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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

What’s New in Windows 7?

One question people ask us as we write books about each new version of Windows is whether the new version is improved enough to justify the hassle of upgrading. We don’t always answer “yes.” For example, Windows Me was no major improvement over Windows 98. For that matter, Windows 98 wasn’t much to write home about, either (in our opinion, it was much less stable than Win 95). By contrast, XP was a major upgrade from any preceding Windows version. Likewise, Windows 7 is a major upgrade if you haven’t jumped onto Vista, mostly because it’s been so long since XP made its debut. If you haven’t migrated from Win 9x yet, consider this: Microsoft no longer produces security fixes or provides any other support for Windows 95, 98, and Me. Time to jump!

The jump from Windows Vista to Windows 7 is more of an incremental leap (like the jump from Windows 95 to 98), but it brings significant improvements and many changes. Although Windows 7 is a much-improved version of the Windows XP family, preserving many of Windows XP’s corporate networking and security features, it also carries many multimedia capabilities from Vista, including support for digital projectors, slideshows, movie making, and DVD burning. Furthermore, in its Ultimate and Home versions, Windows 7 supports Media Center. But of course, Vista also upped the Windows security ante considerably, and introduced the slick, animated Aero interface, which are also part of Windows 7 as well.

How big a change is Windows 7? Estimates are that by the time it was released, it contained about 50 million lines of code. That’s about 12% more code than Windows XP, but about 10% less code than its immediate predecessor, Windows Vista.

Because Windows 7 offers so many improvements and new features compared to Windows Vista, XP, 9x, Me, and 2000, in this section, we highlight some of its new and improved features and what each feature does. Table 1.1 highlights some key improvements found in Windows 7 and points you to the chapter(s) in which each one is covered. Most of them are introduced only briefly in this chapter.

Coverage of New and Improved Windows 7 Features

New Windows 7 Features

Covered in Chapters...

Installation and Setup

Improved Windows Easy Transfer Wizard, User State Migration Tool

1, 3

Faster, easier install and setup

2

Faster, easier Anytime Upgrade

2

User Interface Improvements

New taskbar

4

Large, animated task thumbnails

4

Jump lists

3

Libraries

4

Aero Snap and Aero Shake

4, 5

Desktop enhancements

4, 5

Improved Start menu search

5

Less cluttered Explorer windows

4

Revised role for gadgets

7

System Security Enhancements

Improved User Account Control

3

BitLocker to Go

31

AppLocker

1, 30

Multiple active firewall profiles

1, 32

DirectAccess

1

Improved Web Browsing with IE 8

Web Slices

14

Accelerators

14

InPrivate Browsing

14

Tab Groups

14

Crash recovery

14

Data Security Enhancements

Back up to network drive

31

Create System Repair disc

1, 25

Improved Volume Shadow Copy

25, 31

Include/exclude specific backup folders

31

BitLocker to Go

31

VPN Reconnect

1, 35

Performance improvements

Improved overall performance

1

Improved Windows ReadyBoost

1

Improved Reliability Monitor

1

Improved SSD support

1

New Accessories

Math Input Panel

1

Sticky Notes

1

Connect to a Projector

1

Power Management

Reduced power consumption

1, 22, 35

Improved power plans

1, 22, 35

Networking

Improved Network and Sharing Center

17, 19, 20, 21

Enhanced wireless networking

17, 37

Simplified sharing via homegroups

1, 17, 20

System Management and Stability

Manage AutoPlay feature for CD/DVD

22

Improved notification area displays

1, 4

Automated third-party troubleshooting

1

Improved system restore and repair

31

One-stop management with Action Center

1, 22

New, Improved Applications and Services

Multitouch support

38

PowerShell 2.0

22, 29

Windows Live access

35

Windows XP Mode

1, 2, Appendix A

WordPad enhanced

7

Entertainment

Media Center versions

9

Launch TV from Start menu

1, 9

Floating Media Center Gadget

1

Copy remote content

1, 9

Play to streaming media

1

Windows Media Player 12

8

Now on to a brief description of these new and/or improved features to brief you on what the Windows 7 hoopla is all about.

Installation and Setup

When it comes to installing and configuring Windows 7, changes are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Even so, a typical Windows 7 install usually completes in around 30 minutes—almost twice as fast as a typical Vista install. Migrating from older Windows versions and upgrading Windows 7 versions are also improved.

Improved Windows Easy Transfer and Migration Tools

In Windows Vista, you could use either the Windows Easy Transfer Wizard, or the User State Migration Tool (aka USMT) to move user preferences and settings from older versions of Windows into Vista. You could also generate considerable frustration during the process, and still wind up with inconsistent or incomplete results. In Windows 7, both of these tools work more or less as they should, and help transfer user environments from older Windows versions into Windows 7, including Vista and older Windows versions. But neither tool moves applications over, while some applications that require logins, such as Outlook, still require user accounts to be re-created and passwords re-assigned.

