Microsoft recently announced the dates it intends to release the RTM version of Windows 7. We take an in-depth look at what is new and different about the new OS.

This week, Microsoft announced that it would be making the Release to Manufacture (RTM) version of Windows 7 available from August.

The company is obviously hoping that Windows 7's new and enhanced features will be enough to entice users back into the Microsoft fold and finally put Windows XP to rest. But the real question is: will Windows 7 come across to prospective users as a new product or just a rehash of Windows Vista?

The only way to answer that question is to take an in-depth look at what is new and different about the new OS. I've noted which features are new, which are improved (in other words, have the same functions but perform them better), and which are enhanced (which have had new functions added).

Most of these changes were discovered during my hands-on examination of Windows RC1. I've been informed by a Microsoft representative that the only significant differences between this version and the RTM is that Windows Starter Edition is no longer limited to only three active applications at the same time (a change which was announced back in May), and that the desktop has a new default background.

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NEXT PAGE: Security features

  1. We look at the major features
  2. Security features
  3. Even more security features
  4. A new-look user interface
  5. Windows Touch and improved Windows Search
  6. Performance and stability
  7. Improved device management
  8. Multimedia
  9. Connectivity


Microsoft
recently announced the dates it intends to release the RTM version of Windows 7. We take an in-depth look at what is new and different about the new OS.

Windows 7: Security

One of the biggest complaints about Windows Vista was security. The reality is that Vista did offer several security enhancements over Windows XP, but the way Microsoft went about those enhancements was problematic, to say the least. Users were hassled by frequent pop-ups, with cryptic messages that only seemed to complicate matters.

Microsoft's underlying security improvements were actually introduced with Windows XP SP2 and enhanced with Windows Vista, leaving most of the security fixes under Windows 7 to be relatively minor changes. Yet those changes will make a big difference in the user experience.

User Account Control (UAC) (enhanced)
UAC has undergone several changes and enhancements to make it more user friendly, but without sacrificing essential security. First, users can reduce the frequency that UAC asks for permission to install or change a program. Users also have the option to turn off permission requests and set UAC to notify only.

AppLocker (new)
AppLocker is a new feature that allows users to restrict program execution based upon firewall profiles. That could prove to be a handy feature for portable systems that are used both in a business environment and a home environment. Applications that are deemed less secure can be disabled when a user is connected to a corporate network and re-enabled when on a home or public network.

AppLocker also features in-depth application controls, which can be used to define polices to allow or prevent an application from launching.

BitLocker (enhanced)
First introduced in Windows Vista, the BitLocker disk encryption feature has gone through some evolutionary changes which make it easier to use. BitLocker now supports single key instances, allowing data to be recovered using a common encryption key assigned by the network administrator.

BitLocker Mobile is a new addition - it's an encryption scheme that can be applied to removable devices, such as USB drives, to keep information secure while in transit. Network policies can be defined to require all users to encrypt data on removable devices, perhaps preventing data leakage problems.

System Application Permissions (improved)
Microsoft has reduced the number of applications that require administrator-level permissions to execute. With Windows 7, users will be prompted less frequently for permission to run system applications, which were once thought of as an administrator-level event.

Action Center (new)
Action Center is a new security management feature that rolls all alerts and warnings into a single console, available from the Windows taskbar. Action Center informs the user of several events, including security problems, diagnostics and solutions. Having a single console is a much more efficient way to deal with the numerous events, warnings and messages that Windows tends to broadcast - unlike Windows Vista, where warnings and messages would pop up at different times and were stored in different logs, making it hard to consolidate critical information for troubleshooting problems.

Small business IT advice

NEXT PAGE: Even more security features

  1. We look at the major features
  2. Security features
  3. Even more security features
  4. A new-look user interface
  5. Windows Touch and improved Windows Search
  6. Performance and stability
  7. Improved device management
  8. Multimedia
  9. Connectivity


Microsoft recently announced the dates it intends to release the RTM version of Windows 7. We take an in-depth look at what is new and different about the new OS.

