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The new taskbar
Despite being more evolutionary than revolutionary, Windows 7 does bring about one very radical change to the user experience: the new taskbar. After 14 years of maintaining and refining the same concept, Microsoft apparently chose to throw caution to the wind and shake things up.

Now, rather than listing window names, the taskbar shows application icons. If an app only has a single window tied to it, then clicking the icon will switch to that window, just as you'd expect. With more than one window, clicking the app icon will show thumbnails for all windows belonging to the app. Think of it as taskbar grouping on steroids; instead of waiting until the taskbar fills up, Windows defaults to the grouping behavior, and it doesn't show window titles until you get to the thumbnail part. You can even close a window without switching to it by either middle-clicking on the thumbnail or hitting the little X at the top right.

There's more. Microsoft has effectively merged the old QuickLaunch area with the main taskbar, so you can now "pin" your application shortcuts on there. When you click on a shortcut, the icon becomes highlighted and starts behaving like a regular window group. You can also re-order pinned shortcuts and window groups as you please. At last! Those of us with mild OCD no longer have to close and re-open apps obsessively to get them in the right order.

I should probably talk about jump lists, too, even though only software included with Windows 7 seems to use them right now. Right-clicking on the icon for, say, Windows Explorer now presents you with a list of "pinned" locations. Other apps might show recent locations and common tasks, sort of like a mystery treasure chest of menu items. Third-party apps will probably start using these sooner or later, but for now, right-clicking an icon will generally present you with only three options: open the app, un-pin it from the taskbar, or close its windows.

Over on the right lies the new system tray. It looks a lot like the old system tray, except third-party icons stay hidden by default. To unhide them, click the little arrow menu and drag them into the taskbar. Clicking "customize" will let you set specific behaviors, like if you want the Bonzai Buddy icon to show up for notifications but hide the rest of the time. This is definitely an interesting solution to the almost grotesque tray-icon overuse in modern Windows applications. Combined with the other taskbar changes, this new behavior will hopefully force developers to make more spartan use of the tray, which should make using a new pre-built PC (or troubleshooting grandma's computer) a more enjoyable experience.

Until developers change their thinking, though, you may end up with some strange redundancy between the tray and taskbar icons. Let's take Valve's Steam as an example. It always shows a tray icon, even with the main window closed. When that window is open, however, your taskbar may present you with two Steam icons—a big one on the left for the Steam window group, and a small one on the right for the application. Awkward. Even more awkward, if you have Steam pinned to your taskbar, closing the main window causes the big icon to lose its highlight. By all rights, you'd think the application was closed. But no, it's still sitting there in the tray.

The right thing would be to use the big icon for everything, obviously, but I believe the redundancy also showcases a general issue with the new taskbar. You see, Windows has a window-centric user interface by design. The old taskbar reflected that by showing an entry for each window and clearly identifying window clusters. The new taskbar shows application icons, a practice taken straight out of the Mac OS X playbook—except OS X has more of an application-centric interface, and those icons in the Dock really do represent apps. Windows 7's taskbar icons represent both app-launching shortcuts and window groups, which sort of melds the two design philosophies in a strange and potentially confusing way.

From a productivity standpoint, the Windows 7 taskbar has its ups and downs. You can now cram way more icons in there, so you shouldn't run out of space unless you're some sort of multitasking maniac. However, switching between windows—the whole point of the taskbar—now involves an extra step in certain cases. The Pidgin instant-messaging client, for instance, shows both a buddy list and a conversation window. Switching from a web browser to the conversation window involves clicking Pidgin's taskbar icon once (or hovering over it) to bring up the window thumbnails, picking out the thumbnail that corresponds to the conversation window, and clicking on it. That extra step can be frustrating when you need to switch back and forth a lot.

