Windows 7 beta shows off task bar, UI goodies

The just-released Beta 1 version of Windows 7 is a solid, fast-performing, stable operating system that appears to be just about fully baked and ready for prime time. It is much further along than Windows Vista was during its initial beta phase, and it appears to be feature-complete. Based on the stability and speed of this beta, don't be surprised if Microsoft Corp. releases Windows 7 before 2010 rolls around.

The new, powered-up task bar makes an appearance for the first time in this beta, and it proves to be something of a mixed bag. As I'll explain later in this review, the task bar makes it much easier to manage and switch between open windows and applications, but it also mixes icons for launching applications with icons for managing open windows.

Note that this review covers only the features that made their debut with Beta 1 of Windows 7. For an overall review of all of Windows 7, see “Windows 7 in-depth review and video: This time Microsoft gets it right.”

The new Windows task bar

The task bar, new in this beta, will no doubt be the most controversial new feature introduced in Windows 7. Gone is Quick Launch bar for launching applications that used to live at the left side of the task bar. Instead, large icons across the task bar are now used to launch applications.

By default, Internet Explorer , Windows Explorer and Windows Media Player all have icons in the task bar. You can, however, add an icon for launching any application to the task bar by dragging the program's icon to it, for example, from the Most Recently Used list on the Start menu.

Those icons do double duty because they also manage your open windows. For example, if you've already launched Internet Explorer, and you have three tabs open to three different Web sites, the Internet Explorer icon changes subtly to show three icons stacked on one another, as shown in the image above, indicating that you have three tabs open.

Hover your mouse over the stacked icon, and you'll see all three open tabs as thumbnails just across the top of the task bar. Hover your mouse over any of the thumbnails, and your entire desktop is taken up by that open window. Hover it over another thumbnail, and the desktop is taken up by that one. Click any of the thumbnails or open windows, and you'll go straight to that window.

If you aren't a fan of thumbnails displaying open windows, you can instead have all open windows display as a stacked list. When you're using stacked lists, to go to any open window, click on it in the list. To close the window, hover your mouse over it in the list, and click the red “X” that appears.

One more nice touch: When you download a file using Internet Explorer, a green bar on the icon shows you the progress of the download.

Jump lists

The task bar also makes use of another new feature that debuts in this beta — “jump lists.” A jump list is a list of actions or items associated with a particular application. To see a jump list for any application, right-click its icon in the task bar.

Typically, you'll see a history list of the most recent open files — or Web sites, in the case of Internet Explorer — as well as options to pin the application icon to the task bar (if you haven't already pinned it there) or unpin the application from the taskbar (if you've already pinned it there).

You can also unpin the three default task-bar icons — Internet Explorer, Windows Explorer and Windows Media Player — in this way.

Jump lists also make their appearance on the Start menu, in the Most Recently Used application list. A small arrow appears to the right of any application with an associated jump list. Click the arrow to see the list, then make your choice from the list.

There has also been a minor change to the Windows Shut Down button. Click an arrow to the button's right, and you get a list of shutdown options, including switching to a different user, logging off, restarting, locking the desktop, or putting your machine into sleep or hibernation mode.

Aero Peek

The other major change to the interface in this beta is the addition of Aero Peek, a nifty little enhancement to the Aero interface introduced in Vista that lets you “peek” behind any open window to your desktop. It's far more fully featured than the Show Desktop icon that lived on the Quick Launch bar in previous versions of Windows.

Aero Peek lives as a small, rectangular area just to the right of the clock at the right edge of the task bar. When you have windows open and you mouse over the Aero Peek rectangle, all of your open windows disappear, and you see through to your desktop. But you don't see just the desktop — you also see the outlines where each of your open windows would be.

So, for example, if you have three open windows — one near the top of the desktop, one to the left side, and one to the right — you would see the outlines of each of those screens. If you prefer just to see the desktop itself, with no outlines, click the Aero Peek rectangle instead of hovering your mouse over it.

Aero Peek also works in concert with the task bar. As I mentioned previously, when you hover your mouse over an application with open windows, you'll see thumbnails of the open windows, and you can preview them by hovering over any thumbnail. That's Aero Peek at work. If you turn off Aero Peek, you won't be able to see the thumbnails — you'll only see them as a stacked list. To turn Aero Peek on and off, right-click the Aero Peek rectangle, and either check or uncheck the box next to Preview desktop.

I did experience some problems with Aero Peek and the task bar thumbnails (which are turned on when you turn on Aero Peek). They worked only intermittently, then inexplicably stopped working entirely. I fixed the problem using one of Windows' built-in troubleshooters, but I don't know what caused the issue. I haven't heard reports of this happening to other people, so it's possible that the issue was specific to my test machine.

Speed and compatibility

Microsoft set out to make sure that Windows 7 wouldn't have the same issues with hardware compatibility that Windows Vista had, and the company said that all hardware that works with Windows Vista should also work with Windows 7 .

It appears that even in this beta version, that goal has been met. Windows 7 immediately recognized all the components of my Dell Inspiron E1505 without a hitch — something that early versions of Vista had serious problems with, particularly when it came to wireless networking adapters.

And while the prebeta version of Windows 7 had problems connecting to my Linksys wireless router, this new beta version immediately recognized the router and connected to it without a problem.

I found no software problems either. Windows 7 ran every piece of software I threw at it, including not just obvious programs such as Microsoft Office, but lesser-used ones as well, such as Windows Live Sync. In addition, several antivirus applications are already compatible with Windows 7, including AVG and Kaspersky. I've been running the free version of AVG without problems.

I did, however, find an oddball problem that most likely affects very few people in the world — and perhaps only me. I installed Windows 7 on a dual-boot machine, in which the C: drive boots to XP and the J: drive boots to Windows 7. Unaccountably, when I boot into Windows 7, Windows 7 shows the J: drive as if it were a C: drive. And the real C: drive is invisible — it simply doesn't show up in Windows 7 at all, and I have no access to it. However, when I boot to XP, I can see both the C: and J: drives. If anyone has a solution for this, I'd appreciate hearing it — there's a lot of disk space going to waste.

Beta operating systems typically run slower than the shipping version, but Beta 1 of Windows 7 is already surprisingly fast. It appears to be clearly faster than Vista, without delays associated with displaying menu items or boxes, launching programs, or doing other tasks.

The bottom line

This first beta of Windows 7 is a polished piece of work, with few apparent kinks to be worked out. Windows 7 is much further along at this beta stage than Windows Vista was at a similar point. In Vista's Beta 1 stage, the user interface was still being tweaked, the operating system was sluggish, and there were many hardware incompatibilities. Not so with Windows 7. Because so little has changed between the prebeta and beta versions of Windows 7, don't be surprised if Windows 7 is on a fast track to release.

That being said, the new task bar is somewhat confusing to use at first. After you live with it for a while, you get used to it doing double duty as a task launcher and windows manager. Still, it wouldn't surprise me if Microsoft tweaked it in future beta versions.

Given the beta's stability and speed, you can safely download it and use this on a test machine. As with any beta of an operating system, though, you shouldn't use it on a production machine.

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