Windows Defender (improved)
Windows Defender, Microsoft's anti-spyware product, sports a new interface that is much easier to understand than previously. What's more, Windows Defender now integrates with the new Action Center, which helps to keep users better informed.

Under the hood, Windows Defender has been improved to provide more reliable continuous monitoring.

Windows Firewall (enhanced)
Windows Firewall offers better integration with third-party security applications, which can now add extended features or provide customised firewall policies. Windows Firewall now supports multiple profiles, which can be active concurrently or separately based upon a user's connection status or other defined policies.

Other security enhancements and improvements include support for newer security devices, such as biometric access devices, as a means of logging into Windows 7. That feature will prove handy for the scores of laptops that sport fingerprint readers. Windows 7 also has plug-and-play support for smart cards based on elliptic curve cryptography (ECC), a highly secure method of storing data.

Another change: The autorun feature is now disabled by default for all media except for read-only CDs and DVDs. This should prevent drive-by virus attacks from USB key drives or other forms of rewritable media.

Although Windows 7's new and improved security features are welcome, they will not eliminate the need for third-party anti-virus and anti-malware products.

Small business IT advice

NEXT PAGE: A new-look user interface

  1. We look at the major features
  2. Security features
  3. Even more security features
  4. A new-look user interface
  5. Windows Touch and improved Windows Search
  6. Performance and stability
  7. Improved device management
  8. Multimedia
  9. Connectivity

Microsoft recently announced the dates it intends to release the RTM version of Windows 7. We take an in-depth look at what is new and different about the new OS.

Windows 7: Navigation and UI

With each release of Windows, there are usually noticeable changes to the basic user interface and to Windows Explorer. Windows 7 follows the trend of changing things, but in this case it really is for the better. While Windows Explorer benefits from a minor face-lift, the real agent of change here is the user interface, where several new features have been introduced and other existing functions have been improved. The net result is more efficient navigation and a better experience for the end user.

Aero desktop (improved)
Enhancements to Aero include features like Aero Peek, which allows users to make open windows transparent to see what's underneath. Users will also find the new Aero Shake a welcome feature - you can simply ‘shake' the active window (by moving the mouse rapidly back and forth) to minimise it.

Aero Snap offers the opposite approach: users can simply 'snap' (by flicking the mouse up or down) a desktop item to expand it to the borders of the screen. Other changes are far too numerous to mention here, but it is safe to say that the Aero Desktop sports plenty of improvements.

Windows Sidebar (enhanced)
The Windows Sidebar is no longer a Sidebar. Microsoft has decoupled Sidebar applications (called ‘gadgets') from the static area known as the Sidebar. Users can now place gadgets anywhere on the desktop and, thanks to Aero Peek, can see those gadgets behind transparent windows.

Jump lists (new)
Windows 7 offers a new feature called jump lists, which enhances the functionality of the task bar. A jump lists pops up when the user right-clicks on an application in the Windows 7 task bar, and displays frequently-used elements for that application. The jump list can be populated with documents, audio, images, links and so on, making those items faster and easier to access.

Jump list information varies, depending on the application. According to Microsoft, the Jump List for IE 8 will show frequently viewed websites while the jump list for Windows Media Player 12 will list commonly played songs. Jump lists are customisable and users can pin anything they want to a jump list for a specific application.

Libraries (new)
Microsoft has extended the tried-and-true concept of folders into something new. Libraries are similar to folders, but they group files based upon file type. For example, you can define a library for music files; regardless of what folders those files are actually located in, they will be included in your music library. Libraries are only for files and not shortcuts or links; they rely on Windows' built-in indexing and search functionality.

Small business IT advice

NEXT PAGE: Windows Touch and improved Windows Search

  1. We look at the major features
  2. Security features
  3. Even more security features
  4. A new-look user interface
  5. Windows Touch and improved Windows Search
  6. Performance and stability
  7. Improved device management
  8. Multimedia
  9. Connectivity

Microsoft recently announced the dates it intends to release the RTM version of Windows 7. We take an in-depth look at what is new and different about the new OS.