Faster, Easier Install and Setup

Windows 7 normally takes less than half an hour to install, which is faster than any versions we’ve worked with since the 1990s. It also involves fewer reboots, less user interaction, and generally less muss and fuss. You’ll get the chance to follow several installation step-by-step in Chapter 2, but we think you’ll be pleasantly surprised as you do your own Windows 7 installations.

Faster, Easier Anytime Upgrade

Here again, Windows 7 delivers what Windows Vista promised and failed to do. The concept in Vista with Anytime Upgrade was: get an upgrade key, perform the upgrade, done! In practice with Vista, this proved a bit more difficult and often involved using install media, Internet, or phone interaction with Microsoft for a new install key, and an hour or more to run through the upgrade install. In practice with Windows 7, the whole process can complete in under ten minutes, and obtaining a key can go even faster.

Interface Improvements

Hands down, Windows 7 is the best-looking version of Windows ever, even better than Vista. Even before you have time to check out all the improved functionality listed in Table 1.1, you’ll notice the flashy glassy look of Windows 7, called Aero, which carries over from Vista. Microsoft took Vista one better in Windows 7, with a cleaned-up and better-looking GUI.

New Taskbar

The Windows 7 taskbar features larger, more-attractive icons than in Vista or previous versions (see Figure 1.1). It’s often much easier to tell what’s what by looking at the taskbar, where the Start menu icon remains at the far left, followed by icons for programs pinned to the taskbar and programs that are currently running. In Figure 1.1, the Snipping Tool (scissors) is running to the right of the Windows Media Player icon (fourth from left). To its right is a generic program icon for Spyware Blaster.

01fig01.jpg

Figure 1.1 The taskbar has been revised in Windows 7 with larger, more attractive icons.

At the far right of the taskbar you see the revised system tray, which is known as the notification area. The flag icon proffers access to the new Windows 7 Action Center (more on this later in the chapter), with the network icon and volume control icon to its right. All other notification area icons are readily accessible through the upward-pointing arrow to the left of the Action Center icon.

You’ll have to work with the new taskbar to learn to appreciate it, but you’ll find it quite convenient as you get to know it better. One particular favorite, carried over from Vista, is the Search box in the Start menu; we’ll discuss this further later in this chapter.

Large Animated Task Thumbnails

When you move the mouse cursor over an icon on the left side of the taskbar, it displays a large icon for the highlighted item (see Figure 1.2). These icons are actually large enough to give you a sense of what’s going on inside the program. In Figure 1.2, we highlighted Windows Explorer opened to the My Pictures folder, and you can read the folder name and see how many files are inside the folder in its current Details view (if a Thumbnail view were turned on, you could see thumbnails of those thumbnails, in fact).

01fig02.jpg

Figure 1.2 Windows 7 improves upon the taskbar icons by making them bigger and easier to read.

This feature comes in handy to let you know what your minimized programs are doing, and to help remind you about what’s what if you have numerous windows active on your desktop.

Jump Lists

If you right-click an icon in the taskbar, you get a pop-up window that Microsoft calls a Jump List. It provides access to frequently used commands associated with that particular icon, or to frequently visited locations associated with its applications. Figure 1.3 displays the Jump List for Windows Explorer, which shows a list of frequently visited folders and drives above the dividing line, and a set of commands below. This a handy way to use programs pinned to the taskbar and programs open on your desktop.

01fig03.jpg

Figure 1.3 Jump Lists provide easy access to commonly performed tasks related to the item in the taskbar.

Libraries

A library is a new grouping construct in Windows 7. It lets you grab files, documents, or whatever you want from anywhere on your system and put it in a container, presumably with other items of the same general kind, or perhaps for a single project or task. In Figure 1.4, you see the four default libraries that Windows 7 provides automatically: Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos.

01fig04.jpg

Figure 1.4 Libraries group common file types for easy access.

What makes these libraries different from the old Documents, Pictures, Music, and Videos entries for each user account (or My Documents, My Pictures, and so forth) is that you can add content from anywhere on your system to them, yet access and search their contents through a single, consistent Explorer window. Although music files might be located in multiple folders on multiple drives on a Windows 7 system, for example, you can see and access all of them through the Music library.

Homegroups

A homegroup is a local network sharing tool that Windows 7 sets up automatically. The first Windows 7 machine to join a network establishes a password, after which any other Windows 7 machine that joins the network can supply that password to share content. By default, all predefined Windows 7 libraries may be shared, though Documents is disabled and Music, Videos, and Pictures are enabled by default, and the Printers homegroup is enabled as well. Figure 1.5 shows part of the Music library on another Windows 7 machine in a local homegroup, which has an external USB drive with an entire music collection attached to it.

