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!).

Test drive

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.

The verdict

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.

14 Responses to “Windows 7 is the best Windows so far. Or is it?”

  1. Martin Says:

    Well, I assume that Windows 7 will have some kind of email client when it’s released (XP and everything earlier had Outlook Express, in Vista it’s simply called “Windows Mail”), but honestly, who wants to use that?

    As for the PDFs: That really sucks, true story. I always use some free program called “PDF Creator” which ist based on ghostscript, iirc, and installs a virtual printer to create PDFs. And yes, that unbelievably slow Adobe Reader.

    The taskbar/dock-thingy sounds interesting, although I’ve to admit that I never really liked the OS X dock. I prefer the old Windows taskbar, even if it gets really messy when it has to deal with many windows. Missing Exposé, though.

    Concerning the USB sticks: You don’t have to unmount them. Since Windows XP (or even earlier?) there is an option to “optimize” your USB drive for speed or mobility. This changes the behaviour of the cache: Speed means (memory-)cache is used and you have to unmount your drive to prevent loss of data, “mobility” means no memory cache is used, everything is written directly to the drive. The latter is the standard option for sticks etc, while the first is used for external harddisks. That means you don’t have to unmount your sticks (but please wait for the copy-window to close :-P), but you have to unmount any harddrives connected via USB.

    What makes XP and Vista and maybe 7 better than Win98 or ME ever were is their reliability. I managed to crash my XP sometime or the other during the last 5 years or so, but I never lost any data. Usually, only a certain program will freeze and close, but the rest of the system remains unaffected. With Vista, this has become even better. Remembering the almost daily crashes of my Win98 machine, these are paradisiac times. 😉

  2. philikon Says:

    Martin, ok, I will admit that XP and Vista have advantages in terms of reliability. NTFS (a superb filesystem) probably has something to do with it as well. I should note though that the Windows 7 beta kept crashing on me like a good old Windows 9x.

    It’s good to know the stuff about the USB sticks. The thing is, where would I as a complete noob have found out about this? Seriously, don’t make me choose between this option or that option. I wouldn’t even understand what kind of choice I’m making, unless I were a computer geek. The default Microsoft has chosen for USB sticks is very sensible, so why don’t they just get rid of the other option altogether? Choice is bad because it’s confusing. And Windows just has too many choices.

  3. Martin Says:

    You don’t have to choose. Just plug your USB stick in and out; my windows never complained about that.
    You can however change that behaviour if you want to, but I don’t think that Joe the plumber will find that options in the disk properties anyway, so he will not get confused.

    Oh, and you can right-click an external harddrive under “My Computer” and select to remove it (“Sicher entfernen” in German). So there’s no need to go through all this taskbar icon mumbo-jumbo. At least in Vista, haven’t checked XP on that.

  4. philikon Says:

    Ah yes, in Windows 7 you can finally choose “Eject” from the drive’s context menu, just like you could do with DVD drives for ages. That definitely improves the situation, but it doesn’t make the action more visible. And yes, you’re right, Joe-the-plumber doesn’t need to know. But if he doesn’t need to know, why still keep it around in that maze of configuration dialogues?

  5. Martin Says:

    Well, in OS X the action is not much more visible, is it? I mean that small “eject” icon in the drive list to the left of the finder windows isn’t that huge either.

    The option is there, because people might want to change that behaviour because they either swap harddisks a lot (and don’t want to unmount them every time) oder because, with USB sticks that reached the speed and size of harddisks and Windows’ ReadyBoost, they want to get the fastest access possible to a certain stick. And it is well enough “hidden” to not confuse my friend ™ Joe the plumber.

    I mean hello? Complain about too much customizability? Tell that the Linux folks out there…

  6. Andi Says:

    huh, doesn’t sound all too good. i don’t think i’ll waste any time trying it then. thanks for that useful bit of info… 🙂


    ps: and yeah, the basic manipulation features of OSX’s preview are really helpful — being able to delete, duplicate, rotate and combine pages has already saved my day a couple of times…

  7. Deichi Says:

    Well… most of what I wanted to write has already been written 😉 Apart from:
    Vista’s beta shipped with built in PDF support (as was Office), but Adobe threatened Microsoft to remove it. Since Apple integrates PS/PDF that much (and probably payed much for it), thats an built-in advantage that is heavily protected by both of them. And don’t forget: As much as PDF is now a “web standard”, it still is more or less as proprietary as docx (or XPS).
    You can also get the doc-support as Add-In probably. Like the PDF-Support in Office.

