In my previous column, I wrote about the inevitable corporate migration away from the venerable Windows XP platform in favor of the latest incarnation in the Windows line, Windows 7.  Here, I’m going to tell you about the specific desktop-based, user-facing features that make me feel positive about moving  to this platform in the near future at Westminster. This list will seem to be focused on minutiae. Windows 7 is an order of magnitude better than Vista, but even though many of the changes that the user sees are small, they have some punch.

Before I begin, let me tell you a little about my desktop background. I’ve been an avid Windows user since the days of Windows 3.1 (and, before that, DOS) when I spent time integrating Windows desktops with Novell NetWare servers.  I’m also a user of other desktop platforms, including Mac OS X (my laptop is a Mac) and I have used various incarnations of Linux over the years, but never for very long periods of time.

I’ve been running Windows 7 for quite some time and even subjected my unsuspecting wife to the task as well when I installed the Windows 7 Release Candidate on her machine at home. I tested the Windows 7 betas, but didn’t really get into the product until the release candidate was made available. It was at this time that my opinion of Windows 7 went through the roof.

For the first time that I can recall, I loaded a new operating system onto a computer and didn’t have any non-functional hardware.  Every device on the computer was present and accounted for in Device Manager.  Sure, they were the Microsoft drivers and might not have been the latest version or truly optimized, but the point is that every single device worked as it should immediately after the installation completed.

For your typical corporate user, the ability for Windows 7 to detect hardware isn’t really a factor since the IT department would normally handle that task. However, the product’s capability in this area does line up with what people have been seeing since Windows 7 early testing – namely, that this product is a winner. For the typical user, Windows 7 brings niceties to the user interface and to User Account Control that are subtle yet powerful, at least in my opinion.

User Account Control

First of all, let’s talk about User Account Control.  Under Windows 7, User Account Control is a whole lot less intrusive than it was under Vista.  Depending on whether you allow users administrative access to their workstations, this can be a good thing. User Account Control settings are administered through the Control Panel.

You’ll note that Windows 7 provides you with four levels of User Account Control:

  • Always notify. Notify when programs try to make changes to the computer or the user makes changes to Windows settings.
  • Default. Notify only when programs try to make changes to the computer.
  • Program notify. Notify only when programs try to make changes to the computer, but not when the user makes Windows settings changes.
  • Never notify. In essence, turn off User Account Control.

Figure A

User Account Control in Windows 7


It took a little time, but I’ve grown to enjoy the new Taskbar in Windows 7.  On the new Taskbar, applications stay docked in a way that loosely mimics the Dock in Mac OS X.

When the user clicks on a Taskbar icon, the application starts and the application icon changes in appearance.

If the application is already started, clicking on the Taskbar icon switches to that program.  If, however, that application is already running and there are multiple documents open, a thumbnail of each document appears over the Taskbar.  In non-Aero mode or when there are too many application instances open, instead of a thumbnail, the user gets a list of open documents associated with the application.

Figure B

Windows 7 Taskbar – documents

Right-clicking an icon brings up a shortcut menu of options related to the selected application, including a list of recently used documents associated with the application and the option to start another application instance.  The shortcut menu also includes options for pinning the application to the Taskbar, closing the application and some other application-specific options.

Figure C

Windows 7 Taskbar – Right-click

When you’re downloading a file with Internet Explorer, the Taskbar icon becomes the status indicator for the download, making it quickly obvious how far along you are in the download process.

The new Taskbar is a major change to the way that Windows work and, while not revolutionary, the usability enhancements are quite compelling and I’ve found them easy to pick up.

System Tray

At the very right-hand side of the Taskbar, you’ll find the Show Desktop button.  If you need to see the Windows desktop, just click this button.  Click it again to bring back the original view.

The system tray has finally been tamed!  Rather than simply continuing to eat up more and more valuable Taskbar space, system tray icons now have their own Control Panel applet (Control Panel > Notification Area Icons) that controls their behavior.  On an icon-by-icon basis, you can choose what you’d like to see, what you’d like to hide and which programs should just send notifications.

Figure D

Windows 7 System Tray

Start Menu

While still very Vista-like, the Windows 7 Start menu includes one major enhancement that I really like – program-specific lists of recently used documents.  Now, if you pin, for example, Microsoft Word to the Start menu, the Word application item on the Start menu gets its own arrow, as you can see in the figure below.  Mouse over that arrow and you’ll see a list of recently used Word documents.  No more perusing through the larger, mixed list of recently used documents found in older versions of Windows.  Now, if you knew you were working on a Word document, you’ll get a list of just the Word documents.

Figure E

Windows 7 Start Menu


Windows 7 is certainly not the revolutionary product that Microsoft created with Windows Vista, but that was not the intent of this new operating system.  Instead, this low key, performance and usability-focused release delivers on many of the promises that were originally made with Vista and brings a number of its own subtle enhancements to the table.

In my previous column, I indicated that we’d be starting to deploy Windows 7 to our users next spring.  Because of some changes to our schedule and some users volunteering to be guinea pigs, we’ll actually be starting our deployment this fall.  Most of the folks on the IT staff have been working with Windows 7 since beta/RC days and our applications run well on the 32-bit release, which is where our initial deployment efforts will focus.