Thankfully, old-school types can disable the new grouping behavior and set the taskbar to display small icons, yielding something similar (but not identical) to the old Vista taskbar. You'll still get thumbnails if you hover, and grouping still goes on, so new windows don't always show up at the far right. Also, pinned icons will now show up amidst your windows.

I have mixed feelings about the new taskbar. As one of those folks who used a two-row taskbar in Vista, I can definitely appreciate the grouping. Before, I'd often keep opening windows for the same directory, forgetting I already had one or two open in the background. Windows 7 not only prevents that, but it leaves room for more window groups, and it lets you launch commonly used programs with a single click. I also love the ability to re-order icons, both in the main area and in the tray, and the fact that you can middle-click the taskbar icon to open a new instance or window of an already-running program.

With all of those improvements in mind, the two-time switching behavior (click the icon, click the thumbnail) still bugs me sometimes, and the thumbnails can make switching between similar-looking windows confusing. I really wish Microsoft provided an option to make icons truly represent applications, so you could either click to open all of an app's windows or right-click to get a thumbnail view and pick a specific one.

Windows Explorer and Libraries
Microsoft's humble file manager hasn't gotten a complete top-to-bottom revamp like the taskbar, but it still dons a fresh coat of paint. The side pane no longer contains only "favorite links" above a collapsible tree view, and Windows no longer distinguishes between "exploring" and navigating. What I mean is that, in Vista, opening a folder in a new window involves bringing up the contextual menu and choosing "Explore," which invariably gives you a window with an open directory tree on the left. In Windows 7, the "Explore" contextual menu item has given way to "Open in new window," which just opens a new darned window with the same format as the old one. Was that really so hard?

Of course, this wouldn't be a Microsoft product without at least one little step back. Here, the Windows team has gotten rid of column headers outside of the details view, so changing a directory's sorting mode will usually involve a trip through the contextual menu—no more sorting by date by clicking the column header in icon or tile view. Taking out the headers does save a few vertical pixels, though. Perhaps that's better for cramped laptop and netbook displays.

Speaking of folder view modes, Windows 7 adds a new one called Content—a bit of a hybrid between the tiles and details views, where you can see small-ish thumbnails on the left and a stack of information about the file, like its creation date, size, dimension (for images), and tags, on the right. A thin horizontal line separates each entry. This view comes in especially handy when you do a search, because it displays excerpts from text files.

Oh, and Microsoft has thrown in a preview pane, which you can toggle on and off with a button in the toolbar. That pane lets you take a quick peek at a text file, image, video clip, or a song's album art without opening it—very OS X, and very handy if you're sifting through photos or text files.

I could go on about the new Explorer's little improvements, but one major new feature deserves our attention: Libraries. Where Vista turned the old My Documents directory into Documents, Windows 7 reinstates My Documents along with My Music, My Pictures, and My Videos. Except you'll rarely have to deal with those directly.

Rather, Windows Explorer now includes a brand-new Libraries section with links to Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos. Clicking one of those will show you the contents of the matching "My ..." directory in your user folder, but you're free to tie more directories to it or make your own Library from scratch. In this way, Explorer lets you access multiple folders spanning a single category of content in a single location.

These meta-folders are a godsend when you're dealing with media, because if you're like me, you have multiple directories filled with music and images scattered all over your hard drives. Best of all, Windows 7's backup feature safeguards all of your libraries by default, so you almost don't have to think about where you actually store your files.

I like libraries, but here, too, I have one small complaint. When sorting a regular directory by date in descending order, individual files show up first, chronologically, followed by subdirectories, also chronologically. Windows XP and Windows Vista work in that way, too. But in Libraries, sorting by date in folder view will always display directories first—and as far as I can tell, Microsoft doesn't provide a way to revert to the more common behavior.

You don't have to constrain yourself to boring old folder view, of course. With photos, for example, it's possible to sort a whole library by day or month, which will pool all images together and display them in chronological order. How cool is that? Too bad Windows 7 still has no native support for RAW images, unlike Mac OS X.