Thoughts on the Windows 7 beta

I've already written at length about my (generally positive) appraisal of Windows Vista, yet I'm still eagerly looking forward to Windows 7. While I find Vista to be a substantial improvement over Windows XP, my rose-tinted glasses don't blind me to some of its quirks and shortcomings—randomly resetting folder views, over-eager UAC prompts, the poorly thought-out sidebar, and other little snags. Microsoft seems to be shaping Windows 7 into a "second time's the charm" sort of release, taking Vista's solid base and adding a layer of polish and improvements on top. Sounds good to me.

Curious to see the Windows team's progress, I grabbed the public beta this weekend and installed it on my MacBook (yes, you can do that). I've been tinkering with it on and off, and I have a few observations.

The taskbar
Let me start with what's simultaneously the most noticeable change and my biggest beef: the new taskbar. The concept of displaying only applications and treating windows as their subsets seems very sensible to me, and if well executed, I think it makes multi-tasking easier. Mac OS X's dock works just like that, and I love being able to quickly show and hide entire applications instead of juggling with a bunch of windows.

I expected Microsoft to have largely copied that concept with Windows 7, but it didn't. In fact, the application icons in the Windows 7 taskbar behave very much like "grouped" windows sets in Vista and XP. This is bad.

Say you have an Internet Explorer or window minimized. You can quickly restore it by clicking the application icon in the taskbar. Nothing could be simpler, right? Except, once you open a second window or tab, things get hairy. Clicking the taskbar icon suddenly presents you with a thumbnail menu. Instead of just showing the application and letting you do your thing, Microsoft apparently expects you to painstakingly select a window (or browser tab) out of a list of thumbnails each time.

I think this is the symptom of a broader problem with the new taskbar idea, though. Emulating Mac OS X's dock is all well and good, but Mac OS is and has always been application-centric. OS X windows only exist as part of their host application, and applications stay open even when you close all of their windows. The dock is simply a tool to switch between applications.

In Windows tradition, by contrast, each window has its own menu bar (or something equivalent) and exists as a discrete entity in the taskbar. Instead of switching between apps, you switch between windows. Well, Windows 7 has grafted in an application-centric taskbar without following through on the window management front. That's a bit like clumsily transplanting a set of gills onto a mammal, pumping it full of immunosuppressant drugs, and throwing it into the sea. That poor thing's gonna drown.

I realize this is the first beta release, and Microsoft has plenty of time to iron things out. It probably will, too, because there's no way testers aren't going to complain about having to manually select a window thumbnail half the time they want to un-minimize something. That involves moving your mouse cursor all the way down and then back up a notch, which just feels slow and unnatural. You can also CTRL-click to restore the last open window, but that's just as awkward.

If someone from the Windows team is somehow reading this blog, let me suggest the following: keep the application-centric taskbar, but make it so clicking an application icon alternately minimizes and restores all windows for that app. Then implement a way to toggle only a single window—the current hovering system would probably do a fine job. I know there's already a control panel option to switch back to the old window-centric design, but I genuinely think the app-centric concept is a step in the right direction. It just needs to be implemented properly.

The rest
That's my only real complaint about Windows 7, though, and I'm actually quite impressed with everything else I've seen. I really like the libraries, which more or less abolish the antiquated "My Document" concept and provide you with a centralized path to access all of your music, documents, photos, etc—no matter how many hard drives or directories they're split up into. And better still, Windows 7 lets you create your own custom libraries.

Microsoft has also improved the User Account Control system, so you no longer receive prompts when modifying control panel settings or moving things around in the Program Files directory. If you find those settings too lax (or still too strict), Microsoft offers one setting above the default and two below. That's worlds better than annoying users into disabling UAC entirely.

Finally, my brush with Windows 7 appears to confirm my previous assessment: Microsoft really does seem to have focused chiefly on spit and polish. Despite the beta nature of this release, everything somehow feels cleaner and less hastily thrown together than in Vista. Core apps like Paint, Wordpad, and the Windows Calculator have received long-needed overhauls, and the control panel has far fewer Windows 2000-era relics.

I also love the little touches, like the progress meter in the taskbar for file transfers, the ability to maximize or "half-maximize" windows by simply dragging them to the edge of the display, the way you can turn windows transparent to see what's underneath, and the fully configurable system tray (which lets you pick exactly which icons you want to display).

I think Windows still has the same flaws it's always had—too much apparent complexity and too little consistency—but if the taskbar kinks get ironed out, Windows 7 really has the potential to be the best Microsoft OS of this decade. And unlike Windows Vista, it should take a significant step forward without hurting backward compatibility all that much. The simple fact that it's happily running on my MacBook with Apple's Vista drivers is evidence enough, I believe.

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