01fig05.jpg

Figure 1.5 Homegroups provide an easy way to set up multiple networks and share specific files with specific users.

Homegroups simplify network sharing on small-scale networks. In older versions of Windows, users had to supply a login and password for a target machine, or map a network drive to access shared content or devices. In Windows 7, users need only join the homegroup and access to everything shared within that group comes along with that membership. You’ll find more information on this topic in Chapters 17 and 20.

Aero Snap Behavior

“Aero Snap” refers to windows placement and sizing behaviors new to Windows 7. By dragging a window to the left or right side of your display, you can force it to fit itself to the right or left half of your screen. By dragging a window to the top of your display, you can maximize it to fill the whole screen. These functions can be helpful on large displays, when you want to split the viewing area between two open windows, as shown in Figure 1.6. Notice that Internet Explorer occupies the left half, and Windows Explorer the right half. Depending on your monitor’s resolution, you might have more real estate than what is shown here.

01fig06.jpg

Figure 1.6 Aero Snap enables you to easily size more than one window to fit onscreen.

Desktop Enhancements

Windows 7 includes some desktop eye candy that’s both attractive and interesting. Several sets of Aero Themes are provided as part of Windows 7, which rotate your desktop background among a collection of gorgeous photographs that size all the way up to HD monitor resolution (1920×1200) without stretching or tiling. You’ll find numerous themes, including

  • Architecture— A set of photographs of outstanding modern architecture

  • Characters— Computer graphics depicting fanciful scenes and cartoon-inspired figures

  • Landscapes— Knockout nature photographs of postcard-worthy vistas and scenes

  • Nature— Lush photos of various forms of plant life

  • Scenes— More fanciful computer graphics, with a distinctly Peter Max feel

  • United States— More postcard-worthy photos of American landscapes

To access this window, right-click on your Windows 7 desktop, and select Personalize from the resulting pop-up menu. When you select an Aero Theme, you’ll find that window color, sounds, and the screen saver all also change with the rotating set of backgrounds. These various themes are depicted inside the Personalization window shown in Figure 1.7.

01fig07.jpg

Figure 1.7 Windows 7 includes a variety of attractive themes you can use to alter how your desktop and windows appear.

Improved Start Menu Search

Although the Start menu in Vista added the Search box to its bag of tricks, those tricks have been refined considerably in Windows 7. It’s easier than ever to find programs, utilities, or other system features by searching for them. With Vista you had to know some part of your search target’s filename or window name to get a solid hit while searching. In Windows 7, any good descriptive phrase will often work even if you can’t remember some utility’s complete or correct name. For example, look at Figure 1.8 to see all the backup-related entries and items that pop up simply by typing back into the Search box. You can use Windows 7’s improved search capabilities to very good effect, right from the Start menu.

01fig08.jpg

Figure 1.8 The Windows 7 Search function has received a needed overhaul.

Less Cluttered Explorer Windows

Hopefully, you’ve noticed Windows 7’s spare and uncluttered interface windows in Explorer in many of the preceding screenshots. The same look and feel applies to anything that uses the Explorer UI to manage its onscreen appearance. Thus, this applies to everything from Control Panel, to Games, to Network, Library, Homegroup, and other information display windows. As you work with Windows 7, you should come to appreciate its spare but attractive design.

Revised Role for Gadgets

Windows Vista introduced Windows Sidebar, an area at the right edge of the primary display on the desktop reserved for small programs called gadgets. By default, Vista included in Windows Sidebar a clock, a calendar, a rotating photo display, and an RSS feed area for headlines, but countless other gadgets were also available for Vista.

Oodles of gadgets are likewise available for Windows 7, too (and most Vista gadgets run on Windows 7), but there’s no Sidebar anymore. By default, gadgets still migrate to the right edge of your primary display, but if you don’t like them there you can drag and drop them anywhere on your desktop. There’s also no default set of gadgets for Windows 7, so you get to pick whichever ones you like and place them where you like them (though a base set of gadgets similar to the Vista default set is supplied with Windows 7). Figure 1.9 shows some personal favorites on the right edge of the screen. You can interact with gadgets on a Windows 7 system by typing gadget into the Start menu search box, and then selecting View List or Add Gadgets from the search results.

01fig09.jpg

Figure 1.9 Gadgets can be both fun and useful; choose from a large supply of gadgets included with Windows 7 and find many more online.

