One of the features I personally looked forward to the most was HomeGroup. Setting up a home network in Windows, including printer sharing, file sharing, streaming media, and so on, was always a major pain in the butt. It’s a lot of work, and you really need to know a thing or two about all the underlying subsystems in order to get everything to work seamlessly. The worst part, however, is that in previous Windows release there wasn’t really a central place to take care of all these related, but individual things.
In Windows 7, this has changed with the introduction of HomeGroup. HomeGroup is not a new technology, nor is it a new protocol or method of organising your network (alongside domains and workgroups). All HomeGroup does is take care of all the backend, low-level stuff so you don’t have to fiddle with endless streams of dialogs and settings panels.
After completing the Windows 7 installation, you are asked if you want to create a new HomeGroup, or join an existing one. If you decide to create one, a random password is generated which will allow other Windows 7 computers to join the HomeGroup. Microsoft actually researched if it made sense for people to select their own password, but they came to the conclusion that it was better to generate a random one:
While a password is provided by default, people can, at any time, visit HomeGroup in Control Panel to change their password to something they prefer. This flexible system performed very well in testing. When faced with the default password, people wrote it down, and shared it with others to set up the HomeGroup. You may ask, why don’t we enable people to set their own passwords by default? The answer is actually quite ironic, since that was our initial design. In testing, this concept raised quite a bit of alarm with people. It seems that most people generally have 1 or 2 passwords that they use for all their online or offline activities. When asked to input a user password for their HomeGroup, they gravitated towards using one of those, and then reacted with alarm when they realized that this password needs to be shared with other users in the home! People generally reacted better to the auto-generated password, since they knew to write it down and hand it around. The other interesting benefit we got from this was a reduction in the amount of time people would spend on the UI that introduced them to the HomeGroup concept. With a user-generated password, they had to grasp the HomeGroup concept, think about what password to set, and decide whether to accept the shared libraries default. Without having to provide a password, people had more time to understand HomeGroup, and their sharing decision – leading to a much more streamlined, private, and secure design.
So, what does HomeGroup do? It automatically shares the music, video and picture libraries and printers across the network, allowing every member of the HomeGroup to gain access to them. Documents are by default not shared, but you can enable that too if you wish. Thanks to the top-to-bottom nature of Libraries, you can browse the Libraries on other computers in your HomeGroup from any computer on the HomeGroup (get it?). In addition, there’s a new “Share with” drop-down menu in Explorer that allows you to share any file with one click, in either R or RW mode. You can also choose to share with specific people, or select “Nobody”, with obvious results. Network Location Awareness is employed to make sure you only share your stuff when you’re actually at home.
HomeGroup really takes the pain out of setting up a network, and makes it all a much more pleasant experience. However, HomeGroup has one major issue, and we’re not sure if Microsoft will address it: so far, it seems as if HomeGroup will be a Windows 7-specific feature; it does not appear Microsoft will backport HomeGroup to Vista and XP. In other words, you will need to upgrade at least two machines if you want to reap the benefits of HomeGroup.
This naturally leads to another inevitable conclusion: no support for Macintosh, no support for Linux. If it really turns out to be the case that HomeGroup will not be a cross-version, cross-platform effort, I’m afraid that HomeGroup will see little use. I urge Microsoft to think about this one – it is one of the most common heard complaints about HomeGroup on the E7 weblog.
You are not going to believe it, but Windows’ most awful dialog – the “Safely remove hardware” one – is no longer present in Windows 7. Instead, clicking the USB icon in the system tray triggers a nice, usable pop-up menu where you can select which device to eject. It’s mindblowing that it took Microsoft so long to fix this one.
Wordpad now supports Open Office XML and ODF.
You can mount Virtual PC’s VHD files natively in Windows 7.
Windows 7 comes with various improvements when it comes to using solid state drives, without a doubt a result from the popularity of netbooks with SSDs. Partitions on SSDs will be formatted differently; the alignment of the start of an SSD partition used to be located in the middle of a single page, which could negatively affect performance by 50%. In addition, the delete policy on SSDs is more strict and rigorous. Disk defragmenter will be turned off on SSDs.
A note on performance
I’m not burning my fingers on any serious performance testing, but the overall impression is good, except for one annoyance: there seems to be an issue with dragging windows around in Windows 7. Even though the responsiveness is good, the actual motion of the window feels as if the window is stuck to the desktop with molten sugar. During a drag operation, the window kind of chugs along the mousecursor, with a little bit of lag. It’s definitely noticeable, and can get quite annoying at times. Similar problems seem to appear sometimes with the Aero peek functionality.
Microsoft made a number of changes to the compositing engine, and my hope is that this is merely a driver issue, fixed in later iterations of the various video drivers. If not, Microsoft needs to take a good look at DWM before declaring Windows 7 gold, because if this molten sugary motion can be found on other machines as well post-launch, they’ll be in trouble – as DWM in Vista has no such problems.
There are various new features in Windows 7 that I didn’t cover in this review (touch, most notably), but overall I find it relatively easy to draw a comprehensive conclusion about Windows 7, and what it stands for.
Windows 7 is not a revolutionary release. It doesn’t constitute a major overhaul of Windows, nor does it introduce new features that will really blow you away. Windows 7 is more like evolution with a bit of pepper in its butt: a lot of UI problems from Vista have been fixed, the taskbar has been modernised and made easier to use, there are all sorts of small performance fixes that do add up, Explorer is much more usable, and so on.
Still, there are a number of features I would call a pretty big deal. HomeGroup, and the top-to-bottom implementation of Libraries are things that alone will make Windows 7 a worthwhile upgrade to Windows Vista – provided Microsoft does something about HomeGroup’s isolationist attitude. I haven’t even touched the new multitouch framework yet (ha. ha.), because I don’t have the hardware for it, but I’m sure that will be a major selling point for some as well.
As it currently stands, Windows 7 feels like a very solid release, with the first beta being better than the final release of Windows Vista. Assuming the DWM performance issue I mentioned gets fixed real soon, I see little reason why you shouldn’t give the beta a go.