microsoft seems to have seen the business merits of what you might call unbundling. You'll still find Internet Explorer in Windows 7, but unlike previous versions, the new OS doesn't ship with an e-mail program, a calendar, a movie editor, and a photo manager. Instead, Windows 7 prompts users to get this software from Microsoft's Windows Live online service. This move surely follows its own business logic—Microsoft wants to encourage people to use its online apps in an effort to fight Google in the cloud software business, which many consider the future of the software industry. But in this case the business decision helps users, too: You no longer get an OS stuffed with apps you don't need and can instead stock your computer with free programs found online—whether from Microsoft, Google, Apple, or any other vendor.

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Aesthetically, Windows 7 looks much more like Vista than XP or Mac OS X—its default color scheme is dark and businesslike, all slate grays and shiny blue-greens. Several attractive themes are built in, though—choose one, and you change the desktop image, window colors, and system sounds all at once. A few of these themes put your desktop's wallpaper on a slide show, switching the background image every few minutes; I picked one that showed stunning nature shots of various American landscapes.

The color scheme may be familiar, but the Windows taskbar—that menu at the bottom of your screen that shows what programs you're running—has received a major facelift. In fact, the redesign here is so fundamental that it could confuse a lot of Windows users and turn them off altogether on the whole OS.

To understand the significance of these changes, recall how the Windows taskbar differs from the corresponding element on the Mac, the dock. First introduced in Windows 95, the taskbar's main function has long been to show you what programs are currently running on your computer. Each on-screen window has a corresponding button in the taskbar, and in Windows the most obvious way to switch to another app—especially one that may be hidden somewhere on the screen—is to click its icon in the taskbar. The taskbar is, for many people, the heart and soul of the OS—the place you look most often to understand what's going on with your machine.

The Mac OS X dock is a more hydra-headed beast, combining many different functions into one interface: As in Windows, the dock puts up an icon for every program you've got open; you can switch among different running apps by clicking on their icons. But the Mac's dock is also a place to launch new applications—that is, some of the icons in the dock represent programs that you can choose to run if you'd like.

I prefer the Windows approach over the Mac's. It's not only simpler to grasp—everything down here is something I've got open—but it's also very useful, a quick way to see what's happening on your computer and to switch between different tasks. Over the years, though, Microsoft has made several changes to the taskbar that make it much more like the Mac's dock. Beginning in Windows XP, several similar taskbar items were grouped into one button; for instance, if you opened up a lot of Firefox windows, Windows would collapse them into a single icon on the taskbar. This makes the taskbar less useful as a window-switching tool—you've got to click on this one icon to see the different Firefox windows you're running. Microsoft also began to incorporate permanent shortcuts into the taskbar, turning it into a place to launch programs, not just switch between them. In Windows 7 the transformation is complete: The Windows taskbar now operates pretty much exactly like the Mac OS' dock.

An icon in the Windows 7 taskbar could represent one of several kinds of items: It could be a shortcut to a program that isn't currently running—if you click it, you'll launch that program. It could be a button representing an already open window—click that, and you'll switch to that window. Or it could represent a group of windows that are open—click on the Word icon, and you'll be able to choose which of several Word documents you'd like to switch to. Both the Mac and Windows use slight graphic clues to highlight these differences, but they're not as obvious as I'd like; it often takes some mousing around to figure out what exactly is being represented by an icon in the taskbar or dock. Still, Microsoft has implemented a few cool features that make this easier than on a Mac. For instance, if you simply move your mouse over a taskbar item, a large, transparent preview of that window appears on the screen. (To see this feature in action, watch this video.) Mac OS X engineers should swipe that feature.

Windows-watchers see the new taskbar as Windows 7's greatest weakness; Paul Thurrot, who writes the SuperSite for Windows, calls it "a whopper of a mistake, and one that will actively harm most Windows users." While I'm no great fan of the new taskbar, I think this is an exaggeration. If the worst that can be said of Windows 7 is that it copies one of the Mac's worst features, that's not so bad. The Mac OS, remember, is the one everyone loves. Borrowing liberally from Apple accounts for much of Windows' past success. If Microsoft is just a bit more diligent in its pilfering, glory will surely return.