Windows 7 is the best Windows so far. Or is it?
January 26, 2009
Virtual machines are a cheap commodity these days, so I thought I’d give Windows 7 beta a whirl. Before I dive into the details, though, a word of warning is in order: The last time that I used Windows on daily basis was ten years ago. I rarely used Windows 2000, occasionally use XP today (for tax software) and know virtually nothing about Vista. I do think that this makes for an excellent scenario, though, because I feel much like my mom when she’s using the computer: I have no idea how to do anything!
That said I have high standards when it comes to usability and OS X has been able to live up to some of them –not all– in the past years. So Windows has quite some big shoes to fill when I’m testing it. Especially because I’ve never really felt the pain that I’m told Vista users have to endure. I’m sure to them Windows 7 is a like fresh breeze of liberating spring air. And I agree, it’s the best Windows I’ve seen so far.
Things I like
I like the new Taskbar. Because it’s much like the Dock we’ve known in OS X since, ooh I don’t know, 2000. Actually in some ways it’s better than the Dock. The Taskbar spans over the whole screen so its size and the position of the icons in it are always the same, no matter how many icons you’ve got in it. Then again, it becomes all unusable again when it has to cope with more icons than Microsoft deems necessary. And when you want to switch back to a program that has more than one window open, it doesn’t just open all of them and shows the one you used last. It first needs you to decide which window you want to see. Listen, sweet cakes, people these days have 22″ or 24″ screens and can fit two windows next to each other (even though they don’t, due to a disease Windows users often have which I call maximizitis). The Taskbar’s biggest problem, however, is its sheer ugliness. It really looks as though I’ve drawn it. On an Etch’n’Sketch.
I also like the Start Menu that we first saw with Vista, in particular the Spotlight-like search function. I believe Microsoft didn’t nick this from Apple, even though OS X has had it first (it was launched with OS X Tiger in April 2005). I find search the single most important tool in a computer system and it’s highly underrated. It’s good to see that Microsoft puts it at a much more visible and accessible place than Apple.
I also like the ribbon menus that made their debut in Office 2007. They’re now fitted to some of the built-in programs like WordPad and Paint. It feels to me they make the sheer amount of stuff you can do with some of these programs these days more visible. Now if we could only get rid of duplicate ways of doing things (I’m looking at you, context menus!).
To explore Windows 7 a bit further, I came up with a small test. This wasn’t supposed to be scientific in any way. I just thought I’d try to do what I do most of the time when I’m on the computer: surf the web, use web apps, read and write email, read and sometimes write documents, work with spreadsheets.
Well, it’s got a browser, the good old Internet Explorer. So Windows 7 won’t stop anyone from procrastinating on Twitter and Facebook. It’s got a text editor of sorts, WordPad, which to my delight supports the new OOXML format (docx) and the OpenDocument format (odt). Of course, what it doesn’t support is the old Word format (doc), not even read-only. Even Apple’s otherwise inferior TextEdit does!
Next I tried checking my email. That’s when things turned for the worse. There’s no built-in email client, at least in the public beta. Ok, I suppose in a world of webmail systems as good as Gmail, that may be acceptable to some people. But I just think they want me to buy Office.
This wasn’t anything compared to what came next, however. After failing to check my email I tried to do what any researcher does every day: read scientific articles. Like pretty much anything else that’s distributed in a printable fashion, these come in PDF form. So you’d think that the most popular operating system in the world would be able to deal with the de-facto standard of distributable document formats. But it isn’t. Even in its latest and greatest version, Windows fails to open PDF, let alone modify or produce PDFs.
I know I can install Adobe Reader for free at any time. But that’s not a solution because it’d be another thing I’d have to explain to my mom or granny, when it should really just be built in. I mean, seriously, is it so hard to include a half-decent PDF viewer program? Apple can do it just fine with Preview which can not only visualize pretty much any PDF, it’ll also let you delete pages and merge several PDF documents to one. And please don’t tell me that this is stuff nobody needs. As said, the de-facto standard for distributing printable documents is PDF and not Word’s stupid doc format. And definitely not Microsoft’s unilateral attempt called XPS. If Windows had the same PDF capabilities as the Mac, viz. being able to generate PDF out of pretty much any application, people would actually use PDFs even more often. By the way, I’m praising OS X a lot here, but the same goes for a modern Linux system: it too can generate and manipulate PDFs easily and pretty much any Linux distro out there will install some sort of PDF viewer by default.
Lastly I wanted to see whether Microsoft has finally fixed an old wart: USB storage media removal. You see, in previous Windows versions, in order to remove a USB stick you had to find a small and unfathomable icon in the system tray and click on it. Then a window would open and let you choose the device to remove and then click some button. The procedure was perhaps even more elaborate, I don’t remember. All I know is that it has always been a total failure in terms of usability. And have they fixed it in Windows 7? No. They’ve made it worse: that unrecognizable icon for external storage media is now hidden from the system tray. People then will bother even less about unmounting their USB sticks. Perhaps unmounting is not necessary anymore and I would gladly welcome that. But why is the icon then still there? I can only imagine that Microsoft has some secret plot playing against USB sticks, I couldn’t explain their total failure in this regard otherwise.
I said earlier Windows 7 is the best Windows I have seen so far. But that’s not much to shout about, really, because previous Windows versions have been horrid. In terms of things I actually need every day, it can’t do anything except surf the web. I thus fail to see how Windows 7 is actually better than Windows 98.
Come to think of it, Windows 98 came with Outlook Express, an email client. So I’ll take back what I said previously. The best Windows I’ve ever seen is Windows 98.