A screenshot of the greatly revamped Windows 7 desktop, the exciting first glimpse of the new OS in the wild.  (Source: Microsoft)

The start menu looks familiar, but it has some changes, including a section for frequently accessed folders.  (Source: Microsoft)

Hovering over a taskbar item now generates snappy previews.  (Source: Microsoft)
Getting behind the wheel of Windows 7 reveals many changes, some minor, others larger

Microsoft has been very secretive about Windows 7.  While it has let leak scant details about how touch functionality will play a critical role in the new OS, more information on how the new OS ticks, and its general feel have been scarce.  The Windows team has been using a blog to let out information on the new product, but the stream has been more like a slow trickle, with few concrete explanations of features.

Curiosity about the new OS is unprecedented as many people view the new OS as Microsoft's attempt to atone for the shortcomings of Vista.  While Vista was a solid OS with many new features and improvements, it failed to surpass the growth of the wildly popular Windows XP and also fell short in business adoption.  Analysts blamed a variety of causes from poor support from hardware partners to factually ambiguous attack ads by Apple.

Regardless, the critical nature of the release to Microsoft cannot be overemphasized.

Now for the first time, a large list of features from Windows 7 has seen the light of day, following the leak of some features a couple days ago.  The biggest new feature is the taskbar overhaul.  The new taskbar looks foreign indeed with no text.  It is filled with icons for easy program selection.  Also new to the taskbar is the option to access "jump lists" with a quick right click.  For example, right-clicking the Windows Media Player icon allows you to access playlists without having to open the application or waste time fiddling with menus.  Finally, hovering over items on the taskbar generates helpful previews.

When you click the desktop, all windows go transparent offering you a free view.  This is helpful to glance at gadgets, which have been moved from Vista's sidebar to a fixture on the desktop.  This will be helpful to laptops which have lower screen resolutions and can less afford to waste valuable screen space on a separate sidebar.

There's also a really intuitive new window scaling gimmick that you'd think would be the kind of thing that a certain smarmy Cupertino-competitor might cook up.   The cool new feature expands windows which you drag up to the top of the screen, and shrinks them as you drag them down the screen.  And if you want to tile multiple windows, drag them to the corner of the screen to shrink them to 50 percent, allowing easy 4x4 tiling.  The feature is really neat for its seeming simplicity.

The system tray now only displays the items you select, and it’s been streamlined to be easier and more straightforward to configure.  User Account Control, a bane of some less-experienced Vista users who were baffled by its pop ups, reappears in Windows 7, but has been streamlined and fine-tuned.  This allows the user to specify by application the level of access, while offering less disruptive annoyance.

Multi-touch features were demoed on a HP TouchSmart PC in a bit more detail.  The start menu expands to a large size when you're touching the screen.  You can automatically scroll inside any window using your fingers.  A large onscreen predictive keyboard is another easily accessible touch feature.

Multiple-monitor management has also been streamlined.  Projector setup is now a hotkey-press away.  Media Center has adopted a Zune-like look.  It displays a new album art screensaver when you're listening to tunes.

As to those hoping for a lighter build, it looks like your dreams may come true.  Windows 7 Chief Steve Sinofsky held up his "personal" laptop during the demo.  It was running Windows 7 flawlessly on a 1 GHz processor netbook (probably using a VIA processor) with only 1 GB of RAM.  It was running very smoothly, with over half the RAM free to use.

However, Microsoft is equally emphasizing power, with support for up to 256 CPUs.

For developers, the big news is the pre-release of the Windows 7 in the form of a API-complete pre-beta, offered to the lucky few.  This should help out-the-gate hardware support to be improved from Vista's debut, a major priority for Microsoft.

In all, there's too much to sum up in fine detail, but suffice it to say Windows 7 is shaping up to look very good.  Where Vista was, in opinion of some, bloated, Windows 7 offers a light frame scalable to high levels of performance.  And for the daily user, as the popularity of the iPhone showed, the sharp looking and greatly overhauled user interface may be the killer app which makes Windows 7 a consumer hit and a must-have upgrade when its released in late 2009 or early 2010.

"What would I do? I'd shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders." -- Michael Dell, after being asked what to do with Apple Computer in 1997

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