Windows Search (improved)
Searching from both the Start menu and Windows Search has been improved. Search can now return results from libraries and external resources (SharePoint, websites, etc). Windows 7 employs an enhanced search algorithm and now highlights related words, features dynamic filtering and offers input recommendations for search terms.

Windows Touch (new)
Users can now leverage touch-screen technology to select icons and control applications, as with a mobile device. Windows Touch supports multitouch, allowing users to zoom in and out as well as perform other tasks by using multiple fingers.

Tablet PC support (enhanced)
Handwriting recognition has been improved, and users can now input mathematical formulas and have them recognized. Personalised dictionaries and improved training are also part of the Tablet PC enhancements.

Microsoft has also included several other small improvements in the interface and some of the included applications. For example, the calculator now features support for touch, has a new interface and handles date calculations. Ribbon support has been added to WordPad and Paint, giving those applications more of an Office 2007 look and feel. Sticky Notes are now resizable and support virtual ink, as well as cut and paste.

An improved magnifier - offering higher levels of magnification, a clearer image of the displayed items (text and graphics) and easier navigation - and better speech recognition are highlights of the changes to Windows accessibility. Finally, some small but useful changes have been incorporated into Windows Explorer. For example, navigating the hierarchy to a parent folder is simpler - even if the navigation box is reduced in size due to lack of space, the parent folder always remains in view.

Small business IT advice

NEXT PAGE: Performance and stability

  1. We look at the major features
  2. Security features
  3. Even more security features
  4. A new-look user interface
  5. Windows Touch and improved Windows Search
  6. Performance and stability
  7. Improved device management
  8. Multimedia
  9. Connectivity

Microsoft recently announced the dates it intends to release the RTM version of Windows 7. We take an in-depth look at what is new and different about the new OS.

Performance and stability

One of the biggest gripes against Windows Vista was performance. The OS came across as bloated and slow, with users waiting and waiting for systems to boot up or shut down. The performance shortcomings of Vista extended to program launches, as well as the responsiveness (or lack thereof) of the Start menu.

With Windows 7, Microsoft aims to make performance issues a forgotten annoyance. Make no mistake - Windows 7 is still a complex bit of code and no one should expect earth-shattering performance out of the product. However, the improvements are readily noticeable when compared to Windows Vista.

ReadyBoost (enhanced)
Microsoft's ReadyBoost technology was introduced with Windows Vista as a method to cache applications and data into fast RAM, instead of relying on slow hard drives. With Windows 7, ReadyBoost can be used with multiple memory devices concurrently. In other words, with Vista, ReadyBoost could only use a single USB key drive to cache with - Windows 7 lifts that limit and allows users to plug in multiple key drives or other high-speed memory devices to crank up the boost.

Battery performance (improved)
To extend battery life on laptops, Windows 7 offers more intelligence than Vista when it comes to powering peripherals and running applications. Windows 7 shuts down more processes and suspends more applications when the system is idle; the OS also features adaptive display brightness, automatically dimming the screen during periods of inactivity.

Windows 7 also powers down network ports if no cables are plugged in. A more efficient video decoder reduces the processing power needed when playing DVDs, further stretching battery life. New, more informative battery controls and tools give users the ability to fine-tune performance for extended battery life.

Troubleshooting, support and device controls (enhanced)
Windows 7 features enhancements that should make troubleshooting and recovering from problems much easier than in earlier versions of the OS.

Startup Repair is now automatically installed, eliminating the need to boot from the installation DVD to repair a non-booting system, as was the case in Vista. After an unsuccessful boot, Windows 7 will load Startup Repair and try to automatically repair the installation.

End users can now document their experience with an application failure - the Problem Steps recorder saves each step as a screenshot, along with accompanying logs and software configuration data. Windows 7 also includes a unified tracing tool, which collects network-related event logs and captures packets across all network layers to help network administrators solve problems.

