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Win7 after XP -- First Impressions

I have run Windows 7 for almost a week now.  I like it a lot, and what's more, I like it more and more each day.

First, a couple of caveats:
As did many folks, I avoided Vista.  So a lot of what is impressing me is possibly/probably stuff that is not new to Vista users.  So If I rave about a "new" feature that is years old, well... just keep that in mind.
I'm using a brand-spanking new computer that came pre-installed with Win7 Home Premium; 64-bit.  This caveat is two-fold:  I did not upgrade from XP or install any device drivers, so I can't provide any impressions there.  But most importantly, I'm running the fastest, most powerful computer I've ever owned -- an AMD Athlon II quad-core running at 2.6 GHz with 6 (count'em) GB of RAM.  My "Windows Experience Index" is 4.3 (whatever that means).

Therefore, my enthusiasm must be taken in that light:  For instance, If I'm thrilled that programs load and run fast or if I'm amazed at what can be done with translucent layered windows, at least part of the credit goes to the new hardware.
And another POV note:
I am never an "early adopter."  I refused to give up Win98 until Win2K had been out for several years.  I struck with Win2K until after Vista was released. I was very happy with XP and I fully intended to stick with it until Judgment Day.  If that sounds at all like you then maybe some of my experiences in the last week might be useful to you as you decide what to do about Windows 7.

Some cool stuff:
As a software developer and 20-year veteran user of Windows, the first thing I did was enable viewing of system files and file extensions, etc.  I set Windows Explorer to show in Detail View with the Navigation (tree) Pane always visible and to always show menus and the status bar.  And I set that to be the default for all Explorer windows.  That is, I set up for "Don't treat me like a baby" mode.

Even in this utilitarian mode, if you click on a JPG or other image file, a thumbnail image appears in the status pane at the bottom.  You can put up a "Content" pane on the right that displays the image or document itself (as long as there is a viewer for it -- I can see, without opening,  .TXT files, images, .HTML, .CPP,  .DOC and .XLS files, but not (for instance) PDF files.

The taskbar/start menu doesn't work exactly how you might expect.  But the base-level functionality is pretty close.  Right-click on an empty part to display the Task Manager, there's a tray and a clock... most of what you expect works the way would expect it to work.

New: The "tray" (Status area) lets you pick and choose what gets displayed there, and when, so that issue of too many tray icons (or having them automatically "cleaned up" for you) is gone.  

If you drag the taskbar and snap it to the left, the clock shows the day as well as the date.  Aside:  I suggest that you try putting the taskbar on the left... at least for a few days, just to see if you like it there.  On wide-screen monitors, you have plenty of horizontal screen real estate, but vertical screen space remains precious.

The "Quick Launch" toolbar is gone, replaced by the idea that you can "pin" any program to that part of the taskbar.  First thing to do:  Get rid of the useless items that the OEM (HP, in my case) put there, and pin your useful programs.  Also:  You can add your own toolbars, though there are some limitations -- they always go to the end [Edited note: Not true, sorry] and you can't detach them (alas!).  One trick is to make your added toolbar very small and just click the chevron to popup it up as a menu.

You can rearrange the "pinned" and "running" items in the taskbar by simply dragging them.

Aero Peek
By far the coolest thing about Win7 is the way that you can hover the mouse over a taskbar program and it displays a large translucent thumbnail image of that app's main window.  If you then roll over the image, the desktop clears, all except that window, and one click puts everything back, but with that app in the front.

Nifty is... inadequate.  Maybe bitchin' is in the ballpark.  When you think of the CPU time and memory required to do that with a taskbar full of running application programs, it's mind boggling.  Aero Peek might sound like a whiz-bang piece of useless eye-candy, but it's more than a visual gimmick; it really changes the way you work.  

The surprise (one of those "more and more each day" things) was that on about day three I hovered over an IE button on the taskbar and it, of course, showed web pages for the three IEs I had open.  That's when I realized... Wait!  There's more!  It also shows a webpage image of every tab you have open in every browser.  So now you have a easy, visual way to get to any tab in any instance of the browser.  

A little thing: Aero Peek also lets you close application windows -- and, yes, individual browser tabs -- easily, visually, and intuitively -- without "losing your place."

