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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Windows 7: Vista That Works

Although hardly revolutionary, Microsoft's next operating system repairs some of Vista's flaws.

Credit: Technology Review

One week after Microsoft began offering preview downloads of Windows 7 at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, experts are generally optimistic about what they're seeing. The full release of the new operating system isn't planned until 2010. But the software giant seems to be hoping that the preview release will allay the concerns of Windows users who were unwilling to switch from Windows XP to its troubled successor, Vista.

Vista, which was released in late 2006, met with some bad reviews and sluggish adoption in the business world. Forrester Research reports that by June 2008, only about 9 percent of its clients had switched to Vista. Microsoft went on selling XP months longer than it had planned. Now, the company is promoting Windows 7 as a response to user feedback.

Windows 7 features a few changes to Microsoft's familiar user interface. Buttons for open windows no longer appear along the bottom of the screen. In their place are larger icons representing active and frequently used (or user selected) programs. When a user hovers the cursor over the icon for an active program, preview thumbnails of the open windows pop up, and the user selects the one that she wants. Certain cursor movements also trigger common changes to windows. Dragging a window to the top of the screen maximizes it, dragging a window to the side snaps it in place so that it takes up half the screen, and dragging the cursor down to the right-hand corner of the screen makes all the open windows transparent so that the user can see down to the desktop. Microsoft also says that it has made it easier for users to create home networks, and that Windows 7 makes better use of resources than Vista did. The system requirements are similar to those for Vista Home Premium, but early reports say that Windows 7 manages memory better and runs faster.

Benjamin Bederson, an associate professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland, says that the user-interface adjustments in Windows 7 are good but subtle. "I don't think that people are going to rush to Windows 7 for these, but they're definitely improvements, and they've definitely removed some of the gravel," he says. Microsoft has listened to its customers, Bederson says, and it has paid attention to what its rival, Apple, is doing with user-interface design. Bederson still finds Apple's OSX a more intuitive operating system, but he considers Windows more powerful for advanced users.

Sneak peeks: In Windows 7, holding the cursor over the icon for an active application pulls up thumbnail images of the open windows.
Credit: Microsoft

Anyone who wants to make an operating system has to wrestle with the same problems, says Ed Chi, area manager and senior research scientist for augmented social cognition at the Palo Alto Research Center. As computers have become more powerful, users keep more windows open, he says, and designers have been working on how to organize the clutter. Chi says that the thumbnail previews and other improvements to Windows 7's interface will definitely increase users' ability to select the correct window quickly. However, he cautions, it may not increase their productivity, since designs that encourage people to keep a multitude of windows open may help distract them from the tasks at hand.

Windows 7 also continues Microsoft's foray into touch-screen interfaces, previously demonstrated by products such as the Surface, its touch-screen table computer. Kirk Godkin, Hewlett-Packard's manager of business desktops for North America, says that many of the software vendors that he works with are excited at the prospect of an operating system that is engineered to accommodate touch. (At CES, HP announced its dx9000 TouchSmart Business PC, which supports touch as well as the traditional keyboard and mouse.)

But Bederson says that he sees touch-screen computers as a minor market for Windows 7. The much more important thing, he says, is that the operating system is significantly faster than Vista. That means that many people with slower computers, who were unwilling to switch to Vista, will be more likely to upgrade to Windows 7. "It's Vista that works," Bederson says. "They fixed the problems, and they polished it up. Good for them."

-by Erica Naone