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Love or hate Windows 7?

We tested Windows 7 Beta 1 Build 7000 on several machines, including an HP Pavilion DV-9000 laptop and an HP Pavillion M7660e desktop – we love it more than we hate it.

Microsoft warns that beta code should be installed on bare metal, but allows upgrades from Vista SP1 for comparison’s sake.

Is Windows 7 what we’ve really always wanted in Vista? Take a look at the evidence we’ve collected in our test, and decide for yourself.

Love or hate Windows 7

Running applications view is revamped

The Windows Taskbar leapfrogs Apple’s Dock view by providing a very tidy – but informative – view of all running applications.

The easy-to-understand, unified user-maintenance application

The new Action Center application tracks many common system issues (such as the need for upgraded drivers) when they arise, aggregates them in a centralized place and offers suggestions on how to remedy each action item it finds. Windows 7 comes complete with links on what to do – or at least the right buttons to push. In the beta code, the application was definitely in a proof-of-concept cycle, but we’re hopeful that Action Center will cut down tech support calls dramatically-or at least shorten the time to resolution.

The wonders of ‘One-click’ WiFi

The new Windows 7 Status Bar placement for WiFi connections is definitely an improvement when it comes to finding the right wireless link. Microsoft says its OS will make the right Wi-Fi connection choice every time and then remember those parameters so that users don’t have to constantly refer to various docs and settings to get online whilst perusing coffee shops, airports, or even McDonalds.

Windows 7 found both of our WiFi Access Points, both encrypted with WPA2 PSK passwords. Windows 7 asked for everything correctly with each choice, and we were on our wireless way.

Better Backup will be a blessing

Vista had a slightly improved backup system over its predecessors, but Windows 7 does one better under the moniker ‘Backup and Restore’. This application was unbelievably easy to use. We did find that because it uses Microsoft’s Volume Shadow Services (VSS), backing up onto a NT File System is your only option.

Resizing applications on screen is a snap

For all the times we swore at previous versions of Windows when resizing an application, Windows 7 has a snap-size-to-fill feature that makes application window placement fit available screen real estate.

Policy-based Auditing Enhancements

Microsoft’s Windows usage policies have been powerful when implemented via Active Directory, but using them requires a lot of administrative contemplation and implementation overhead (meaning work). The policies that can be set in Windows 7 are a superset of Vista and XP policies – with some interesting possibilities. We show one of them – the Sensitive Privilege Use policy here. Policies can first track behavior and then provide sophisticated barriers to adverse user behavior where needed. This screen grab also shows the long-awaited, useful Explain tab, which actually does a good job describing the implications of setting this policy.

It’s still Windows Device Configuration, stupid

Device configuration has been a Window’s Achilles heel. With Windows 7 Microsoft introduces “Device Staging,” a process in which an icon of the new device appears while Windows 7 finds the right drivers and proceeds to configure the device. In our testing, Windows 7 couldn’t often find our devices (such as internal memory card readers) in order to stage them properly. The list of supported devices is breathtakingly small. Seeing as lack of device compatibility was a show-stopper for many potential Vista customers, Microsoft needs to get on the stick to open up this much needed configuration feature to support the wide body of devices Windows 7 users will have available to them.

Library Indexing requirement limits sources

The Windows 7 Libraries feature is designed to allow users to take files from disparate sources and combine them into an easily accessible ‘library’. The problem is that the Library must have files and folders in a source area on a local storage or network storage device that is indexed. This likely means that only devices that can index are allowed as sources, and that negates the use of sources on Macs, CIFS, or other network, virtual, or other drives that don’t use NTFS. That’s a requirement that could hobble the whole point.

A Firewall with a brain

A decent firewall has to have rules and exceptions to be effective. The Vista firewall was good, but primitive compared to the likes of Symantec and McAfee. Windows 7 has a very sophisticated firewall in that the rules (divided into easy network application categories) can be super-finely tuned to suit circumstances. And while it’s not really approachable for civilians, any network pro ought to be able to troubleshoot connection problems and exception handling with surgical ease.

Windows Explorer still needs work

The venerable Computer Explorer local search tool crashed on us frequently when we tried to do heterogeneous access to NFS and SAMBA/CIFS network shares. Explorer never meaningfully divulged what was wrong – it just quit running, and sent us circular error messages. The error logs were equally inarticulate. We’re betting this problem gets fast attention because it’s a show-stopper for network resource access.

Improved GUI include application search bar

We love the fact that Microsoft is catching up and in some areas, exceeding Apple’s eye candy prowess. The Start Menu now includes a search feature, which helps dramatically when the list of installed applications or contents becomes unwieldy. It now provides a healthy competitor to Apple’s increasingly tired Finder/Spotlight menuing system.

An insecure Windows Credential Manager

Windows 7 includes a Credentials Manager that establishes a vault of user credentials: passwords certificates issues, encryption information, as examples. But one of the problems we have with how the Credentials Manager stores passwords is that you aren’t required to enter the password twice, so as to verify that you’ve stored the password you intended. Store it incorrectly, and it’ll keep it that way until it’s used, denied authentication, and requiring you to remember where it’s kept and how to change the credential.

Having to track down “essential” apps

If they’re essential, why put them online? We were simply looking for basic mail and IM programs and were shunted to Windows Live Essentials. While we applaud the overall lightening of the Windows 7 footprint, we’re also being trained in a fashion to think it’s common practice to get applications online that Microsoft had previously put in the box. Yes, apps are free on Windows Live Essentials, but you just know that other advertising and teaseware elements will be there too. We’d rather not have to wade through the junk to find what we essentially need.

he Ability dial down system screams

You can now put a lid on the seemingly never-ending system warning messages percolated by Vista. While you may want to know when something’s messing with your computer via an installation (as malware, viruses, and trojans behave this way), you can finally adjust – either dial down or turn off — the over-reacting warning feature that made Vista so annoying.

Resource and Performance Monitor need a facelift

Windows 7 tracks a lot of performance and system characteristics, which is something we love. But what we hate is that the Resource and Performance Monitor application has a truly awful user interface. The biggest issue is that the information can’t be correlated. This one needs a makeover if it’s going to work as a professional systems management tool.

Obscure SMB/CIFS support

Windows 7 (at least in its beta form) can’t find SMB/CIFS shares made via Microsoft’s old NTLMv2 protocol by default. We’ve also seen this problem before with Windows 2003 Server editions. The Control Panel Local Security Policy settings, as downloaded for Windows 7, mandate 128-bit encryption for logons to SMB (SMB1, not SMB2) and CIFS shares. These types of shares are typically found on NAS devices and within SAMBA shares. Arguably, NTLMv2-based shares are less secure without encryption, but this is Microsoft’s legacy problem, and prevents non-Microsoft products from being easily used by Windows 7 clients. The fix: turn

As goes with the introduction of any operating system: No upgrade, no pain (think Marley). But there’s evidence that the pain of upgrading Windows 7 must just be justified by the gain in functionality and ease of use. Join our forum and weigh in on whether a Windows 7 upgrade is in your future.

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