Aero Shake
I found this by accident.  Trying to get my CPU meter to respond, I clicked on a window and "shook" it around.  Doing that for long used to peg my old PC's CPU at 100%.  In Win7, it does something else:  All of the open windows get minimized except the one you are shaking.  Shake it again, and they all come back.  If nothing else, it's a quick-access "boss key."

Another little thing:  If you drag a window until it is near the side of the screen, Win7 draws a "snap-to" rectangle and you can drop it there.  The result is that the window is automatically resized to be maximum height and a reasonably-matching width.  Drag it away from that location and it goes back to the normalized/custom size as you drag.  It's Microsoft finding a way to address the simple and obvious fact:  Fully-maximizing a window on a wide-screen monitor is really pretty silly; its nearly always too wide for editing a document or viewing most web pages and thus wastes precious screen real-estate.  This is a good "middle ground" size for a lot of windows.  I'm thinking that I might use these "snap-to" areas as the locations for my primary focus -- for instance, "promote" one of several browser windows for a while, then nudge it a bit to demote it back into being a peer.

Standard Apps
I'm pretty sure that Calculator, MsPaint, and WordPad had not changed since Windows 2.x -- about 1989.  Well, Microsoft broke tradition with Win7.  Paint and WordPad use that "ribbon" thingy now (I'm still not too comfortable with that).  There is some new functionality, but without losing the old (Note: Always turn on the menus, the ribbon sometimes lacks access to important  features).

Notepad.ExeAll apps show the new glassy interface as the default scheme (unfamiliar to me since with with XP, I always struck with the Win2K, nee Win98, nee Win95, "theme").  Notepad.Exe shows the cursor line and column number in its status bar.  'Nuff said?

Little Stuff
I'm not going to show how Win7 looks.  Try YouTube for that.  But here's one image for you: It's not sexy at all, but I think it speaks volumes:Rename file It's little things like this (pre-selecting only the filename part) that shows attention to detail.  Another example:  The Explorer's "Address bar" shows the full path in a much cleaner way... you can click any of the parent folder names to go directly to it, and if you're deep in the hierarchy you can "slide" left and right.  But what if you want to copy that pathname to the clipboard, like a developer or power-user might do?  Alas, I'm sure they must have blown it.  Address barWait!  Not so fast!  Just click on it and it converts to the pathname text -- pre-selected to save you time.  Again and again, it feels like they read my mind!

To get to a file you recently edited, you don't need to go to the old "My Recent Documents" folder.  Instead, if the program is "pinned" to the taskbar, a right-click will show a popup menu that includes the documents that were recently opened with that program.  A nifty-level feature, that one.

The Help System
The Win7 help system is basically very good.  In the first week, there are plenty of times you'll try to do something familiar, but it's not where you first think to look.  Usually typing one or two keywords in the help system will get you on the right track.

It's only a little spotty.  For instance, type in "email" and you get nothing much.  Type in "e-mail" (with a hyphen) and you get the list of topics...  "e-mail" or "Outlook Express" will get you to an entry that leads to you to a link where you can download Windows Live Mail (more on that later).

Some Problems
You will probably hear about problems with, or at least irritation caused by, the User Account Control (UAC) system.  Each time you try to install a program, or move files to or from certain folders, the entire screen goes gray and you have to OK the action.  Sometimes, it prompts for an administrative password.  

Did I mention that the reason I got a new computer was because a Trojan Horse program loaded some malware that clobbered some system files on my old computer?  The first thing it did was disable and corrupt AVG (my anti-virus program).  During the repair process, I ended up losing all my settings.  I figured that as along as I was going to have several days of downtime reinstalling everything anyway, I'd get a new box.

Anyway, my current frame of mind is that I'm willing to give up some freedom and put up with some irritating prompts if it will avoid that nastiness again.  AVG was not enough; here's hoping that the new Win7 security features are.

That said, there are times that I am totally baffled.  Copying files across the network from my old computer, I hit several anomalies.  For instance, I could copy all files from one directory except for a particular PDF file.  I could copy a copy of it, but not that file.  It's still a mystery, but I found a workaround:  I created and shared a "transfer" folder on the new box and instead of "pulling" them from the old box to my computer, I "push" them from the old computer to the new.  Don't  ask me why that works, but it does.

As a developer, I need to do things like install and test System Services, install certificates for Local System, and the like.  Guess what?  The so-called "Administrator" account (your default login) is limited and won't allow that.  It seems that there must be some sort of hidden "Über-Administrator" account that has such capabilities.  

