As the Oct. 22 launch of Windows 7 nears, the Microsoft (MSFT) marketing machine is running at a frenzied pace. No, Windows won't make your kids cuter or transport you to a magic land where unicorns romp, as in the TV ads. But as software goes, Win 7 is a big deal. If you're running Vista, you should plan to spend $120 or so for an upgrade. And if you have an older PC running Windows XP, then maybe this launch is a good excuse to think about a replacement.
The innards of Win 7 are little altered from Vista, other than offering a welcome boost in performance. It's nice to see an operating system from Microsoft that's less demanding of hardware resources than its predecessor. More important, Win 7 solves a large number of quirks that made Vista annoying and adds some very polished features that make the program easier to use.
I've been running the final version of Win 7 on my main PC since Microsoft finished the software at the end of July. My positive first impression has grown stronger as I've used it. There are few compatibility problems—Microsoft has delivered on the promise that if an app runs on Vista, it will run on 7—and it boots up significantly faster and performs more snappily than Vista.
I'll bet it's been a while since you heard anyone wax poetic about a task bar, right? Well, Microsoft redesigned this little strip at the bottom of the screen that serves as your control center, and it's one of the most engaging elements in this upgrade. Unlike its predecessor, the new version shows icons only for programs currently running and any others you, not Microsoft or other software publishers, choose to keep there permanently. Each running program is represented by a single icon. Hold the mouse over that icon and you'll see thumbnail images of each window the program has open. Move the pointer to one of the thumbnails, and a full-size version appears. Click, and it becomes the active window.
If you right-click on a task-bar icon instead, you get a "jump list," a menu of choices specific to that program. For example, right-click an Internet Explorer or Google (GOOG) Chrome icon, and you get a list of frequently visited pages. Other menu choices let you reopen a recently closed window or create a blank window.
Of course, few good ideas are entirely new. In the grand tradition of computer innovations, this task bar is an improved version of the Mac (AAPL) OS X Dock, which itself borrowed heavily from an earlier version of the Windows task bar. I found that this and other design features took a bit of getting used to, but they soon felt both natural and more efficient.
Windows 7 also fixes the "system tray," that jumble of icons at the far right corner of the task bar that harasses you by announcing events such as routine updates that you didn't need to know about. The new "notification area" lets you control which icons appear and what they notify you about.
Device Stage is an oddly named but useful feature that provides a simple, visual interface for controlling printers, scanners, and other add-on devices. It's up to the device manufacturers to implement it, so it isn't available for all products, but I'm sure it will become ubiquitous.
Setting up a networked printer has always been a black art in Windows, but now it's about as easy as on a Mac. Click "Add a printer" and the choices on a home or office network appear on a list. Choose the one you want, and it's ready to use within a minute or two. If you have a laptop that you bring home from work, you can set it up so that it automatically switches default printers when you move between home and office. A new feature called HomeGroup makes it much easier to share files, printers, and other resources on a home network, but only among systems running Win 7.
One downside to the new version is that certain familiar applications are missing. Microsoft has been under pressure from European antitrust enforcers to unbundle applications from its operating systems, so it has removed Movie Maker, Photo Gallery, and, most important, Mail (known as Outlook Express on Windows XP). Fortunately, improved versions of all three are available as free downloads.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say Microsoft has relearned the importance of listening to users. If you are one of the computer owners who had to up your dose of blood pressure meds after switching to Vista, I think you're in for a pleasant surprise. Even XP diehards might want to reconsider their loyalty to an eight-year-old operating system that is showing its age badly, especially in networking and security. It has been a long wait for something truly better, but I think we have arrived.