System Security Enhancements

Certainly, the most often-heard beef about Windows (even XP) is that it’s too fragile and vulnerable to malware and hackers. Some say it’s simply not robust enough. Microsoft hears it, too, from ordinary users and experts alike. Imagine their support calls. So with each new iteration of Windows, Microsoft tries to harden it against onslaught. (Of course, if it were not for the popularity of Windows, hacking it wouldn’t be an issue, so the naysayers have a somewhat specious argument, in our opinion.) For each new and creative plan of attack, a counterattack or defense emerges. Thus, Windows 7 has a new batch of security enhancements:

  • Improved User Account Control (UAC)— In XP, users too often give themselves administrative privileges, which sometimes lets malicious programs run amok. Windows 7 gives everyone low levels of privilege until they need more. This will result in dialog boxes asking you to confirm certain things can run before they’re let loose. It’s not as intrusive as it was with Vista, but it still helps prevent secretive programs from running without your knowledge. Even better, you can adjust the level of confirmations that Windows 7 requests, so that only programs seeking elevated privileges cause alerts, but you’re allowed to install programs, change settings, and so forth (as long as your account possesses the necessary rights, of course). This is a big improvement over Vista, for sure!

  • BitLocker to Go— Vista introduced BitLocker, an encrypted and secure form of on-disk storage that only those with the right password can access. In Windows 7, BitLocker to Go extends this capability to USB drives, including USB flash drives (UFDs), so that you can secure some or all of the contents on drives or devices that you take with you on the road. This is a great way to protect against unwanted disclosure resulting from theft or loss of a notebook or a portable storage devices of some kind.

  • AppLocker— Windows 7 lets system administrators apply a kind of “whitelist” control to applications on user desktops. In other words, they can create lists of valid applications and use Group Policy objects to apply them to what users can see and launch on their desktops. If an application isn’t on the list, users can’t run it: What better way to keep them out of trouble?

  • Multiple active firewall profiles— In the Windows 7 environment, Windows Firewall settings depend on the firewall profile in use. Previous versions of Windows allowed only one firewall profile to be active at any one time. In Windows 7, each network adapter on a PC can apply whichever firewall profile is most appropriate for the type of network to which it connects (which will differ considerably from home, to office, to public/unsecured networks). Thus, if you’re working in an airport coffee shop and using a virtual private network (VPN) connection to access a server at your office, the firewall rules for the office VPN will apply to all traffic to and from that location, and the firewall rules for a public network will apply to all other traffic to and from your PC.

  • DirectAccess— This applies only to Windows 7 computers that belong to an Active Directory domain on a Windows Server 2008 R2 server. Within that framework, however, users can connect to office/domain network resources whenever they access the Internet. Connection speed aside, such Internet users have the same experience accessing office/domain network elements that they would if they were locally attached to that network. This technology also lets system administrators manage Windows 7 computers remotely, no matter where they may be at any given moment.

  • VPN Reconnect— This facility lets Windows 7 users automatically reestablish VPN connections as soon as they regain Internet access. This lets users turn off or disconnect their machines from the Internet at will, yet re-creates their secure office network connections as soon as they regain Internet access, using secure protocols that require no user interaction to set up and maintain.

Improved Web Browsing with IE 8

Internet browsing remains the most widely used application on the PC desktop. As such, it behooves Microsoft to make its browser ever better. Ironically, Internet Explorer has been the bane of Microsoft’s (and users’) existence, constantly being one-upped by Netscape, Opera, Mozilla Firefox, and others. IE is a constant target for hackers, so Windows Update regularly doles out updates to harden IE; still, it’s a game of catch-up, for the most part. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, Windows 7 lowers the privilege level of IE now to help protect your PC. On the user end of things, IE 8 ups the bar on performance by keeping up with the Joneses again. Here’s what IE delivers (you must upgrade other versions, but Windows 7 has it built right in):

  • Web Slices— These items let you keep up with regularly updated sites from the Favorites bar. When a Web Slice is available on a page, a green Web Slices icon appears in the upper-right corner of the browser. Click it to add it to the Favorites, and it’s never more than a click away at any time.

  • Accelerators— IE 8 offers a built-in collection of web add-ons and enhancements that Microsoft calls Accelerators. To use any Accelerator, right-click a word or phrase on any web page, and then click the Accelerator button that pops up, or use the All Accelerators entry in the pop-up menu. There, you’ll find tools for blogging, web searching, email, maps, translating, and more, as shown in Figure 1.10.

    01fig10.jpg

    Figure 1.10 Accelerators provide easy access to a variety of built-in web add-ons.

  • InPrivate Browsing— This new mode of operation lets you surf the Web without leaving any trail behind in Internet Explorer: no history, no cookies, no URLs, no nothing. To use InPrivate Browsing, you must use the New Tab control (Click File, New Tab), and then select Use InPrivate Browsing. Or, click the Safety entry in the IE Command bar (top right above main window), then select InPrivate Browsing. Either way, a new IE window opens that reads “InPrivate is turned on,” as shown in Figure 1.11.

