Libraries & Explorer
Let’s move on to an actual new feature in Windows 7: Libraries. Libraries seem a little odd and useless at first, but once you dive a little deeper into what they can do, where they are used, and how you can use them, it becomes obvious that Microsoft has put a lot of thought into these little things.
Historically, we’ve been organising files using directories, and if you go back far enough, you’ll encounter a time when you could only have top-level directories – so no subdirectories. These days, we manage our files by creating, naming, and moving directories and files around, but ever since the number of files on our hard drives started to increase beyond an amount we can wrap our brains around, people have been looking for ways to make it easier to manage, organise, and retrieve files.
First, we came up with very basic search functionality, which matched search queries with file and directory names. However, you could not search the contents of files using this method, and as such, you were required to remember the names of your files. Seeing some operating systems imposed restrictions on the number of characters you could use in a file name (Hi DOS/Windows!), this soon became problematic.
We needed more advanced methods of searching for files, and out of this need came file systems with metadata support. Little bits and pieces of information about a file – composer, title, date, whatever – could be stored in inodes (for instance), and then be scanned using the search tool. The most impressive example of this was BeOS and its BFS and live queries, which allowed for some very impressive and versatile search and filter operations at instant speeds. You could also save live queries, and approach them like you would a directory.
However, each file system used its own method of metadata, meaning transferring files between different platforms meant losing your metadata. In addition, populating the metadata fields could be a thankless chore. The biggest issue, however, is that metadata search still doesn’t allow for searching the content of files. This is where modern solutions using index databases come into play, like Apple’s Spotlight or Windows’ Instant Search.
A more ambitious approach to the problem is using a relational database to aid in managing, organising, and retrieving files. Microsoft boldly claimed that such technology – WinFS – would be part of Longhorn, but the difficulties in realising this ambitious technology proved to be too great, and the company had to abandon the project, chopping it up into parts which are now scattered across a wide variety of Microsoft products.
Libraries are yet another attempt at easing the burden when it comes to managing, organising, and retrieving files. A Library in Windows 7 looks like a directory, but in fact it’s a sort of virtual folder that combines the contents of various locations into one, handy folder. For instance, the Video library on my machine points to the video folder on my local hard drive, the video folder on my external USB drive, and the shared video folder on my netbook. No longer is it necessary to navigate to each of these locations through Network or Explorer – you can just click on the Library, and all the content is there.
This may seem like a small feature, but in a household with multiple machines, it makes things a lot easier. I often use my netbook to watch television series before I go to bed, and finding an episode using Explorer and the network consisted of lots of clicks. As soon as my netbook is upgraded to Windows 7, I’ll configure its local Video library to include the locations on my network, giving me much easier and faster access to my video files.
In a rare moment of clarity, Microsoft decided that the new Library feature could also be used as the base for managing files from within other applications – like WMP and Media Center (as I already mentioned). This means that in my netbook scenario, I don’t even have to use Explorer at all: I just load up WMP, and play all the video files on my network straight from there. Since applications do not have to be made aware of Libraries, VLC picks them up just fine as well.
Libraries are an excellent addition to the various methods of managing files, and I get the feeling that Microsoft has more in store for libraries in the future. Time will tell.
Windows Explorer itself has also received a much-needed visual overhaul. Explorer in Vista was cluttered and unintuitive, much like Windows Media Player in Vista. The barrage of colours has now been toned down to nothing but shades of white, which makes for a much more pleasant file managing experience. The sidepane is also a lot less overwhelming, and shows shortcuts to logical locations like your libraries, disks, network, and HomeGroup.
If there is one major new feature in Windows 7 that has been debated to death, revived again, and then debated to death some more, it’s the new taskbar. Instead of regurgitating what we already know, I decided to fill you in on some less obvious details of the new taskbar, as well as some areas of improvement – and concern – that I hope Microsoft takes a peek at. I suggest you read the linked article above first, or else the following might not make an awful lot of sense.
One of the first oddities that I noticed was that sometimes, there would be what looked like visual remnants on the taskbar; it appeared as if some entries had multiple borders on the right side. After a bit of researching, I found out I was being an idiot: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. If multiple windows are open for a single application, the icons turns into some sort of stack, which I mistakenly assumed were remnants. The problem with this is that the stack never grows larger than three – if you have 4, 6, or 98 windows open, the stack will max out at 3. I guess it’s meant as an indicator, not a precise measurement.
Another thing I noticed has to do with Miranda, my favourite instant messaging client. Miranda uses a toolbox window as its main contact list window, meaning it doesn’t get an entry in the taskbar. The new taskbar is confused by this, as it sometimes designates Miranda as a running application, while sometimes, it does not. It appears as if the new taskbar cannot handle applications that use nothing but a toolbox-type window. Whether this is a bug in Miranda or in Windows 7 itself remains to be seen.
I’m not particularly liking the new Start menu. It may look the same as the one in Vista, but that’s exactly the problem: I use the old-fashioned Start menu because it isn’t as cluttered as the fancy all-in-one variant introduced in Windows XP – sadly, this old-fashioned start menu is no longer available in Windows 7. The problem is worsened because the main area of the taskbar can be filled with three possible things: most often used items, recently used items, or white space/pinned items. I had hoped I could tell it to display the start menu structure as a whole, but this is sadly not possible.
I always had a clear distinction: quicklaunch for my most often used applications, and the Start menu as a way to gain access to everything. The All Programs link is cumbersome because it uses a tree-style view, which creates scrollbars inside the start menu (BAD UI DESIGN! BAD UI DESIGN!), and is generally uncomfortable. I guess this is just my thing I have to give up in the name of progress (similarly to other people who are throwing fits all over the web because their taskbar can’t be reverted to old-style). It’s not a deal-breaker; it’s just annoying.
There are other areas of improvement, most notably the delay between mouseover and the appearance of the previews. This delay should be set a little lower, as the the pause between moving your mouse to an application’s entry and the appearance of its window list is just a little too long for comfort – it interrupts your workflow. The previews have some minor bugs too, such as an unwillingness to disappear every now and then.
Jumplists are a very good idea, as they allow you to interact with applications without actually switching to them, saving time and clicks. Obviously, there are very few applications that actually make use of Jumplists, making them a bit useless in Windows 7’s current beta form. I’m sure that as the final release nears, more and more applications will make proper use of Jumplists.