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First Look: Windows 7 Ultimate Pre-Beta

Microsoft is providing its first, public look at Windows 7, and the Test Center takes a look at what's beneath the hood.

The pre-beta release of Microsoft's latest operating system looks like Vista and "feels" like Vista but there are a number of under-the-hood changes and some interface revamping as well.

The annoyance of UAC is going away. It should be much, much easier to integrate drivers. Crashes should become less frequent over time. Anything that worked on Vista should work faster on Windows 7.

Microsoft has stepped forward and provided the first, detailed look at its next-generation desktop operating system and worked hard to emphasize what it's getting right this time. Executives of the software giant revealed this information during a preliminary session for reviewers ahead of its PDC 2008 conference in Los Angeles this week.

A list of changes and other nips and tucks, in a nutshell: No more Sidebar. Gadgets can be added right to the desktop; doing away with Sidebar means less real estate taken up on the desktop.

UAC. . . RIP. User Access Control has been given back to the hands of the user. App Locker is a new feature, which controls what users can install. Action Center, which is also new, is where applications like Windows Defender, for example, queues system messages for the user. Also, messages related to security or system problems are queued here as well. With Action Center, messages just don't intrusively pop-up on the screen; they are kept in queue and a user decides which action to take. A user could opt to be notified if only non-Windows products make a system change, or notification can be turned off completely.

Jump lists are created for each program used. They are "short-cut" menus that are automatically populated with recent files or sites accessed.

IE 8, which will be bundled with Windows 7, has been validated against CSS and Acid 2. (The browser will need more of an evaluation on its own.)

Enhanced Windows Taskbar displays each opened a window as a thumbnail, expanding to full-screen preview when hovering over with a mouse. This could be considered the next stage of visual desktop management, begun in Vista with Aero.

Other Desktop enhancements include the ability to customize the Aero glass settings (changing the hue or saturation levels, for example) and the ability to create and save custom Themes. Dragging a window to the top of the screen maximizes it, and dragging it down minimizes it automatically. Two windows dragged to opposite sides of the screen will align side-by-side. An improved search experience is made with "Libraries" that give a virtual view of data and allow for searching across multiple data sources.

Windows Touch supports multi-touch technology. Two fingers can be used to zoom in or out on an image. In IE, one can move or go back a page with touch, and nested scrolling is made easier.

Homegroups allow for easy home networking. Windows 7 machines can be joined to a home group, and share resources.

A big change that many will notice right away: Paint, the imaging application that seems to have been around forever, received a makeover with a ribbon interface.

Windows 7 has a new Bluetooth audio device driver stack; Bluetooth devices can be connected via the system tray, you can also pair with a Bluetooth device from system tray. This feature worked so well during Microsoft's demonstration for reviewers that Windows 7 picked up every blue tooth device in the audience!

Windows Media Player will play AAC format iTunes files. Also, media can be streamed right from the playlists or "libraries" to a media player or another PC. There is an emphasis in this version of Windows on integration with consumer electronics that are DLA (Digital Living Alliance) compliant. In fact, there is a heavy emphasis to ensure Windows 7 works with the myriad of gadgets and devices out there. Microsoft is attempting to make the driver fiasco that ensued with Vista a thing of the past with a new feature called Device Staging - - potentially a home run in this OS release.

Device Staging makes is easier for Microsoft partners to integrate their devices - - PCs, cameras, MP3 players and the like - - into the Microsoft ecosystem.

Consider:

Vendors can write a device stage in XML, which Microsoft then digitally signs, or authenticates. With this device stage, a user can add a device quickly and have the latest driver for it. Vendors can even add their branding information to the stage, where a user would see it when double-clicking on the device in the control panel. Adding a printer in Windows 7 is quick and easy; the icon of the printer is no longer the generic Windows printer icon, but an actual photo of the device, as pulled from the vendor's device stage, which gets loaded into metadata. Double-clicking on the printer shows the vendor's information at the top of the screen, and at the bottom are all of the associated tasks that can be done with the printer. There is even a direct link to order supplies for the printer on the page.

Device stage is also available for mobile phones. Users can synch data between phone and PC. Ringtone customization is possible as well in either ambient voice recordings or trimmed-down song files, at least if phone vendors step up to the plate and create the device stages.

There are some apparent performance enhancements as well. Better battery life and increased energy efficiency are among them. There is a diagnostics tool which can identify the top power drains on a system. Windows 7 uses less system memory per window opened, resulting in faster performance. Boot time may be the best of any Windows release. Windows developers improved on boot time by having less bytes and services loaded at boot, and by changing the way components are initialized. During testing, a pre-beta release of Windows 7 on a Dell XPS laptop loaded in 25 seconds from BIOS to desktop.

Windows 7 features a crash resilience mechanism -- the system learns what type of problem is occurring and a shim is applied to deal with it. The shim gets the problematic application to load subsequently. Windows Error Reporting works in tandem with the Application Compatibility Kit.

Installation can be done on top of Vista, with data being preserved. The deployment process can be completely scripted, specific applications can be installed as part of the deployment.

Direct Access is the ability to get to Intranet and company file shares without the need for a VPN connection. It is achieved using Windows Server 2008 R2, IPSec and IP v6. Branch caching caches accessed files for faster loading.

Other new features to consider:

• Bitlocker supports removable media in Windows 7.

• There is a problem step recorder: can record problem user is having, gives full telemetry to IT professionals about the issue;

• Powershell -- which can be used remotely by IT professionals " gives power of development to IT professionals , who can script in Group Policy.

• "Microsoft is banking a lot on Windows 7. They have claimed that "if it worked in Vista it should work in Windows 7" and that applications will run faster on Windows 7. They are also touting this as the most secure Windows Operating System ever."

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