posted by Thom Holwerda on Sun 4th Jan 2009 21:47 UTC

Setup; Applications

Setup

Installing the Windows 7 beta isn't exactly very spectacular. If it weren't for the new fancy boot screen, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were installing Windows Vista. This isn't a bad thing; the Windows Vista installation routine is efficient, easy, yet still powerful enough to allow for partition editing and the likes. Obviously, various repair and recovery tools are also available from the disc, much like Windows Vista. Basically the only difference is the inclusion of the HomeGroup setup dialog - more on that later.

It's probably pointless to note, but I will continue to mention it in Windows reviews until someone in Redmond takes notice: Windows 7 still acts like a big bully when it comes to the master boot record, the hopelessly outdated and incomprehensibly vulnerable section of your hard drive where the boot loader (or at least, part of it) is stored. Windows 7 continues the behaviour of the releases that came before it by bluntly, without asking, overwriting your MBR and destroying everything in it. Most OS enthusiasts will curse Microsoft along with me for this.

Microsoft, fix this. This is a bug. Bugs need to be fixed.

One of the most pleasant surprises with modern Windows releases is how good the system has become at finding the right drivers. Windows Vista already fully supported my computer, using Windows Update to install the two drivers that weren't included on the disk. Windows 7 continues this trend, and my machine was again fully supported. This is a joy compared to Windows XP, where you have to spend quite some time and clicks looking for and installing drivers.

Microsoft has taken this a step further by including a new tool called Devices & Printers. This is a central location to manage all your devices and drivers, similar to the Device Manager, but much easier to use and more pleasant to look at. If a device isn't working, there's a new troubleshooting framework in place that can fix many common issues with devices, such as reinstalling drivers, finding new ones, and so on. You can still use the device manager if you wish, but Devices & Printers is a lot less intimidating to use, and according to Paul Thurrot, more advanced as well; apparently, Devices & Printers can fix issues device manager cannot.

As always, this is a mileage-may-vary case, but on my hardware, looking for and installing drivers is a thing of the past when it comes to Windows (welcome to the Modern World, Windows, I hope you enjoy your stay). It will be interesting to see if my slightly more exotic Aspire One is supported in a similar manner.

Applications

One of the first things I do when I install Windows, or any other operating system for that matter, is set up my email account, configure my browser of choice for the platform in question, and install my favourite instant messaging client. In the case of Windows, this would be, respectively, Windows Mail, Google's Chrome, and the humble but extremely versatile and powerful Miranda IM. And at this point you run into what is possibly Windows 7's biggest shortcoming: it doesn't come with an email client.

While it has long been known that Windows 7 would do away with bundled applications like Messenger, Windows Mail, a photo manager, and so on, it only becomes painfully obvious once you are setting up Windows 7. Windows Mail, while limited, was a perfectly capable email client; it was fast, easy to use, and anything but pretentious, and didn't come with useless features I didn't need. Users who needed more out of their email clients could always move to something like Thunderbird or Outlook - everybody was happy.

Now, you have little choice. I don't like Thunderbird or Outlook, exactly because they offer me too much functionality, and they're not exactly speed demons either. With Windows Mail removed from Windows 7, you look for alternatives, and even though Microsoft doesn't throw it in your face (it's not even in the welcome-first-tasks-screen-thing), the obvious choice is Windows Live Mail, which just so happens to be a rather... Odd email client. It's slower than Windows Mail, and it somehow looks out of place compared to the rest of Windows 7, like it was designed without knowledge of the new Windows version's features.

Even though I'm using the newest beta release of Live Mail, it doesn't support the new Jumplist feature, which was something I was looking forward to; I loved the idea of interacting with my mail client, straight from the taskbar, without having to switch to the client itself. Sadly, this is not possible. The other Live applications suffer from the same deficiencies.

All this creates the odd situation where you have an operating system that comes with a DVD maker tool for burning videos and pictures to DVDs - but doesn't come with a movie editor or photo organiser. I don't know what possessed Microsoft to make this decision, but the idea of buying an operating system without an email client is just plain silly to me. Seeing Microsoft's lacklustre history of not eating its own dog food, I wonder how long it will take for the Live applications to be updated to take full advantage of Windows 7's new features, and feel like first-class citizens (may I remind you that to this very day, Windows Mobile devices cannot synchronise with Vista's mail, calendar, and contacts tools).

I'm sure that people concerned with the whole monopoly-anti-competitive-bundling thing will be happy, but as a normal user who really doesn't give a rat's bum about that, it's just plain annoying.

Installing Chrome and Miranda poses no problems, luckily. Both applications install and run just fine on Windows 7, but they obviously haven't been updated yet to take advantage of Windows 7's new features. Chrome, nor Miranda, have support for jump lists yet, but I'm sure that once Windows 7 hits the streets, applications like these will be updated quickly. There is a weird little bug, though, with Miranda and the new taskbar, but I will get to that in a minute.

Moving on on the application front, Windows 7 obviously comes with the latest Internet Explorer 8 beta, but I've got nothing to say about it. I'm sure IE8 makes numerous improvements when it comes to support for web standards, but all I see is a browser with the world's most cluttered and unintuitive browser interface, which bugged me with all sorts of dialogs at first launch asking me to enable/disable this and that feature, features that sound completely ridiculous to someone who wants his browser to display web pages. You'll have to find someone else if you want more information on IE8, I'm not going there, I don't want to, I hate it.

One of the pleasant surprises in Windows 7 is the new user interface to Windows Media Player, which has been simplified a great deal - a tremendous trend breaker in a world where media players have become ever more complicated, more bloated, and in general far slower (I'm looking at you, iTunes). When you load a movie file, all you get is a window frame, and the movie content. That's it. No playlists, no visualisations, no rating system, no nothing - except for the on screen display which pops up on mouseover. This is the new simplified WMP window.

You can move to the more advanced library view, which is more like the Vista WMP version, but still far less complicated and much easier to use. It actually uses the Windows Explorer interface for managing your media files, drawing its data from your Libraries. Media files in Windows 7 are stored in one, single method (Libraries) and this method is used in Windows Media Player, Explorer, and the new Media Center; make a change in WMP, and it's seen all throughout the operating system. Whether you approach your media files from Explorer, Media Center, or WMP, it all looks and handles the same.

This is a tremendous leap forward in manageability, and it's a direction I hope that other operating systems will follow.

Windows also has improved its codec support, adding support for MP4, MOV, 3GP, AVCHD, ADTS, M4A, and WTV multimedia containers, including native codecs for H.264, MPEG4-SP, ASP/DivX/Xvid, MJPEG, DV, AAC-LC, LPCM, AAC-HE.

Table of contents
  1. Introduction
  2. Setup; Applications
  3. Libraries & Explorer; Taskbar
  4. HomeGroup; Misc; Performance; Conclusion
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