    01fig11.jpg

    Figure 1.11 InPrivate Browsing allows you to surf without leaving a trail of your online activities.

  • Tab Groups— When you right-click a link inside IE 8 and select the Open in New Tab menu item, the browser opens another tab as requested. This repeats as many times as you use this facility from any page in the current set of tabs. IE also colors all such related tabs green, so that any time you look at a page in that group, you can tell all those pages are related. This makes it easy to tell which pages are interlinked as you jump around from tab to tab inside IE. Very handy.

  • Crash Recovery— Call this a “catch-up” feature: Opera and Firefox have had this capability for some time now. But now, when you close IE 8 you can instruct it to remember all tabs and open pages on the next restart. Also, when the program crashes, IE 8 automatically restores all open pages on the next restart as well.

Data Security Enhancements

Maintaining data integrity on the PC is a constant job for IT people. Independent businesspeople without the aid of an IT professional worry about this just as much as the IT folks, if not more so, partly because they don’t know what to do when things go south. In addition to the stability improvements listed earlier, there are two areas of significant improvement in data security (outlined here and in Part VII of this book).

  • Back up to network drive— On previous Windows versions, the only drives to which you could back up were those attached directly to your PC, either internally or via eSATA or USB. On Windows 7, any network-accessible drive becomes a valid backup target. For those (like us) with a MediaSmart Server already on their home networks, this is fantastic!

  • Manage AutoPlay behavior for CDs/DVDs— Recently, worms and viruses triggered by AutoPlay for CDs and DVDs have surfaced on the Internet, primarily in the form of BitTorrent-based ISO downloads. Burn a DVD from such a download, and you’ll contract a virus as soon as you run the setup or other default executable from that image file. Most antivirus programs, and thus most Windows systems, are defenseless against this kind of attack. Windows 7 lets you block AutoPlay behaviors on optical disks, and sidestep this kind of vulnerability. Bravo, Microsoft!

  • Create System Repair Disc— To create a bootable DVD that you can use to repair your system, click Create a System Repair Disc in the left column of the Backup and Restore Center and insert a blank DVD (see Figure 1.12). This option is much easier than finding the installation media for Windows Vista—especially if you bought a machine with Windows 7 preinstalled and didn’t get an install disc! To access the Backup and Recovery center, type backup into the Start menu search box, and select that utility from the search results.

    01fig12.jpg

    Figure 1.12 Creating a system repair disc now could save you major headaches down the road!

  • Improved Volume Shadow Copy— Windows Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) is responsible for creating restore points and for making copies of files as they change on your system. On Windows Vista, VSS could sometimes impose onerous burdens on a drive: 15% or more might get allocated to the System Volume Information folder (we had a situation once where 120GB on a 750GB drive went into that folder). For Windows 7, shadow copy space is limited to 5% of total drive space for drives over 64GB in size, and 3GB for drives 64GB and under in size. This helps keep shadow copy storage under control by default.

  • Include/exclude specific backup folders— When backing up in Windows 7, you now have the option of including or excluding specific folders from the volumes you elect to back up. This provides much greater control over backup content and activity, and allows you to set up and schedule multiple backup tasks to capture different data for each task.

Table 1.1 also mentions BitLocker to Go and VPN Reconnect as data security enhancements. Because they’re also system security enhancements, we don’t repeat the information on those topics we provided in our earlier section (“System Security Enhancements”).

Performance Improvements

Computers always seem to slow down over time, and no matter how fast the hardware gets, things always seem to run at the same speed. What we might have called a supercomputer a few years ago now runs word processing and email apps about as fast as it did when CPUs ran at a fraction of their current speeds. This is because code has grown larger and more complex to take advantage of added processing power, so that users haven’t experienced serious perceptual performance gains. But by comparison with Vista, several speed-ups in Windows 7 are worth mentioning.

  • Improved overall performance— As previously mentioned, Windows 7 requires less memory and less computing horsepower than Windows Vista. Case in point: Windows 7 works nicely on netbook PCs with 1- or 2GB of RAM, 1.6GHz Intel Atom processors, and minimal disk space (less than 32GB is pushing things, but 32GB works just fine); Vista drags or hangs on that resource budget. Windows 7 also runs nicely in Microsoft Virtual PC 2007, where virtual machines get only single-processor access, even on dual- or quad-core computers; Windows Vista runs slowly and fitfully in the same situation. All in all, you’ll find that Windows 7 boots faster, runs faster, and uses less memory and disk space than Vista. How’s that for improved overall performance?

