Reviews of new Windows releases always seem to say the same thing, depending on what kind of person writes them. Mac enthusiasts say it’s yet again stolen more MacOS features. Microsofties defend the new-found stability and the speed compared to last editions. Non-techies say how pretty this one is in comparison with the last, et cetera.

Well, I’ve got a preview build of Windows 7, and I’d like to give you a three-way look at it.

The Good

Windows 7 already feels stronger and faster than Vista. It installed easily using Bootcamp, and is happily running on my MacbookPro. When I got all the drivers working (to be expected running on an Apple, I suppose) it’s robust and more or less respectable. This particular build/driver combination is particularly nice, because it’s got some special Apple drivers which let it play nice with my keyboard and F-button settings (volume, keyboard and screen brightness, eject).

Windows found my external display fairly quickly, though it would not use it’s full resolution at first. Then, randomly, it let me do so (though nothing had been downloaded or tweaked—it couldn’t; I had yet to connect to my network!). This was a nice surprise, but I kind of wish it would let me choose what’s going on instead of hiding its preferences and features in the background (more on this later).

A slight improvement over Vista is the ease by which Windows 7 seemed to handle getting online. It’s a breeze to select a wireless network and get connected. I also like some of the more subtle things they’ve done with 7, which make it a bit more pleasant to use such as the way they’ve layed-out the control panel settings, and the better file-layout in the navigation panels of explorer windows.

By far, so far, the best thing has been the speed. Windows 7, at this stage, is fast enough to work nicely. I don’t know how it will do after months of updates, registry bloat, and anti-malware software; but it MUST be better than Vista in this regard. Finally, however, is a small thing that I like: Windows Live Writer. It’s great! It’s available for Vista, however, so it’s not new. However, the Live Essentials on this version seem a bit easier to get going and running. Windows Live Writer is the only application that I wish I had on the Mac, and it’s still the best blogging tool out there.

The Bad

Firstly, why is networking with Windows so hard? It found my router, got onto the internet, and updated itself fine. It talks with the Windows Mothership on the cloud easily enough. Would it, however, find my Mac on the same network? My iPhone? Yes… through Bluetooth! When will Windows start to recognise they need to make networking easy for users?

Secondly, this is basically Vista done not-so-badly. It’s, so far, what Vista should have been. Light (ish), easy, stable. But, to me, these are table-stakes. It’s not that impressive to say: “Our operating system doesn’t hang when you use default features! It’s stable, It’s easy!” It should be, why are you so proud of this?

The final reason why this isn’t going to be the best OS out there, however, is that it’s still Windows. Now, before you label me a fanboy or anti-establishmentarian; let me say why this is a problem. There are countless menus and features and settings and objects on this system. There are too many, unconnected settings. Windows Control Panel has 63 icons! OSX, in comparison, makes do with 26. The user also doesn’t often see an immediate effect from a settings change. After several sets of “OK” are pressed, I find out my network adapter’s been disabled, and have to go though a completely different route to get it back. The language used to describe the setup options has always been difficult to follow. Consider the Networking setup: Some based on actions, so you can “set up a new connection or network;” “connect to a network;” “fix network problem” etc. Others are categorical ‘HomeGroup,” “Internet Options,” “Wireless Network Connection” etc… I’ve had to go through every single one of them, and many subsequent menus besides in order to setup my home network. The “wizard” does nothing. It’s always been this way with Windows…you are expected to know exactly where the settings are hidden within some obscure menu, but you’re teased with easy options along the way. My favourite screen so far has been one which says: “Troubleshooting could not identify the problem.” Thanks for the help…

This problem stems from always being the Least Common Denominator. What results is that every set of functions is a compromise of some kind.

The Not-Ugly but unfortunately Not-Original

It’s not a new thing to say that this version of Windows is copying Mac. I grew up being told that Windows has stolen every good idea it’s ever had from someone else. While this may have been true with many things, I can’t believe they have never had an original thought. Despite its many shortcomings, Microsoft’s software is the market dominator, and has been for as long as anyone can remember. Sure, they’ve bought companies and talent along the way (so has Google… so has Apple!), but the Live stuff is pretty different, and works decently (except for its annoying insistence that all the services you use should be MS—a characteristic it shares with Apple services like MobileMe.)

Having a look at the promotional video for VistaII—I mean, Windows 7—and I’m struck by how little there is to say about it.

Firstly: “Windows Gurus”? Tell me that’s not a play on “Apple Geniuses”. You can imagine the board meeting that chose that name: “Right, we need something of an authority on the matter that sounds brainy and starts with G, but isn’t ‘Genius.’ Wilkinson?” “Uh, er, guardian…guarantor…general… guru?”

They seem terribly proud about how the windows all have previews and there’s a brilliant new thing called a Task Bar! Windows has had a taskbar for years, this one just works a bit more like the Dock in OSX. That’s it, move along.

They’ve renamed the “Workgroup” the “Homegroup”, and it does the same thing. It’s tweaked, supposedly, but it’s just a network. I find myself wondering if this a reaction to the “I’m a Mac” ads? “This isn’t work, it’s home. We’ve renamed it, HOME, cause it’s not at work. Get it?”

IE has had a few features added, called “accelerators” which essentially allow for interaction with the web through the browser. It could be a great step, except that there are Firefox folks doing it so much better. Bit.Ly plugin allows for a huge range of interaction with data on the screen through Firefox.  Ubiquity on Firefox is a genuinely new way of blurring the web, our human interactions, and our machines. “Accelerators” just seem like a glorified right-click or contextual menu. There’s also “InPrivate Browsing” which turns off cookies and history. Guess what Safari has called this? “Private Browsing”. Go figure…

I know this is a preview release, but my overall impression is that Windows 7 should have been launched in 2006. This is great, for a Windows release, it works and pretty well so far. Aside from the basic problem that it is Windows, and works by being everything to everyone, it’s OK. But it’s not exciting, it’s not THAT new, and it feels a bit like we should be seeing a real breakthrough by now.

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