Windows 7 lures “beta” testers

I’m here to preach the gospel according to Steve Ballmer and lay out the much-anticipated Windows 7 Beta that Steve-o unveiled during last night’s CES keynote. Considering that nearly everyone who would care already knew everything about the announcement, I’m not sure “unveiled” is the right word. Maybe “acknowledged.” He should really just start posting these announcements on his blog and skip the plane ride out to Vegas, but I digress.

I’ve already been running the beta on a virtual machine for a couple of weeks, thanks to a leaked ISO on BitTorrent, and so far, I really like what I see (disclaimer: I’m a Microsoft junkie, and I’m currently in a 12-step program). For a beta, it’s remarkably solid (it hasn’t crashed on me even once in two weeks of casual use) and supposedly feature-complete (meaning they won’t be adding anything new before the release, only bug fixes). Depending heavily on WAF, I’m considering rolling it out to all the PCs on my home network as well (my Vista Media Center in the upstairs bonus room is in serious need of an overhaul, anyway).

Here’s a shot of my Win 7 desktop running in a Virtual PC window:

image

Virtual Win 7 Goodness 

Since so many others have already covered Windows 7, I’ll keep my review short and sweet, and comment only on a few of its new features (mainly UI stuff):

  • The overall look. If you don’t like Vista’s UI, then you probably won’t like Win 7 any better. Aero, glass, Flip3D, the goofy Start orb/menu, sliding-scale previews, and UAC are all still there (although the latter has been whipped into submission a bit). I’ve grown to love accept Vista’s unique visual style, and I really like what they’ve built onto the framework in this new release.

  • The new taskbar. The Quick Launch toolbar, which has become a Windows staple since it was introduced into Windows 98 with IE4, is gone. Sort of. Rather, it’s been absorbed into the taskbar. Now you can “pin” frequently used programs directly to the taskbar, and use the icon as sort of a hybrid to launch new instances of the program and manage those you have already started. By default the text labels are hidden, too (after all, that is the point of having an icon).

  • Jump lists. Icons on the taskbar now provide better context-sensitive options when you right-click them, thanks to jump lists. For instance, if I right-click on IE, I get a list of recent web sites I’ve visited, while if I right-click on WMP, I get options to manage and play music. The classic context menus are still found throughout most of the interface. While jump lists are very useful, I’m surprised a how clunky they look compared to the rest of the interface (maybe turning on Aero will slicken them up a bit).

  • Themes. In the ongoing battle to rid the world of bad taste, Win 7 offers better themes, which can automatically match the color of the window glass to the selected wallpaper desktop background. Plus, it can automatically cycle through different images on a custom schedule. Nothing earth-shattering here.

  • Libraries. I think these are going to be huge, once people figure them out. Basically, Libraries bring more of a database feel to the file system. You compose a library based around a collection of one or more folders that contain related files. The standard libraries include Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos. If files are added to any of the monitored locations, then they’re accessible through the library. Think of the way that WMP and iTunes manage your music collection, but for all your files, and you’ll start to see the potential here.

  • Homegroup. Vista’s organization of networking tools is a mess. To simplify setup, Win 7 creates the concept of a homegroup, which is a collection of devices that can be easily accessed from anywhere. Your home network just got much easier to setup and manage.

  • Multi-touch. I’m not rich enough to afford the hardware it’ll take to run this for a few years. But it’s in there. Supposedly.

  • Trimming the fat. Gone are several of the accessories that lots of folk ignore anyway, such as Windows Mail, Windows Calendar, Windows Photo Gallery, and Windows Meeting Space. Not that these weren’t nice programs to include, but given Microsoft’s recent push toward Windows Live software and services, I’m not surprised. It’ll be nice to have more choice and control over which apps I want to use for common tasks. However, it begs another question: why doesn’t Microsoft do the same for oldies like Paint and WordPad (which have, coincidentally, been overhauled to look like mini versions of Office 2007 programs, complete with a ribbon). I’d rather download those programs I want than stumble over those I don’t. I promise, Microsoft, I’ll download yours – unless they suck, then all bets are off.

Over the next few days, Microsoft is poised to deliver the Win 7 beta to an unprecedented audience. Historically, they’ve doled out their betas to a select few, either by private invitation, MSDN subscription, or request. However, this beta is going to be released to everyone on January 9 (well, the first 250 2.5 million “everyones” who want it). According to Microsoft, it’ll be available as an ISO, available for download only (no media), and they’ll provide 32- and 64-bit versions.

That raises an important question: is this a brilliant form of crowdsourcing, or a marketing scheme of Machiavellian proportions? On one hand, Microsoft is going to gain a tremendous amount of user feedback over the next few months, and hopefully they can further solidify the core features of the OS and squash some of the bugs that have plagued previous versions of Windows. On the other hand, by making it so widely available, they’ll likely get a bunch of unsuspecting n00bs to install their new OS under the “beta” flag (which implies little or no culpability for anything that goes kaboom).

Google has been doing this for years. Have you noticed the sheer numbers of products they have listed as “in beta?” Google Docs, Chrome, and even Gmail to name a few. Granted, they’re relatively stable versions, but no one’s quite sure when they’re finally going to be final. Maybe they’ll be in beta forever. But they’re free, so who the hell cares, as long as they work?

The interesting twist here is that effective August 1, Microsoft pulls the plug on your beta copy of Win 7, unless you’re willing to “upgrade” to the full version, and there’s no official word yet on the cost. How many beta testers will be quite comfortable with their beta home by that point? With your critical information spread all over your PC, you’re locked in by that point, eh?

Of course, no one should install Win 7 for any purpose other than testing. It says so right on the label. You should never use a beta copy of anything for any real work. Ever. You’ve been warned.

Windows 7 is a remarkably stable beta, and if it’s any indication of the final product to be released later this year, then there are hopefully brighter days ahead for the Windows and Windows Live brands. It feels like the best kind of upgrade: not too radically different, a few polishing touches, with more of what you want and less of what you don’t. Just don’t get too comfy with the beta.

– Greg

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6 thoughts on “Windows 7 lures “beta” testers

  1. Nice one greg. I’m really looking forward to 7, I just hope it doesn’t have the same stigma which vista has. It looks very good so far and I love the new features. Hopefully as Steve acknowladge about the economic situation, 7 will be a lot cheaper than vista and affordable for students like myself. Fingers crossed for vast speed and reliability improvments over vista and xp.

  2. Great post, Greg. One minor clarification — we’re opening the beta to the first 2.5 million downloads, not 250 million. We’ll see how quickly we run through that allocation.

  3. I am! I beta tested Vista, and although it was the first time I had ever tackled on operating system rather than testing an idividual program, I did learn a lot by doing so (and thoroughly enjoyed the ‘livin’ on the edge’ aspect! Nothing worked with the first few betas, your printer didn’t work, your internet connection could be iffy, oh there were definately some hiccups at first, but I loved it! As long as you know how to ‘get yourself back’ to square one then your okay! And it improved as the beta’s were updated. As a retired person with lots of time on my hands, I am ideally placed to beta test, because to do it properly you have to give it quite a large amount of your time. Sending feedback, filling in the ‘scenarios’ trying different things out to ‘weedle’ out those bugs, all that is part of it, but I seem to have an uncanny knack of finding these things. (Maybe I do things that the programmers didn’t expect! LOL)

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