  • Improved Windows ReadyBoost— Windows Vista introduced ReadyBoost, which lets users allocate space on a UFD or SD card for extra system cache space. We all know that adding RAM can improve performance, but for many people, this is difficult to do and might violate a maintenance contract or annoy the IT people at a company. On Vista, ReadyBoost was limited to 4GB on a single UFD or SD card; on Windows 7, ReadyBoost cache size limits apply only to 32-bit systems. On 64-bit Windows 7 systems, ReadyBoost can be about as big as you want to make it; on all Windows 7 systems you can use two or more UFDs or memory cards to create a single monolithic ReadyBoost cache. See www.grantgibson.co.ukmisc/readyboost for test results for many brands of flash drive.

  • Improved Reliability Monitor— Windows Vista introduced the Reliability Monitor, which reports on system problems, errors, and stability. In Windows 7, this useful facility is expanded and improved. For one thing, it updates the reliability index (a number between 1 and 10 that reflects the system’s reliability over time) whenever errors or problems occur (the Vista version didn’t update until midnight on the day of occurrence). For another, the Reliability Monitor now integrates the search for solutions to problems right into its interface (in Vista, you had to use the Problems and Solutions applet in Control Panel to do this). Overall, the Windows 7 Reliability Monitor takes a good concept and makes it better. As Figure 1.13 shows, all reliability info now falls under a single interface. To access this tool, type reli into the Start menu search box, then select View Reliability History from the results.

    01fig13.jpg

    Figure 1.13 The Reliability Monitor tracks your computer’s problem history and helps you locate solutions.

  • Improved SSD support— A solid-state disk (SSD) is a type of storage device that uses flash memory chips to store data instead of common hard drives. Windows 7 can recognize and work with SSDs much more effectively and directly than previous versions of Windows could, mostly by disabling disk access behaviors that are suitable or necessary for rotating media but unsuitable or unnecessary on solid-state devices (such as turning off defragmentation, which isn’t needed on SSDs, adding better support for lazy write/erase operations, disabling SuperFetch, ReadyBoost, and boot or application launch prefetching because access times on SSDs are so fast). If you use Windows 7 on a PC with an SSD, you’ll notice faster performance and an increased lifetime for the drive.

New Accessories

Historically, Microsoft has packed ever-increasing globs of accessories into Windows. In the olden days of Windows 1.0 you were lucky to get a clock and one game. Windows 7 departs from tradition and adds only a few items to its software offerings and, almost unbelievably, removes some supplied applications (many applications are now offloaded into the Windows Live service online). To access these and other Windows Accessories, click Start, All Programs, Accessories. Here’s what’s new for accessories in Windows 7:

  • Math Input Panel— Lets you use the mouse to enter mathematical formulas of all kinds. This tool takes a little practice to learn but offers a handier way to create formulas than using MathML or formula entry in Word or Excel.

  • Sticky Notes— Use this to drop a note onto your screen view anywhere you like. The note stays visible until you decide to close it, and works well as an editable addition to your gadgets. Figure 1.14 shows a simple to-do list, but you can use Sticky Notes for whatever you want.

    01fig14.jpg

    Figure 1.14 Use Sticky Notes to jot notes—useful for grocery lists, reminders, phone notes, anything you can think of!

  • Connect to a Projector— Lets you direct video to a DVI- or VGA-attached video projector. You can duplicate what you see on your screen (typical for a presentation) or extend your desktop from the current display(s) to include a projector. This is handy for those who must work in conference rooms giving presentations.

Power Management

As energy conservation and consumption loom ever larger in assessing true costs of computer ownership, and users seek to cut those costs, Windows power management tools have gained considerable importance. Windows 7 makes some nice additions and enhancements to power management features already present in Windows Vista (and to some extent in Windows XP as well).

Reduced Power Consumption

By paying closer attention to Windows activity levels, Windows 7 can implement sleep or hibernation features in modern PCs, and even shut down system components that aren’t in use. Most users can turn these capabilities to best advantage on battery-powered PCs, where conserving energy translates directly into longer battery life. But even for computers plugged into a wall socket, reduced power consumption translates into lower overall costs for electricity.

Improved Power Plans

The Power Options item in Control Panel remains the primary means of access to power plans and their behavior in Windows 7, just as it was in Vista and XP. Users who spend some time investigating this utility will find only two basic plans (Balanced and Power User) rather than the three from earlier versions (Balanced, Power Saver, and High Performance in Vista, and six or more Power Schemes in XP) but many more options and more nuanced controls in the Advanced Settings window. Click Start, Control Panel, System and Security, Power Options, Change Plan Settings, Change Advanced Power Settings. There’s a new Desktop Background Settings (to enable/disable rotating desktop backgrounds) entry, many more Sleep options, and even a System Cooling Policy option in Processor Power Management. Some early testing indicates that Windows 7 can extend battery life by as much as 10% as compared to Vista on identical hardware.

