UAC: Let's Try That Again
Windows XP's reputation for shaky security stemmed in part from the scary possibility of hackers worming their way into your PC and launching applications or changing settings at will. In Vista, Microsoft responded with User Account Control, a safeguard which tries to protect you by asking, in effect, "Are you sure?" before executing a wide variety of system actions. The problem was that those actions are intentionally initiated by the user in the vast majority of instances. Telling Vista that you know what you're doing gets old quickly. But Vista's UAC essentially has only two settings: on and off.
Windows 7 still lets you opt for full-tilt UAC or no UAC at all. It adds two useful intermediate settings though: One notifies you to attempts to install software or change settings without making you click to continue, and the other notifies you only when a program tries to change settings. Both of these options provide a happy medium--you'll be alerted when potentially-dangerous actions transpire on your PC, but your work won't grind to a halt nearly as often as it does with Vista's version of UAC.
The new UAC settings reside in a new Control Panel section called Windows Solution Center, which replaces Vista's Security Center. It's home to a bunch of features for adjusting security settings, using Windows Update, and backing up data. And it also lets you turn off various Windows notifications, such as the ones that warn you about security settings. Turn off every nagging notice that Windows 7 lets you disable, and you could wind up with the least intrusive edition of the OS in a long time.
Did we say that Windows 7 is longer on substance than style? For most part, it's true. But the new features for applying Themes to the Windows interface are nicely done. As before, they let you choose collections of wallpaper, color schemes, sounds, and screen savers that provide Windows with an instant makeover. Windows 7's version lets you see a full-screen preview of a Theme's effect on the OS with one click, however, and it's easier to create and save your own Themes than with Vista's antediluvian Theme controls. (Microsoft, incidentally, says that Themes will be renamed Styles before Windows 7 ships: That's a classic example of the company renaming a familiar feature without any clear purpose.)
The Magic Touch?
One major area of change in Windows 7's interface won't mean much to most PC users at first blush: Only a handful of current machines, such as HP's TouchSmart PC and Dell's Latitude XT laptop, support multitouch input; but in theory this feature would let you operate a touch-screen-equipped Windows 7 computer as if it were a massive iPhone, using your fingertips to launch applications, shuffle windows around, and enlarge and shrink photos by grabbing them with both hands. Not surprisingly, Microsoft hasn't yet enabled all of this functionality. Using a TouchSmart PC at the Windows 7 workshop, we could fingerpaint with two fingers in Paint, but we couldn't perform two-fingered photo manipulations that would be a lot more useful in real life.
Microsoft promises that Windows 7 will ship with more touch features. The company is also working to make the OS smart enough to figure out whether you're using a mouse or your fingers so it can adjust itself accordingly. For example, if you tap the Start button with your fingertip rather than with the mouse pointer, you'll get a slightly larger Start menu that requires less finesse to navigate. And you don't get a mouse pointer when you touch the screen with your finger--which makes perfect sense, since your finger servers as its own pointer. Instead, you get a momentary puddling effect to indicate that you've made contact with the screen.
Will the touch interface that makes the iPhone cool work on a notebook or desktop system? We're skeptical, but Windows 7 lays the software groundwork that will allow PC manufacturers to give it a try, at least.
Some of the biggest criticisms of Vista relate to performance, and Microsoft appears to have made addressing these a priority. In our brief experience with the early-beta code, boot time seemed fast. Of course, we won't be able to make a fair comparison until we can test identical machines with the same bare-bones installations in Vista and W7, but Microsoft did identify a couple of steps it has taken to speed things up. First, Windows 7 initializes many services in parallel; and second, it has fewer services to initialize.
Microsoft engineers are working on several areas to improve general PC performance. One focus is to change the way the OS allocates memory to new windows. In Vista, the amount of memory allocated per window goes up as you add windows, to the point where the system often shuts down Aero because application windows are soaking up too much system memory. In Windows 7, each new window will be allocated the same amount of memory, and as a result adding new windows won't impose a prohibitive burden on system resources.
Other changes are designed to make the OS less crash-prone. Fault-tolerant heaps, for example, are designed to address memory management problems without crashing the problem application; at the same time, process reflection reduces crashes by allowing Windows to diagnose and (maybe) repair process problems without crashing the application involved. Microsoft says that its new OS "sandboxes" printer drivers so that problems stemming from poorly written drivers won't create problems for other drivers or for the system as a whole.
Microsoft is also working on ways to prolong notebook battery life by reducing power consumption. Examples of this endeavor include enabling notebooks to cut back on background activities, to perform intelligent display dimming (similar to technologies used with cell phone displays), and to play back DVDs more efficiently.
Devices and Hardware
Since Windows 7 is more of a major refresh than a departure from Vista, it doesn't require new drivers for peripherals: If something works with Vista, it should work with Windows 7. Nevertheless, Microsoft has instituted some changes to help people use connected devices such as cameras, cell phones, media players, and printers with their PCs.
Instead of the Auto-play window that appears in Vista and XP when you hook up one of these peripherals, you'll now get--if vendors play along--a more useful Device Stage window that shows not only a photorealistic rendering of the device but also a list of associated services and tasks. For example, with a multifunction printer you might see an icon for launching the scanning software--and you'll almost certainly see a link to the vendor's site for toner or ink supplies.
Other options might include a link to a PDF of the manual (which would save you the trouble of having to track it down on the Web) or, in the case of a cell phone, software for syncing Outlook contacts (even with a non-Windows Mobile handset).
To make these services readily accessible once you've installed a device or peripheral, Windows 7 lets you create a device icon that acts much as taskbar application icons do: The image of the peripheral appears on a taskbar button; and when you hover over it, the services in Device Stage appear as a jump list.
The Device Stage for a peripheral exists only if the vendor creates an XML document based on a Microsoft template; in order for this to happen, the vendor would have to get Microsoft to sign off on the document (Microsoft says that this prerequisite is necessary to ensure quality control). It's not clear at this point whether the overhead involved will discourage vendors from participating, but Microsoft says that the OS will download such documents whenever they're available (using the same Windows Metadata Services technology that transparently downloads cover art for albums in Windows Media Player).
Device Stage has the potential to help vendors integrate their hardware with Windows more successfully and save money on tech support (since, if you have the manual handy, you may not need to call in). The technology also gives vendors a marketing opportunity: They can prominently display their logo next to the rendering of the device on the upper half of the Device Stage window.
Another hardware-related innovation is the ability to go beyond adjusting the font size on a high-DPI (dots-per-inch) display, which you can already do in Windows Vista, and use a new Magnifier feature to enlarge a part of the display--for example, if you need to read a small block of tiny type.
Windows 7 will also pack some easy-to-use tools for adjusting external displays--specifically, to help people connect a notebook to a projector.