Small business IT advice

NEXT PAGE: Improved device management

  1. We look at the major features
  2. Security features
  3. Even more security features
  4. A new-look user interface
  5. Windows Touch and improved Windows Search
  6. Performance and stability
  7. Improved device management
  8. Multimedia
  9. Connectivity

Microsoft recently announced the dates it intends to release the RTM version of Windows 7. We take an in-depth look at what is new and different about the new OS.

Device management (improved)
Windows 7 groups all external devices together under a single device state window, which makes it much easier for the user to work with and manage external devices. Device drivers are now automatically downloaded when not found locally, which eliminates the need for user intervention when installing a new device.

Mobile users will appreciate the new location-aware printing feature, which automatically determines which printers are available based upon which network a user is connected to.

Enhanced external display support makes it easier for users to switch between internal and external monitors on laptop systems, or to work with projectors or second displays. Other enhancements include the ability to group common tasks together for external devices, such as music synchronisation for media players or contacts/calendar synchronisation for smartphones or PDAs.

Of course, there is a lot more to the performance and stability story. System administrators will find a slew of features aimed directly at their needs, such as the ability to remotely access trouble logs and memory dumps, as well as improved remote-control abilities.

Microsoft has also put a lot of effort into speeding up boots and shutdowns by improving the core code of the operating system. Other speed enhancements come from faster application launches, along with a taskbar and Start menu that respond more quickly. Alone, each of the improvements has a small impact on the user experience, but when viewed together, Windows 7 takes on the appearance of a faster, more stable OS than Vista ever hoped to be.

Windows 7 also sports improved backup and restore capabilities that should remove some of the excuses for not backing up systems. System restore points are now included in backups, making it much easier to return a system to an earlier state when all else fails. Users can back up Windows 7 PCs to network shares, eliminating the need for local external drives or expensive backup hardware.

Other features worth mentioning include a new fault-tolerant heap, which is supposed to reduce the number of crashes significantly, and the new Process Reflection, which clones crashed processes to memory, where Windows 7 will try to recover each cloned process and diagnose why the original process failed.

Small business IT advice

NEXT PAGE: Multimedia

  1. We look at the major features
  2. Security features
  3. Even more security features
  4. A new-look user interface
  5. Windows Touch and improved Windows Search
  6. Performance and stability
  7. Improved device management
  8. Multimedia
  9. Connectivity

Microsoft recently announced the dates it intends to release the RTM version of Windows 7. We take an in-depth look at what is new and different about the new OS.

Windows 7: Multimedia

Windows Vista's media capabilities did not succeed in overpowering third-party applications, which are still available to users who prefer them over Windows Media Player or Microsoft's Media Center. Microsoft has clearly put a great deal of effort into Windows 7's multimedia capabilities, hoping to make Windows 7 the centerpiece of a modern entertainment center.

Windows Media Player 12 (enhanced)
Media Player supports more media formats than ever before, including AAC audio and H.264, DivX and Xvid video, with no third-party downloads required. The application now supports streaming of media to remote PCs or devices, allowing a Windows 7 system to function as a media server. Those using Windows Live services can also stream media to remote systems over the web.

Media Player's interface has been redesigned and now offers a nifty pop-up mini music player that is less intrusive than its predecessor. Users will find it easier to do common tasks such as play, burn and sync, thanks to a new set of tabs on the right side of the player's screen.

One of the most interesting additions is the new ‘play-to' feature, which has the ability to send music, video and photos to any compatible device on the network. That can be done without running any proprietary software and without any additional setup. In other words, sending a song, video or photo to an Xbox or other compatible device just takes a mouse click and nothing more.

Windows Media Center (enhanced)
On the surface, Windows Media Center offers a new UI that makes the product a little easier to navigate, but it's what's behind the scenes that really defines the Media Center's new capabilities.

First off, Media Center now supports more devices and can be used with Windows Touch. Those connected to cable TV will welcome the addition of ClearQAM support, a technology that receives unencrypted digital TV over cable-TV lines. With ClearQAM, users will no longer need to jury-rig a set-top box into the mix to get digital cable TV feeds.