For now, I just look for the "Run As Administrator" menu item.  I can start a Command Prompt with that, and then start any program (such as MMC.Exe) with all of the needed authority.

Remember, I've only been playing around with this for a week, I am anything but a Win7 security expert.  All I'm saying is that even some tough, potentially frustrating problems were overcome without much effort.

64 Bitness
Most of my programs (and most of your programs) are compiled for a 32-bit environment.  I found that they all run just fine.   I did hit one sort of scary problem:  One of my company's production (read: "bread-and-butter") programs -- a System Service -- appeared to fail totally.  It turned out that there is an issue with the ODBC Administrator (and there's a simple workaround for that).  But something that Microsoft has been threatening for years has finally happened:  Services cannot "interact with the desktop" any more.  I'm still looking for a workaround, while at the same time doing what I should have done years ago... re-developing the Service to get rid of its (mostly superfluous) U/I.

POV again:  These two problems would be irritating if I were a regular user... But as a developer, I needed to know all of this, anyway.   So to me, it's more a wakeup call than a failing of the OS.

What!?!? No Email Client???
There is simply no e-mail program.  None.  What about the tens of thousands of emails that I've got in Outlook Express?  My business, and when it comes right down to it, my entire life depends on e-mail.  Do I have to purchase Outlook?  In the help system, Microsoft provided a link to Windows Live Mail (WLM).  I hesitated -- I don't want to use a web-based systems -- but it turns out that this is client software, just like Outlook Express.  It has loads of new features and capabilities (I won't use them, but they don't get in the way).  The Word-like real-time spell checking is nice.

I won't bore you with the details, but it took me a while to import the old email files (including the all-important address book) into WLM and get things the way I like them.  I eventually got it, and it all works great.  I recommend WLM as your replacement for Outlook Express -- which was getting a bit long-in-the-tooth anyway.

WLM was unwilling to let me drag a URL from an email and drop it on a browser window.  But I found the trick on that:

   Tools / Safety Options / Security "Internet Zone"

Microsoft has the default on the "Total Paranoia" setting.  I can't blame them -- e-mail is the gateway to malware and your standard Windows User needs to be babied.

I'm not a good judge here, because my new hardware is at least 4-to-6 times faster than my old box, and this is a clean new install (before all the crap inserts itself into the system and slows things down) so it's bound to be faster, anyway.  Nevertheless, I'm giving my impressions here, so:  I'm very happy with the speed of Win7.

My Win7 system boots in less than 20 seconds.  Visual Studio is up and running almost as soon as I release the mouse button (and I'm talking about VS 2008 which used to take almost 30 seconds to load).  Compile times are astounding with a quad-core processor.  Fast User Switching: 5 seconds.  Half-Life 2 still takes a while to load, but it runs beautifully.

All I can summarize is my own experience:  I bit the bullet and decided not to wait my normal four years before switching OSes.  I'm happy that I did.  It looks to me like Microsoft got it right this time.

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Comments (11)

Top Expert 2010

Windows Live Mail is great! That and the 25GB free storage space you can get on SkyDrive( for backing up personal or even sharing public documents. I suggest making an account. I liked this article because I still use the BETA version of Windows 7 for testing applications compatability so I havent spent much time on the small features that you have described. You have my vote!
ValentinoVBI Consultant
Most Valuable Expert 2011

Hello Dan,

As I'm planning a Win7/64-bit install myself coming weekend and also avoided Vista, I enjoyed reading through your article.
I had to smile when I read the paragraph about the Windows Explorer settings: you've set them exactly as I always do every time when I log on to a new machine!

So here's another Yes vote :-)

Author of the Year 2009


Thanks Valentino.  I'm thinking about a follow-up now that I've used Win7 for a while, but it would probably end up as me just continuing to gush praise.
ValentinoVBI Consultant
Most Valuable Expert 2011

Glad to hear that you're not regretting the upgrade!

I must say that I'm also really looking forward to it.  I've tried the beta (I enrolled as beta tester) on an old box with only 512MB RAM and was surprised that it installed without any issues and it was even usable. So I've already explored the features a bit.  Ready for more exploring now :-)

Thanks for the article, Dan!

If you feel like doing a followup, I'd sure love to have a step by step guide to moving all my stored OE email and address book to my new Win 7 computer.   How to move it all to an external harddrive, put it on the new computer, and then import it into WLM.

Cornelia Yoder

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