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    Coming soon to a computer near you: Microsoft’s Windows 7

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2009 First published in Business in Vancouver January 20-26, 2009; issue 1004

    High Tech Office column

    Early January brings us the consumer electronics show (CES), which has traditionally featured a Bill Gates keynote. This year, CES kicked off with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showcasing the company’s next generation operating system: Windows 7.

    Ballmer announced availability of the first public beta of the product, which Microsoft hopes will restore credibility tarnished by Vista’s unpopularity, while stemming customer migration to Mac or Linux.

    High demand initially over-loaded Microsoft, but now several million copies of the 2.5-gigabyte image file have been served. Would-be downloaders were warned: as with all pre-release software, use at your own risk. I’m always willing to take risks for the sake of this column, so I downloaded the file, burned it to DVD and installed it on to two test systems: a three-year-old Dell laptop and a current Mac.

    Some quick impressions:

    Installation was fairly quick: about half an hour on each system. It was also straightforward and requires little user intervention.

    Microsoft has worked to reduce the number of times users are required to enter information then click next.
    Installation required about 10 gigabytes of hard drive space, a bit less space than a similar Vista installation.

    All the basic hardware on both systems was supported; video, network, wireless, sound – all worked. On the Mac, the drivers that Apple includes for XP or Vista installed without a peep, giving additional support for that system’s hardware.

    I was able to install my basic set of applications without problems. (That’s no guarantee, of course, that your experience would be equally problem-free.)

    Boot up, program startup, and performance seems a bit perkier than Vista on these same systems.

    Microsoft’s decision to drop the Vista sidebar feature speeds up boot time: that took about a minute to load on my systems. (You can choose to add Vista sidebar-style gadgets anywhere on the desktop if you want.)
    Several Vista features that annoyed many users have been redesigned.

    The default for user account control (UAC) no longer pops up warnings in response to user actions – only to possibly insecure software actions.

    A new slider lets users fine-tune the actions of UAC, but most users can ignore this. Unlike in Vista, the default settings for this security feature strike a balance between security and nagging.
    And unlike in Vista, there’s an easily accessed shutdown button in the start menu.

    Some other changes may take more getting used to. A redesigned task bar at the bottom of the screen shows icons only – no program names – and mixes icons for running programs with shortcuts to favourite programs.

    It’s reminiscent of the Mac OS X dock, but goes beyond Apple’s dock with pop-up menus and thumbnail views when there are multiple windows running.

    Ribbons, similar to the ones in Microsoft Office 2007, pop up in new versions of Paint and WordPad, and may sprout up in other Windows 7 accessories. And several familiar accessories – Mail, Movie Maker, Messenger – are no longer included. The missing pieces, however, can be downloaded at, which is an added step for users.

    Overall, I like it.

    It’s what Vista should have been. But XP diehards may be less impressed; this is, in effect, a reworked Vista rather than an updated XP.

    If you rely on hardware or software that doesn’t work under Vista, it probably won’t work with Windows 7 either.

    Microsoft has not announced a release date, but this beta feels solid and is reportedly “feature complete.” I would expect to see the release version sooner rather than later – perhaps timed to coincide with a new Microsoft Office version. July, maybe?

    In my dreams, I’d like the company to make it a free upgrade for Vista users.

    If you want to see what the fuss is about, downloads will be available until January 24.

    Just remember, it’s a beta. Despite my positive experiences, don’t bet your vital data on it.

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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