Windows 7 Review, Part 2: The Best Features and Tips

You've read our final verdict, but since there's a ton of new stuff in Windows 7, we've rounded it all up here, in one easy list, with a little bonus opinionating.

The User Interface
Here's everything that's improved in the Windows 7 UI. Win 7 kept the glassy Aero desktop from Vista, but added many more usability improvements on top of it. Basically, they extended the efforts of Vista to get the eye candy bar up higher while continuing to get the functionality up to match. There's the new taskbar, jump lists, Aero Peek, pinning, Aero Shake, Left/Right alignment, full-desktop gadgets, themes and new shortcuts in Windows Explorer. Again, see the big list here to get you started on what changed, UI-wise, from Vista to 7.

Drivers
In addition to surface and usability improvements, Microsoft addressed one of the big complaints about Vista—drivers—with Device Stage. Device Stage gives you a way to organize the pre-installed drivers (with, hopefully, much less driver compatibility issues now) along with stuff you can do with these third-party hardware add-ons. There are services, taskbar and other popup menu integration with these devices, which you should check out here.

Windows 7 Review, Part 2: The Best Features and Tips

Media
Of course there's Windows Media Player 12 and its ability to stream music to devices on the network. You select "Play to..." and up pops a menu showing what's on the network that you can pump your music or video out of. For more details on that click here, but keep in mind compatibility is constantly being upgraded, and the list of compatible devices and content formats will grow once people are using the OS en masse.

And Media Center! One of our favorite features on Windows improves on the Vista experience with usability fixes and a handful of new features like more transparency so you can keep an eye on what you're watching while navigating menus. There's quite a lot of new stuff here, so if you're a Media Center user you should familiarize yourself. As a whole, we still have the belief that Media Center is the best TV-DVR platform out there, beating TiVo for the fact that it's connected to a computer, and can be easily (and cheaply) expandable via Xbox 360s. If you can set up a CableCard PC running Windows 7, you'll be set for a while. Also, the 360 gets the new Windows 7 UI as well in Extender mode, as long as its host computer is running Windows 7.

Security
It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Windows 7 is finally where Microsoft got their security implementation right. After blundering their User Account Control—a smart idea that works to make sure users don't allow programs to access sensitive parts of the system— in Vista by making it too annoying, they found a good balance in Win 7. You also have Action Center, which lets you access everything from just your taskbar, and built-in support for biometric devices.

Networking

Windows 7 Review, Part 2: The Best Features and Tips

Another major complaint in Vista was networking; specifically, wireless networking and how lousy it was to use. Windows 7's implementation is much improved, and changes basic network implementation for the better as well. There's also a new concept called HomeGroup, which basically gets your multiple PCs on the network sharing files and resources with each other by joining a "group". It's supposed to be easier than the old method of joining workgroups and making sure each PC has the correct name and setup, and for the most part it is, even given the limitations mentioned in Matt's review. Check out HomeGroup in detail here.

Alternative Input
For the more esoteric input devices, there's the multitouch, pen controls and writing recognition. It's basically taking Microsoft Surface and porting it to computer that you can actually use. Although no machines are on the market right now that really take advantage of the features in such a way that it really makes a difference, you can bet your ass that if the Apple Tablet pushes the tablet form factor forward, tons of manufacturers are going to follow up with machines that make use of Windows 7's multitouch inputs. And if you want to know what using 7's multitouch is like, look here for the basics, and here for the optional Windows 7 Touch Pack.

Late Breaking Features

Windows 7 Review, Part 2: The Best Features and Tips

Microsoft even added new features up until the release candidate, surprising us with lots of cool tricks. There's streaming your music library over the internet with Windows Media Player and Windows XP mode, which gives you a full-fledged Windows XP virtual environment (a desktop within a desktop). Both of which are the kind of extras you wouldn't expect to be integrated inside an OS—there are third-party utilities made just to do these kinds of functions—but Microsoft wanted to give a little more to its users.

Here's one thing you should definitely read before you install Windows 7. Why you should go 64-bit. The one big reason is that 32-bit Windows only have access to 4GB of RAM, max. You may think that 4GB is enough now, but think about those big-ass apps that you'll be using in a couple years. Future-proof yourself now and go 64-bit. There won't be a whole lot of downside to making the jump.

More Bits
Then there are the miscellaneous small features that are cool to have that you may not know you need until you stumble upon them a few months after you install:
Native ISO burning
Native Docx file handling
• An expanded send-to menu
Virtual Wi-Fi, a way to share one Wi-Fi adapter into many for sharing a hotspot with your friends (or other devices)
GPGPU, a computing paradigm that allows your graphics card to help shoulder the burden of all those calculations. You won't see this every day, but just know that it's making your experience faster, on the whole
• The calculator now has a mortgage payment calculator
• Oh man, look how useful the Windows key is now
• Windows 7 also ramps up the Performance Meter to 7.9
Libraries are the new way Win 7 organizes your music and videos. It's basically a smart folder that aggregates multiple regular folders together
• The Problem Steps Recorder, a way for you to automatically generate a document that goes step-by-step through whatever it is at your computer, is still there. We thought this would be taken out after the beta/RC stage, but you can still use this to generate problem reports and remotely figure out why your parents are crashing their computer whenever they "click an icon"

Win 7 vs. Snow Leopard
And as a bonus, we compare Windows 7 to Snow Leopard. The Snow Leopard vs. Windows 7 feature comparison is pretty much final, but it's not a review, because Snow Leopard isn't out yet. Once Snow Leopard is released, we'll revisit the subject, in case Apple decides to sneak in something crazy at the last minute.

Windows 7 Review, Part 2: The Best Features and Tips


Extras
How to install it on any netbook
Those rumors about Windows 7 blocking third-party codecs were false. We installed a popular codec pack and it works on Windows 7 just fine.
Here are some Windows 7 concepts that didn't make it to the final release.
You can turn off pretty much every major feature in Windows 7
Changes between beta and RC
Here's now to get Windows 7's quick launch bar back, in case you like that over how Windows 7 does things. We actually do like it, and like it a lot Click to view

[Back to our Complete Guide to Windows 7]