Networking

Windows 7 networking includes a variety of new features. Chief among these is a reworked version of the Network and Sharing Center, but you’ll also find some nice improvements to wireless networking, and simplified resource sharing on home networks thanks to homegroups.

Improved Network and Sharing Center

The Network and Sharing Center is a single location that lets you easily perform common network tasks, much as the Mobility Center does for portable computers:

  • Set up a new connection or network
  • Connect to a network
  • Choose homegroup and sharing options
  • Troubleshoot problems

The Network and Sharing Center also provides some great functionality upgrades, including

  • Change Adapter Settings— Click this entry in the left pane of the Network and Sharing Center and get right to work on adapter configuration settings.

  • Change Advanced Sharing Settings— Also located in the left pane of the Network and Sharing Center, this is another way into homegroup setup and sharing instructions.

  • See Full Map— Lets you see the entire network you’re connected to in a visual display, with icons that include routers and switches (see Figure 1.15). This helps the network make more sense, especially if you are troubleshooting. To see this map, right-click the network icon in the notification area, select Network and Sharing Center in the pop-up menu, and click See Full Map in that window’s upper-right corner.

01fig15.jpg

Figure 1.15 The Network Map displays your network visually, which makes troubleshooting easier.

Enhanced Wireless Networking

Just click the network icon in the notification area and you get instant access to all nearby wireless networks (see Figure 1.16), and one-click access to all important networking functions from there. This is much simpler than in earlier versions of Windows, where you had to click through the system tray icon, into any of several utilities (disconnect or connect commands in Vista, View Available Wireless Networks or Open Network Connections in XP) to micro-manage wireless networking tasks.

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Figure 1.16 Instantly see and connect to available networks via the network icon in the notification area.

Simplified Sharing via Homegroups

We’ve already introduced homegroups in the “Interface Improvements” section earlier in this chapter, but it’s worthwhile to observe in a networking context that sharing resources is both incredibly simple and entirely automatic for Windows 7 computers. Once you join a local homegroup, you automatically gain access to all resources shared with that group—by default, this includes the contents of the pre-defined Videos, Music, and Pictures libraries, plus any shared printers (but not people’s Documents libraries). All of this material is easily and naturally available to all homegroup members through their own libraries. It simply doesn’t get any easier than that!

System Management and Stability

Stability is probably the most important issue when considering whether to upgrade to a new OS or buy a computer with it installed. Early adopters have a choice about this, but as an OS becomes ubiquitous and new PCs come with it already installed, we must make peace with the thing. After the likes of Windows Me (we liked to call it Windows 666), the real question we always want answered is, “Does it crash less?” Windows 7 has some pretty impressive anticrash technology. Think of them as antilock brakes and airbags for your computer:

  • Manage AutoPlay feature for CD/DVD— With the recent introduction of malware that exploits Windows AutoPlay to install itself on unprotected systems, Microsoft made some important changes to AutoPlay behavior. You can now instruct the OS to prompt you for permission before automatically running programs from an optical disc, which you may wish to deny for untrusted media on systems that don’t yet have anti-malware software installed. A nasty variant introduced a Trojan horse into the Windows 7 setup.exe file on some BitTorrent sites while the operating system was still in pre-release, in fact. If you must run an ISO or other bootable DVD on an unprotected system, be sure to scan the media or the ISO image on another protected system first and only run those that are provably clean on vulnerable PCs.

  • Improved notification area displays— Windows 7 presents quicker, easier access to key status and troubleshooting information in its notification area. Most notably, this includes the Action Center, which unifies security, troubleshooting, and maintenance alerts in a single window.

  • Automated third-party troubleshooting— Microsoft opened up its Help and Support APIs to third-party vendors for Windows 7. This might not sound like a big deal, but it means that vendors can build their own troubleshooting utilities, then plug them directly into the Help and Support environment. In the best cases, which we hope includes most responsible vendors, you’ll be able to troubleshoot third-party devices much more easily with this latest Windows OS.

  • Improved system restore and repair— As we worked with Windows 7 we found ample reason to admire its stability and resilience. No single incident impressed us more than this one: After we applied a beta graphics driver, we found ourselves looking at a black screen (which basically means the graphics driver failed miserably). By pressing Ctrl+Alt+Esc we were able to launch the Task Manager, from whence we typed restrui.exe to launch the System Restore utility. From there, we rolled back to the most recent restore point and kept right on working. No previous version of Windows, to our knowledge, has ever been able to support this kind of repair and restore operation. Factor in the built-in Create a System Repair Disc option in the Backup and Restore Center (Vista requires you to find and use the installation media to run repairs on an otherwise unbootable machine) and you’ve got an unbeatable combination. When it comes to repair, we like Windows 7!

