Networking Made Easier
Networking features in Windows 7 address a number of problems that arise from the use of corporate PCs on noncorporate networks, particularly by workers who take their laptops home after work and on weekends. If you've ever spent hours trying to print on a networked home printer from a laptop tied to a corporate domain, you'll appreciate the W7-given ability to associate your notebook with a HomeGroup for easy access to printers and files on other PCs--without any tinkering with your IT department's carefully applied domain configuration settings. We haven't tested this capability yet, but Microsoft says that HomeGroup will also prevent other PCs on your home network from accessing any of the (potentially sensitive) corporate data on your laptop.
But wait: There's more. Microsoft says that Windows 7 will be smart enough to recognize when you're at home and when you're at your office. As a result, if you print a document, the OS will choose the appropriate printer to use. And a new federated search capability will let you sift through files on PCs across the network, and apply filters to your results. This means that you can do a keyword search and then refine it by specifying a specific file type.
Windows 7 promises easier Wi-Fi network and Bluetooth peripheral setup, too, though we weren't able to test either on the early beta software. Hovering over the Taskbar icon for these network adapters produces a jump list of available networks (or devices, in the case of Bluetooth); then you merely click the one you want to connect to (or pair with, in the case of a Bluetooth peripheral).
Another improvement is wake-on-wireless-LAN, the ability to bring a Wi-Fi-connected PC out of sleep mode remotely (just as you've long been able to do with ethernet-connected systems).
Back at the office, other networking improvements only apply if your company installs Windows Server 2008 R2 and your IT department allows them. For example, you might be able to click a link in a corporate e-mail message to launch an application behind the firewall--without having to make a VPN connection first (Windows 7 will transparently handle the security arrangements).
Searching and Organizing
One interesting new feature in Windows 7's Explorer is called "libraries." Essentially it's a way of making like content scattered in various folders easily accessible. The OS ships with several predefined libraries--for documents, music, pictures, and video--but you can create your own based on whatever criteria you choose--file type, date created, or other metadata such as music genre.
Libraries figure actively in Windows 7's improved search: Results are organized based on libraries rather than on file locations. Windows 7 also allows you to perform so-called federated searches--searches across multiple PCs on your network. So, for example, you might search for photos across the photo libraries of all the PCs in your HomeGroup.
More Multimedia in More Places
Once upon a time, Microsoft's approach to audio and video seemed to hinge on Windows Media Player and its file formats coming to dominate digital entertainment the way Windows dominates the PC. Instead, we live in a world where multiple approaches to media flourish, and where iTunes and the iPod, not Microsoft-based products, are everywhere. Windows 7's new multimedia capabilities acknowledge this reality by emphasizing features that help the OS play well with others--including with products that hail from a certain company named after a piece of fruit.
Windows 7 aims to streamline playback, too--so much so that it offers two different lightweight ways to consume media without employing full-strength Windows Media Player. You can listen to music and watch video by using the preview pane in Windows Explorer, without launching Windows Media Player at all. Or you can load up WMP but work with a simple view that hides you media library and fits comfortably into a small floating window on your desktop leaving the rest of your display visible (and usable).
No matter how you play your files, Windows 7 handles a bunch of non-Microsoft formats that Vista and Windows XP don't, including AAC audio and H.264 video--the standards favored by Apple--as well as DiVX video and AVHDC, a format used by many high-definition camcorders. That ecumenical approach lets the media player tap into entertainment libraries that you've created using iTunes. Not surprisingly, it can't play iTunes music and movies shielded by Apple's FairPlay copy protection; but rather than showing them and then choking when you try to enjoy them, it doesn't show them at all. In our tests, the updated WMP handled unprotected AAC music without a hitch; an H.264 video podcast that we downloaded from iTunes played, but it looked much blockier than it did when we watched it in iTunes on the same Windows 7 PC.
The new OS aims to play traffic cop for an array of media types and devices that may live on your home network. It can find media stored on multiple PCs on the Internet (including ones in HomeGroups), and it can route media files from them to media-streaming devices that support the Digital Living Room Network Alliance (DLNA) standard, such as the Sonos Multi-Room Music System. If a particular piece of media is saved in a format that a specific streaming device doesn't support, Microsoft says, W7 will convert it on the fly. That sounds very slick, but the proof is in the playing: We haven't tested these networked features yet, but we'll report back when we do.
Windows Media Center, the über-application that does everything from record live TV to distribute Windows' media features to networked Xbox 360 consoles. is back in Windows 7. (Microsoft hasn't announced details regarding the versions of W7 that will be available, but Media Center will presumably be included in one or more high-end consumer editions of the OS.) Microsoft says that Media Center includes new Internet TV features that give users a single guide and playback interface for video content from all over the Web. Again, that sounds intriguing--but if the feature is available in the Windows 7 preview edition we examined, it's so well-hidden that we couldn't track it down. Media Center also works with HomeGroup networking to let you find recorded video and other media files no matter where they're hiding on your network.
Applications in the Cloud and on Your System
As previously reported, Microsoft won't be shipping Windows 7 with all of the bundled applications that the company has historically installed by default with the OS. Instead, it will deliver e-mail, photo gallery features, and video-editing capabilities as downloadable applications, collectively called Windows Live Essentials. Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Photo Gallery, and Windows Live Movie Maker have been available in beta form for some time (at download.live.com).
There you can also find beta versions of Windows Live Writer (a blogging tool), Windows Family Safety (parental control tools), Microsoft Office Outlook Connector (software for using Outlook 2003/2007 as a front end to Hotmail) and Windows Live Toolbar (to make other live apps easily accessible from Internet Explorer).
Windows Live Essentials should not be (but probably will be) confused with Windows Live services, which may be associated with desktop apps but require nothing more than a browser to run. For example, Windows Live Hotmail is an e-mail client accessible only in a browser, whereas Windows Live Mail runs on the desktop.
In discussing Windows Live, Microsoft's Brian Hall noted that Microsoft has yet to offer applications that relate to social networking and user-generated content (with ratings), but he hinted that such apps may be coming. Other Microsoft officials said that new Windows Live services will be announced November 12.
Not all traditional accessories have been eliminated; some old standbys remain, with face lifts. Windows Paint's basic image-editing features are now exposed via a Scenic Ribbon à la Office 2007. The ribbon also appears in Windows 7's WordPad, and the OS's APIs will make the ribbon available to third-party developers who believe that it will benefit their applications. Though some users didn't appreciate having to learn new locations for many features in complicated Office apps, the ribbon works well for the relatively few and simple tools in Paint and WordPad.
Also in the future OS: a refresh of Calculator, and a Sticky Notes feature that supports ink (as well as text) and permits resizing of notes.