The channel guide sports several improvements, including faster updates and improved controls, making it easier to record programs. An on-screen keyboard eliminates the need for a wireless keyboard and brings more functionality to a Media Center remote control.

Other enhancements include a better ‘commercial skip' feature, which allows viewers to skip ahead 30 seconds at a time. Those looking to build large libraries of recorded content will appreciate the new sorting features, which allow users to sort by title, date, length and so on, almost instantly.

It appears that Microsoft has listened to user gripes and has put much effort into getting both Media Player and Media Center right in Windows 7. The enhancements to Windows 7's multimedia capabilities could, in fact, place Microsoft's operating system back into competition with other PC-TV solutions and could eventually make a Windows 7 PC a fixture in the entertainment center.

Small business IT advice

NEXT PAGE: Connectivity

  1. We look at the major features
  2. Security features
  3. Even more security features
  4. A new-look user interface
  5. Windows Touch and improved Windows Search
  6. Performance and stability
  7. Improved device management
  8. Multimedia
  9. Connectivity

Microsoft recently announced the dates it intends to release the RTM version of Windows 7. We take an in-depth look at what is new and different about the new OS.

Windows 7: Connectivity

While few users had complaints about the connectivity options under Windows Vista, Microsoft did find a way (or several ways) to improve on them.

Wireless connectivity (enhanced)
Wireless devices are more easily installed, and many more devices are supported with Windows 7. Wi-Fi security has been enhanced with the addition of support for the industry standard Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS). The Windows Connect Now (WCN) feature helps to simplify the process of joining wireless networks by offering a cleaner, leaner UI, which uses the new View Available Network applet.

Users will find new device wizards that support wireless printers, network-attached storage (NAS) devices, cameras and other wireless devices. A new single-click capability eases access to available networks (Wi-Fi, mobile broadband, dial-up, VPN). Windows 7 can act as a wireless access point, allowing users to share a wireless broadband connection over a Wi-Fi network, which could be a very useful feature for mobile workgroups that can share a single 3G WAN connection over a Wi-Fi LAN.

Remote connections and internet access (improved)
VPN connections can now automatically reconnect if there is an interruption in service. Offline files are now automatically synchronised in the background, eliminating the need for user intervention to update file stores.

Several new capabilities have been added to remote desktop protocol (RDP) that will enhance remote desktop functions and capabilities when used with Windows Server 2008R2. Windows Parental Controls now offer more blocking and filtering options, along with better reporting and monitoring capabilities. Remote connections to corporate networks can be automated to work whenever Internet connectivity is available.

There are several other connectivity features that are enhanced and improved in Windows 7, not the least of which is the new version of Internet Explorer, which is available as an upgrade on Microsoft's earlier OS's as well.

XP Mode - and more

XP Mode, which uses virtualisation technology, is currently available as an add-on download. XP Mode works by creating a virtual Windows XP PC on the Windows 7 system, allowing users to run applications as if they were on a Windows XP system. Windows XP Mode should solve many of the compatibility problems users experienced with Windows Vista when running XP-specific applications.

There are dozens - if not hundreds - of other improvements incorporated into Windows 7, so many that a thick book would be needed to explain them all.

Windows 7 will be available in three different editions: Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate. The core feature sets are the same among the editions - Professional adds XP Mode, business networking and automatic backup capabilities, while Ultimate includes the Professional features plus BitLocker encryption and multilanguage support.

One thing is certain: Windows 7 will prove to be much more than just a rehash of Windows Vista. It seems Microsoft has learned a lot from the failures of Vista and has created Windows 7 as a new operating system that looks to change people's perceptions about Microsoft's products.

See also: FAQs: How to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7

Small business IT advice

  1. We look at the major features
  2. Security features
  3. Even more security features
  4. A new-look user interface
  5. Windows Touch and improved Windows Search
  6. Performance and stability
  7. Improved device management
  8. Multimedia
  9. Connectivity