Windows 7 Improvements May Finally Satisfy

On October 22, Microsoft launches the Windows 7 operating system, the latest iteration of the world’s most popular software (with more than 1 billion users worldwide)—and the follow-up to the less-than-well-received Windows Vista. While launching a major new operating into the teeth of a deep recession is less than ideal, Microsoft hopes that the software’s improvements will woo buyers to the platform, whether they are upgrading from Windows XP or Vista or buying a new PC equipped with the Win 7.

In developing Windows 7, Microsoft conducted research with real-world customers that combined tests conducted in the company’s usability labs, and anonymous usage patterns collected from XP and Vista users. “We studied how customers use an operating system, and where they would get stuck,” explained Christoph Wilfert, general manager, small and mid-market business solutions at Microsoft. “With Windows 7, we put the customer at the center of our go-to-market strategy.”

The result, said Wilfert, was a development track that focused on three “pillars” important to small business customers: usability, productivity and security. “Small business owners want to take care of business first and foremost, not handle IT problems,” noted Wilfert.

To address usability—the way customers interact with the operating system—Microsoft concentrated on making Windows 7 work the way customers want an operating system to work. In particular, developers addressed one of the major complaints about Vista—that it loaded slowly—by speeding up the system’s boot time and allowing quicker access to core applications such as e-mail.

Microsoft promises that Windows 7 will offer great hardware compatibility right out of the box, which addresses another problem that Vista’s early adopters ran into. Windows 7 is also designed to automatically take you to the driver-download pages of leading hardware manufacturers if the operating system doesn’t contain a compatible driver. As for software compatibility, Wilfert said that if an organization has legacy software that doesn’t run under Windows 7 natively, they can load and run the software in a Windows XP shell environment provided within the new operating system.

Microsoft also made strides to reduce the number of pop-up messages you encounter compared to Vista as you work. And should you experience a problem that requires tech support, the handy new Problem Steps Recorder utility lets you grab the sequence of screens along with voice annotation to submit to tech support.

Wilfert said they placed particular emphasis on connectivity. “People are on the go all the time, and the fact that notebooks now outsell desktops is evidence of that,” he said.  Windows 7 intelligently detects wired and wireless networks, and automatically makes the proper connection as you move from home to office.

The software also recognizes which location you are in and prioritizes the print device accordingly, so you don’t have to manually select the right printer from a drop-down list in the Print dialog. And when connecting to a network for the first time, Windows 7 asks which types of files (documents, photos, music and so on) should be made available to other PCs on the network—a big improvement over the manual file-sharing setup process required under previous Windows versions.

Windows 7 also includes native touch-screen awareness that had previously been the province of Windows Tablet PC Edition (or Vista version with the Tablet PC extensions built in). The improved touch-screen capabilities support a range of gestures for executing tasks. For example, a finger tap replaces the need to use the cursor control and mouse buttons to select an on-screen program icon or dialog-box button.

You can move objects with the quick flick of a finger, and zoom in or out on an image or page by spreading apart or pinching together two fingers while touching the screen. Some PCs will support two-finger touch input and others will support input from up to four fingers for even more complex gestures, such as rotating an object around a fixed pivot point or accepting input from two people simultaneously.

Wilfert also claimed that Windows 7 includes improved search capabilities. The search bar keeps a history and auto-fills previously searched text strings (similar to the latest Google search bar), and search results provide more clarity as to what a particular search result is—a document or an e-mail for example.

Windows 7 will also show a preview of the document so you can check to see if it’s what you’re looking for before actually launching it. Improved backup features protect important files and let you perform automatic incremental backups as you work as well as schedule backups of the entire drive image.

Most importantly, for many people Windows 7 won’t require an upgrade to more powerful hardware. You can install the operating system on a Windows XP or Vista PC with at least a 1GHz or faster processor, 1GB of RAM (or 2GB for the 64-bit version), 16GB of available disk space (20GB  for the 64-bit version) and a DirectX 9–compatible graphics chip.

The operating system will be available in four versions: Windows 7 Starter (preloaded on new, typically entry-level PCs), Windows 7 Home Premium ($119.99), Windows 7 Professional ($199.99) and Windows 7 Ultimate ($219.99).

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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