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About the author: Acclaimed Windows expert Andy Rathbone has written numerous Windows for Dummies guidebooks since 1992. His Windows review for Datamation Why I Don't Like Vista became an Internet classic. In this review of Windows 7 he provides a sneak peak of his book due this October, Windows 7 For Dummies.
ALSO SEE: Andy Rathbone's advice on Upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7.
After nearly eight-years, Windows XP had grown as comfortable as an old car. Just as I’d forgotten about the growing number of dings on my car’s bumper, I’d forgotten how many third-party tools I’d used to prop up Windows XP. After adding CD and DVD burners, search programs, Firefox, three media players and a host of other tools, my Start menu’s three columns reached the far edge of my desktop.
That’s why running Windows 7for the past seven months brought back the excitement of driving a new car. And for the first time, my once trusted Windows XP began looking like a car that needed much more than a paint job.
It’s partially my own fault. Like many others, I skipped Windows Vista. And Vista, for all its faults, provided a strong, secure base. Unfortunately, Microsoft ruined Vista’s improvements by adding overly aggressive security, thick layers of meandering menus, and a sense of being designed by a huge committee.
Windows 7 strips away that ugliness to create something that’s light yet strong, useful yet still playful. Windows 7 grabs me in a lot of ways Windows XP no longer does:
Oddly enough, Windows 7’s new wallpaper provides a great example of how Windows 7 pulls off a difficult mix of being both utilitarian and fun. Windows 7 softens Vista’s armored-guard persona by adding a healthy dose of personality. Its backgrounds come stuffed with groovy psychedelic landscapes, dreamy Dada-esque creatures, and candy-colored anime art.
By draping this whimsy over Vista’s security underpinnings, Microsoft’s helping make people feel both safe and creative with their computers, a feeling that comes so naturally to Apple.
Even if the backgrounds don’t suit your fancy, you must admire how Windows 7’s design team deliberately chose wallpaper that would have been shot down in a traditional boardroom. That’s a big change from Vista, where everything seemed to fall to the lowest common denominator.
Minimal hardware demands
Vista’s bloat kept it from running on netbooks, the PC industry’s single bright spot these days. Windows 7, by contrast, runs fine on most netbooks, as well as on older PCs. Needing another test machine while writing Windows 7 For Dummies, I installed Windows 7 on a Pentium III with 16MB of video memory. Surprisingly enough, Windows 7 not only installed, but its automatic trip to Windows Update brought the PC some new drivers, as well. That old Gateway PC will never be a game machine, of course, but it works fine for the essentials, e-mail and the Internet.
Chances are, Windows 7’s slimmed down footprint will fit well on your PC, as well, whether it’s a modern netbook or a borderline antique.
Adjustable User Account Control
Probably the most welcome change, Windows 7 tones down User Account Control’s overly aggressive policing. But if you still find yourself grinding your teeth more than working, a sliding control lets you adjust Windows 7’s paranoia level to match your own. It’s refreshing to feel in control of your PC rather than the other way around.
Once you learn a few shortcut keys, they become addictive, and Windows 7 brings several welcome ones. For example, placing two windows side-by-side on a crowded desktop took a lot of mouse maneuvering in Windows XP. In Windows 7, you click the first window, and press Win+Right Arrow to scoot the window against the right edge. Follow up with a Win+Left Arrow on the second window, and you’ve lined them up side-by-side, ready for quick information swapping.
Windows 7 comes loaded with many other creative keyboard shortcuts, a sign that the team had time to focus on subtle details rather than major overhauls.
Windows 7 overhauled the taskbar with jumplists – pop-up menus listing frequently accessed items and common tasks. Need to see one of your favorite Web sites in a hurry? Right-click the taskbar’s browser icon, click the favored site’s name from the pop-up list’s “Frequent” section, and the browser opens to that site.
Can’t remember the location of that helpful folder you opened yesterday? Right-click the Explorer icon, click the folder’s name from the jumplist, and start digging in. With jumplists, Windows 7 adds a feeling of immediate gratification that all too often went missing from Vista.
After people amass a decade’s worth of digital information, findingpieces of that information becomes the biggest challenge. Windows 7’s libraries tackle the organization part of that problem by letting one library show the contents of several folders. Store your music in the Public Music folder, for example, and those tunes automatically appear in every user account’s Music library.
Libraries break tradition, and IT people will be doing a lot of tutoring in the months to come. But once people grasp the concept, they’ll be able to spend more time working with their information rather than finding it.
With Windows 7, Microsoft finally realized that people don’t need the same level of security on their home networks as they do on the Internet. Homegroups let everybody type a single password into their networked PCs. Those PCs then join hands to become a Homegroup, where every PC on the network can share all the music, pictures, and videos stored by everyone else. Of course, anybody can opt out of sharing their media. But chances are, most people will embrace this easier way to share their vacation photos and music.
Windows 7’s a huge step forward from Microsoft Vista, and it’s versatile enough to last for years to come. But Windows 7’s certainly not perfect.
As to be expected, Windows 7 is often too much about Microsoft’sneeds, rather than your own. For example, Windows 7 no longer comes with an e-mail program, so Windows 7 understandably pushes Microsoft’s new Windows Live Mail program as a replacement.
Try to download Windows Live Mail, though, and the installation program tries to install Microsoft’s entire suiteof Live programs. Then the installer tries to hijack your Home page to Microsoft’s ad-soaked MSN, and switch your search engine to Microsoft’s Live Search.
And the program repetitively begs you to sign up for a Windows Live e-mail address, no matter how many e-mail addresses you’ve accumulated over the years.
If you’re upgrading Windows Vista to Windows 7, Microsoft switches your default browser to Internet Explorer 8, no matter how many years you’ve been using Firefox. Internet Explorer’s Favorites and Feeds areas come pre-stuffed with links to Microsoft’s products.
In short, Microsoft’s trying to wring as much cash as possible from their enviable position of automatically landing atop 90 percent of the world’s desktops. There’s nothing wrong with a business making money, of course. One day, hopefully, Microsoft will be a little less obnoxious about it.
Let’s hope the company doesn’t pile it on so thick it ruins the Windows 7 experience I’ve found so far.