One week with Windows 7

I like Macs, I really do.

But there's something about having 18 GB of music as FLAC files (which iTunes, due to Apple's proprietary ways, will never support) that keeps me from wanting to make the plunge. That and a legitimate, PC-only copy of Adobe CS3 Design Premium that I paid for. And those good ol' PC games. Among plenty of other things.

So what's the next-best thing? Non-stop bleeding-edge PC software, that's what. Last week, I broke down and decided to install Windows 7 on my main computer.

(Please don't follow my example without thinking it through. I essentially have a software deathwish with all the nightly/beta versions of software I use—my e-mail program is called "Shredder," for crying out loud. I have an external hard drive and Amazon S3 that I backup to for a reason.)

tl;dr summary version: Windows 7 does not suck, takes some awesome interface cues from OS X, would buy again A+++++++++++

Interested parties, read on.

At first glance, the Windows 7 beta installs and operates just like Vista does. I can't say too much about the performance (I'm running on awesome hardware), but I will note a few of the more noticeable ways that Windows 7's user interface moves forward from Vista.

One webcomic I read lightly noted that Windows 7 is "like Vista, only minus the huge amounts of suck, and they decided to stick awesome in all the places where the suck used to be. Also, puppies." Minus that puppies part, that's pretty spot-on.

First things first: User Account Control

I figured I should put this at the top since it was essentially the biggest public gripe against Vista.

The infamous UAC prompts are a lot nicer on the intake. There's a lot less "alert fatigue" by default, as Windows only "shades" the desktop under certain circumstances, normally presents only one prompt at a time, and prompts a whole lot less than before—all significant improvements over Vista.

It's a lot less annoying than Vista and probably near the same level as OS X—although I'm going to give this one to Windows 7 since alerts don't always come looking for an administrator password.

Biggest, perhaps best change: Taskbar

Windows 7 'hot track' hover color

Nothing else in Windows screams "I want to be like a Mac" as much as the new taskbar in Windows 7. The ol' window title stripes—from every Windows version since Windows 95—are gone and are now replaced by a combined taskbar/quicklaunch area that Microsoft has nicknamed the "Superbar."

Icons work in a very Mac Dock-like fashion, in which running programs will show up in the taskbar, but are joined by the ability to "pin" items to the taskbar, essentially creating a permanent shortcut to that program.

I repeat: it's very OS X. In terms of usability, it's essentially a variation of the Mac Dock. And that's not a bad thing. I tend to have way too many windows open at once, so this UI style appears a lot less cluttered than vintage Windows.

Windows 7 'quick peek' and 'hot track' color

Main differences from Mac are the addition of the window preview and what Microsoft nicknamed "hot track coloring," where an icon's background color (on hover) matches the icon's most dominant color—both of which can be seen in the images above. (In cases with a low-saturation or greyscale icon, I've noticed Windows default to a theme-dependent color.)

Another nice feature is the "Window Peek." Not only does the taskbar give you a window preview, but if you hover over one of them (and if the window isn't minimized), Windows will hide all other windows to show you that one.

Windows 7 'window peek'

Everything else I liked

  • Drivers are entirely the same as Vista's. No breaking changes here, I got up and running nice and quick.
  • The Windows 7 desktop operates just like Vista's, with the added ability to select multiple wallpapers and make a "slide show" of your desktop. Yes, Mac OS X does this already. Nice touches that go beyond the Mac method include the ability to select specific wallpapers to slideshow (versus OS X which can only select whole directories) and an added "Next desktop background image" option when you right-click the desktop
  • Like XP and Vista, you can choose to hide system tray icons (those little things next to the clock). With Windows 7, I've found the ability to actually click and drag icons into the "hiding area." I'm only vaguely sure this is new, but it's still nice to mention.

Things that did not impress

  • "Aero Shake"—If you drag a window and shake it, all other windows become minimized. I don't see how that's necessarily useful at all, outside of people who get distracted by windows in their periphery.
  • "Desktop Peek"—like that "Window Peek" feature, if you hover over the "show desktop" strip at the end of the taskbar, all the windows go transparent and you can see the desktop. Great. The moment your mouse leaves that area, it goes back to normal. You might as well just click that button. I don't see the novelty in showing all the window borders and the desktop without being able to actually use the desktop directly. (Caveat: I don't like widgets, I don't use Mac's Dashboard and I don't use Windows Gadgets. I could see how a "peek" could possibly be useful for that, but I'm still not sold.)
  • "Libraries"—or, "yet another way for you to find 'My Documents.'" No, really, it's nice that there's an aggregation of all the shared "My Documents," "My Music," and etc. folders you have available to you. I just don't see it very useful since I don't know anybody that uses Windows sharing on their home directories like that.