    Ah and: It took we a very long time to be brave enough to put my USB media into the trash can in OS X 😀

    One more thing before you call me a M$-Lover:
    I HATE the fact that all windows open, if you click on an icon in OS X. Even more horrible: All windows of all Apps seem to be visible every time. That highly confuses me every day (I work on OS X for several year now and are still not getting it…) when I press cmd+q and an application closes that has nothing to do with the windows on the screen I currently look at…
    and you can right click on window groups in the task bar (or group them manually with Ctrl+Click first) and let windows arrange them.

    BTW: Most of those features work since Windows XP, so the “we have that since 2000 or so” isn’t that much in front of windows 😉
    But I like it that Apple stole many things from Vista lately. Not much longer and I will be able to work with OS X without cursing every few hours.
    They even started to implement multiple ways to do one thing. (I like to have the choice and use whatever suits me the most in the situation)

  8. philikon Says:

    Deichi, well, the EU would probably also have sued Microsoft for including a PDF viewer, like they have for including Internet Explorer. Overall I find that counterproductive, but whatever.

    I don’t understand your problem with OS X’s window management. Cmd+w closes individual windows and Cmd+h hides windows so your statement about “all windows of all apps” being visible all the time isn’t true. Also, why would you ever close an application? I just keep them open all the time (and hide them as necessary).

    Wrt unmounting external devices on OS X: I agree that dragging the drive’s desktop icon to the trash is stupid because it requires you get to the desktop first, and dragging is a very elaborate procedure. I much prefer the small eject icon in the Finder.

    I know that some of the things I discussed were available in Vista. I mentioned it. Not having used Vista, I’d be interested to know what Apple has “stolen” from it in your mind.

  9. I’m surprised no one mentioned this, but there’s a reason for an email client not to be included by default. Or even an iPhoto-style image organizing program.

    All those things have been moved to Windows Live, which the first Welcome dialog after installing will prompt you to install right away.

    The reasoning behind this is: a) this is not the same team that builds the OS anymore. b) they can move faster and ship updates more often than the OS team. c) it avoids future problems with the EU by not shipping things pre-installed.

    Granted, it’s an extra step after you install. But the download is not big by todays standards, and you can pick and choose only the apps you are really going to use.

    I particularly love the Windows Live Writer app, and the fact that it’s fully customizable with plugins for all different sorts of things. I really wish I had some time to customize it for Plone, it would be a killer app.

  10. The ribbon menus have been almost universally excoriated by the professional community. It’s interesting to hear someone admit to liking them!

  11. Wichert Akkerman Says:

    OSX lacks the ability to hide a single window from an app, something which is extremely useful. I have never understood why OSX does not support that very basic feature. The window shading feature from pretty much every window manager for X windows is a decent (possibly even better) alternative, but OSX does not support that either.

  12. philikon Says:

    Sidnei, ah, I thought Windows Live was something like MobileMe. I’ll check it out as soon as I get home. Making it a one-off install seems reasonable enough, I agree.

    Michael, I never really paid attention to what the community said about the ribbon menus. All I know is that after a weekend of using Excel 2007 I was sold. Just the fact that the ribbons combine two separate ways of doing most stuff (old-fashioned menus and icon toolbars) into one is already a big win.

    Wichert, you can always minimize individual OS X windows into the Dock by clicking the yellow button. Is that not good enough?

  13. Martin Says:

    Wow, I expected this to turn into a hot flame against Windows… instead, everybody complains about OS X. Nice 😉

  14. Wichert Akkerman Says:

    Mininizing into the dock does not work for me because it is not very efficient: the doc is normally hidden, which makes it a lot of more work to restore a minimimed window: you have to move your mouse to the doc, wait half a second for it to appear, find the right icon (tricky if there are 4 minimized terminals – they all look the same) and click on it. These are all mouse-only actions.

    Compare that with X window managers: you hit either a key-combo or double-click on the titlebar of a window and it rolls up (‘shading’). It is still part of your desktop and at its normal location, and the entire titlebar is still readable so you can quickly find it. Restoring the window is a matter of alt-tabbing to the window and hitting enter, or double-clicking on the titlebar with your mouse.

    Which reminds me of possibly my main problem with OSX: there are too many actions that require a mouse. Both MS Windows and X Windows applications are designed so everything can be done by keyboard, which is very pleasant (and apparently helps against RSI). With OSX keyboard behaviour is generally lacking and sometimes downright confusing (anyone notice you can tab over input elements in safari but it will skip all dropdowns?)

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