  • One-stop management with Action Center— The Windows 7 Action Center brings security and maintenance handling together under a single umbrella. By providing a single place to view, access, and address all system issues, whether security- or stability-related, Windows 7 improves your ability to recognize, identify, and solve problems on your system.

New, Improved Applications and Services

Windows 7 makes numerous additions to its applications and services arsenal, including the following:

  • Multitouch support— Vista added Tablet PC support for Business, Enterprise, Home Premium, and Ultimate Editions. Windows 7 builds on this platform with support for Multitouch, a way to use visual gestures on touchscreens to instruct Windows 7 what to do, and how to behave. To better understand this capability, watch the Microsoft video demo at http://video.msn.com/video.aspx?vid=8700c7ff-546f-4e1d-85f7-65659dd1f14f.

  • PowerShell 2.0— PowerShell is a scripting language that you can use to automate just about anything that Windows can do, especially at the command line. With Vista, you can download and install PowerShell 1.1 from the Windows Download Center; PowerShell 2.0—which is both more powerful and more flexible than 1.x versions—is bundled as part of Windows 7. Check out the PowerShell Pro demo at www.powershellpro.com/powershell-tutorial-introduction for all the details.

  • Windows Live access— Whereas earlier versions of Windows, including both XP and Vista, included e-mail, messaging, photo handling, and address book functionality as part of the OS, Windows 7 pushes all this functionality onto the Internet. Although registration is required, you can use Windows Live for all kinds of activities for free. Check it out at http://home.live.com.

  • Windows XP Mode— For compatibility with legacy applications that work in Windows XP, users of Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate can all download the free Windows XP Mode package. It not only provides a tailored version of Microsoft Virtual PC with a pre-fab Windows XP virtual hard disk (VHD), it also provides a free license for the XP OS you run inside that machine. Designed to make it easy to run older applications that don’t work on Vista or Windows 7, this utility makes it easy to keep older code operational in a virtual machine. See Appendix A, “Using Virtualization on Windows 7,” for details.

  • WordPad— This venerable alternative to Microsoft Word comes free with modern Windows versions and gets a complete makeover in Windows 7. Whereas the older versions let you read and work with DOC files, this latest version also understands XML-based formats (DOCX) and provides a ribbon interface that looks and behaves very much like (a stripped-down version of) Word 2007.

Entertainment

A few odds and ends in the entertainment department are worth noting. Though this is not the full list, these are the notables:

  • Media Center versions— The Ultimate and Home Premium editions include Media Center, including support for Media Center Extender and Media Center Games. Media Center, just as in Vista (or in XP Media Center Edition), marries to a specific kind of computer that meets Media Center specifications. As always, Media Center PCs are designed for home entertainment, are typically more quiet than normal PCs, and come with remote controls and other goodies. They can connect easily to projectors and TV sets so you can record and watch TV, see slick slideshows of your digital images, watch movies, listen to your MP3 songs, and so on, all using a hand-held remote control. Windows 7 Media Center supports improved HDTV recording (if you have an HDTV source, that is) and built-in Blu-ray playback support. It has a better menuing system that is easier to navigate, and handles multiple displays (usually HDTV set and PC monitor) much better than Vista or XP Media Center versions.

  • Launch TV from Start menu— You can put Media Center at the head of the Start menu, or on the taskbar, and use its Jump List features to see (and play back) recently recorded shows, as well as regularly used features and commands.

  • Floating Media Center gadget— Drop this gadget on your desktop, and you don’t even need to hit the Start menu or taskbar to access Media Center commands and controls.

  • Copy remote content— When browsing several media libraries (Music, Videos, Pictures, and so on) you can view or save content for later use by instructing Windows 7 to make a copy. As long as no digital rights restrictions adhere to the item you choose, it gets copied to your local hard disk, where you can play it back at your leisure.

  • Play to streaming media— In a long-overdue move, Windows 7 adds support for DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) devices to Media Center. This gives the OS the information it needs to enroll any DLNA devices on your network in its database, whereupon it can push media to that device on your command (given multiple DLNA devices on a network, things get even more interesting in that Windows 7 Media Center can pull the stream from one DLNA device and play it back itself, or push it to another DLNA devices instead). This makes streaming media on home networks with Media Center much easier and, in fact, fun. Good job, Microsoft!

  • Windows Media Player 12— Windows Media Player 12 comes standard with Windows 7. It has numerous new features, including support for Libraries. It also supports numerous media-streaming options, including local network and Internet-based access to your media collection. Version 12 doesn’t represent quite the facelift we saw in version 11, but there are some nice changes here for mediaphiles.

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