Windows 7: Interface
Aero Glass made its debut in Vista, but its signature transparency effects weren’t always a smooth experience. In Windows 7, such elements are noticeably more snappy and responsive, especially on less powerful hardware.
That’s been achieved via two improvements to the graphics subsystem. First, Windows 7 now allows multiple processes to access the GDI (graphic device interface) system at once, so when you click the mouse or press a key you can expect an instant response, even if the OS is busy with something else.
Second, a greater share of the graphical work has been offloaded onto the GPU, lightening the load on the CPU and system memory. As a result, Aero’s transparency effects now work beautifully on lowly laptops and even netbooks.
The most conspicuous change in Windows 7 is the new taskbar. The familiar tab-style buttons that have graced every desktop since Windows 95 have at last been retired. In their place you’ll now find large, colourful icons.
And the new taskbar isn’t just prettier – it’s also more versatile. You can now pin items to it and launch them with a single click. A shiny border effect shows which programs are running and which are waiting to be invoked.
If we’re honest, it owes an lot to the Mac OS X dock, which works in a similar way
The new design makes for a more compact and logical way to work, especially when you have multiple windows open – and it’s a lot more finger-friendly if you’re using a touch device. If we’re honest, it owes an lot to the Mac OS X dock, which works in a similar way. But it’s a step up from Vista, in terms of both convenience and clarity.
One of the new features in Vista was live thumbnails: the Task Switcher (and its flashy brother Flip 3D) showed miniature representations of the windows you had open, and if you hovered over a taskbar icon it showed a preview of the relevant window.
Windows 7 goes one better. Now, when you hover over an application’s taskbar icon, live previews spring up showing all of its open windows, making it easy to click straight to the window you want (or close unwanted ones). You can set Windows 7 to give each window its own icon, but we’ve found the new approach, with its visual feedback, a simpler way to work.
Another way Windows 7 speeds up desktop navigation is with Aero Peek. When you hover your mouse over a taskbar thumbnail, all other windows become transparent, so you can instantly see whereabouts onscreen each window is – another visual cue to help you quickly get where you’re going.
It works in the Task Switcher too. Press Alt-Tab to cycle quickly through open windows and you’ll get the standard Vista behaviour; but pause for half a second and the transparency will kick in, highlighting windows as you cycle through them. The name Aero Peek is perhaps a little twee for our liking, but it really does save time – and frustration.
When an application wants your attention, its taskbar icon flashes. Nothing new there, but in Windows 7 the colour of the flash reflects the program’s icon. That means you don’t even need to look to see which program is complaining: you can instantly tell from the colour.
And if you set the taskbar to show a separate icon for every open window, subtle colour hinting makes it easy to see which windows were launched by the same application.
The Recent Documents list is disabled by default in Windows 7, but we don’t miss it, because in its place program icons now have individual “jumplists”. Right-click on a taskbar icon – or hover over a start menu item with a right-pointing arrow – and you’ll see a list of documents recently used by that application. Simply click one to open it. You can pin documents in this list too, so you can quickly jump to important ones, even if they’re rarely used (expenses forms, for example).
The clever thing about jumplists is that they can contain shortcuts to actions as well as files: Windows Media Player, for example, has jumplist items for “play all music” and “resume previous list”. As yet, few applications make use of this feature, but as Windows 7 goes mainstream we look forward to seeing more software that takes full advantage.