Thursday, January 29, 2009

Microsoft Quickly Looking Past Vista

Windows Vista hasn't even spent two years in stores -- that anniversary arrives tomorrow. But Microsoft is trying to put that operating system in its rearview mirror.

Three weeks ago, the company invited users to preview Vista's replacement, Windows 7. Microsoft hasn't tried to move from one consumer operating system to another this fast since it shipped Windows XP barely a year after the snakebit Windows Millennium Edition.

But Windows 7 -- expect it to ship late this year or early next year -- represents much less of a change than XP. The beta-test release (available through Feb. 10 at shows a focus on performance fixes, coupled with changes to a few long-settled parts of Windows' interface and extra networking options.

In other words, it's a more efficient, better looking Windows. But it's still Windows.

Merely installing 7 should make that clear. On a Dell laptop running Vista's Home Premium version, an upgrade to 7 took about two hours and three restarts.

Installing Windows 7 from scratch (once inside the Parallels Desktop program on a Mac laptop, once using Apple's Boot Camp software on the same Mac) took only a half-hour, but few users will want to wipe out an existing Windows installation to load 7.

Windows 7's biggest improvement is a reduced appetite for memory. That Dell exhausted almost half of its 2 gigabytes of memory just booting up Vista and a few start-up applications; in 7, it still had almost three-quarters of its memory free. Windows 7 also went to sleep and woke up a second or two faster than Vista, although it took slightly longer to boot up and shut down on that machine.

But Microsoft's pledges of better battery life weren't backed up by a test of DVD playback on the Dell.

Windows 7's most obvious improvement lies at the bottom of the screen, where the task bar gets its first major rewrite since its debut in Windows 95. Instead of rectangular shortcuts to active applications or windows, this strip presents open applications, plus favorites "pinned" to the taskbar, as square tiles labeled with program icons.

Resting the cursor over each tile will bring up live previews of any windows open in an application -- you can even watch a movie play in this thumbnail. A right-click flips up a "jump list" of recent documents and, in some cases, important commands.

If all that sounds like Mac OS X's Dock, it should.

In 7, the "tray," that dumping ground of random icons at the far right of the taskbar, has been swept clean of third-party programs. But you may still need to tell 7 to hide other shortcuts after they pop up there.

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