Windows 7: Microsoft puts the soft in Windows

At home I use a Mac. I like it just fine and I don’t see myself going back to Windows. However, like most office denizens, at work I am forced to use Windows, which until recently has meant Windows XP. XP is standard but getting creaky and is coming up on its 10th anniversary later this month.

XP is at least predictable and generally stable, which could not be said of its predecessors. Blue screens of death, while not unheard of, since XP’s arrival, are few and far between. At home, using XP is still a frustrating hassle, given that you need a firewall, antivirus and have to keep it patched regularly. At work for me using XP is not a hassle at all because like most businesses of a certain size we have an enterprise team that mostly handles the hassle part at night by slipping out patches and updates. My Dell Optiplex desktop computer was a different matter. It got so slow that I finally got permission to get rid of it, which was timely because we were also finally allowed to install Windows 7, Microsoft’s latest incarnation of Windows. I decided to go whole hog and ordered a 64-bit replacement desktop computer with Windows 7 Enterprise. For a couple of months now I’ve been putting Windows 7 through its paces.

I don’t see myself reverting to Windows at home, but it’s nice to see that after twenty years Microsoft has finally issued a respectable version of Windows. I won’t say that Windows 7 is slick, but it is the first version of Windows that I feel honestly earns the plaudit “professional”. With Windows 7, you at least don’t have to hide your PC in embarrassment as your friend with his slick Mac laptop running Mac OSX Lion slips in next to you. Part of the reason is because if you use a Mac you will notice that Microsoft, as usual, has stolen a lot of ideas from the Mac. What’s more interesting is that Microsoft has invented a few features that out-slick the Mac.

Microsoft can credibly claim that it beat Apple in making a user interface that is gentle. In Windows 7, dialog boxes appear softly, nonthreateningly and gently. They sort of fade gently in and fade gently out, softly expand and fade in from the task bar and softly collapse and fade out to the task bar when needed. Thumbs up, Microsoft. It is not until you have used “soft windows” regularly that you realized how jarring popup windows have been thus far. Hopefully, those days are gone for good. (The Mac does this somewhat, but the process is faster and you don’t have the transparency.)

The whole taskbar behaves a lot more intelligently than under XP. Hover your mouse over an item on the taskbar and a miniature of the application’s screen appears. If there are multiple windows you see miniatures of each window, which you can kill without expanding the window. Microsoft has stolen a number of ideas from the Mac dock, including the ability to “pin” an application to the dock by right mouse clicking on its icon, or by dragging it to the task bar. It has also finally done the obvious and put a Windows Explorer icon right next to the Start button. The Mac has had its equivalent Finder cemented there for years. Yes, we all need to work intimately with files. It’s nice that Microsoft finally acknowledges this. It has also figured out that if you have the Microsoft Office suite, and who doesn’t, they should be somewhat cemented to the task bar as well. Better late than never, Microsoft. It’s not like we can get much done without having Word, Excel and Powerpoint handy anyhow.

Also gone are the annoying and generally pointless “asking you twice” dialog boxes. When logging out or shutting down, I still reflexively wait for a dialog box asking me if I am sure I want to logoff/shutdown. Instead, it just does. It would be amazing if it weren’t something so brain dead it should have been done in Windows 3.1. Windows 7 is just a prettier experience overall. When asked to log in you get a serene background bitmap with a flower. Desktop icons don’t seem as close together. Desktop themes have a more serene look to them as well.

Even in 64-bit mode, 32-bit legacy applications mostly work and install easily. (Not all will. I did not even try with an old version of Visio I had a license for. I was told it would not work.) Unless you look under the hood you would not know that the 32-bit applications are in a separate folder. One of the more annoying things for power users is having to install applications as an administrator. To do this without leaving your desktop you had to see if “Run as…” was available on the context sensitive menu. Now it’s “Run as Administrator”. It’s a small thing but makes so much more sense.

Do you a lot of documentation? I sure do, which is why the modest little Snipping Tool is one of the first applications you should pin to your taskbar. Click on it, drag a rectangle to a portion of the screen, then save (to a compact PNG, not a bloaty Windows bitmap) or copy/paste it as you prefer. It would be hard to make it simpler. It does have one curious limitation: you cannot scroll and select to copy, so you are limited only to visible text. Presumably, if you want to capture the whole window to the clipboard, Alt-Print Screen still works.

Search is more intuitive. Click on the Start button (I guess it’s really the Windows button now) and right above it is a search box. The File Explorer also has some subtle but nice tweaks, particularly with the hierarchy of the folder under focus at the top of the window allowing for a more intuitive navigation.

I am sure there are thousands of other improvements, as well as other significant improvements I don’t care to document. Overall, Windows 7 lives up to its billing. It makes it an easy decision to ditch XP for good, but is still intuitive enough where the process of learning Windows 7 won’t intimidate an XP user.

I won’t be giving up my Mac, but I don’t feel as embarrassed to be running Windows anymore as I used to be.

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