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First Windows 7 beta puts fresh face on Vista

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Review Microsoft has officially released the first Windows 7 beta. While it's been one of the web's worst kept secrets, Microsoft was still keeping quiet about the details and timing of the final release at the time of writing.

Everyone expects release later this year. A leaked briefing paper for OEM vendors suggests that the date when buyers of Windows Vista machines qualify for a free upgrade begins "for planning purposes" on July 1, 2009.

Vista's free upgrade period began in October 2006, and the operating system was completed in November, so we can speculate that Windows 7 may be done in August or thereabouts, though PCs for sale will not include it until a few months later.

Such assumptions are strengthened by the high quality of the beta that Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer announced Wednesday evening at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Fully operational

Build 7000, which has been widely leaked online, seems fully usable and feels faster than Windows Vista on the same hardware. I installed it on a virtual machine and on two laptops, a two-year old Toshiba Portege and a more recent Dell XPS M1330 loaned by Microsoft for the purpose, and had few issues.

In truth it is not greatly changed from the build shown at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference (PDC) late last year, though more user interface features that were unavailable to us at the time have now been enabled. Drivers designed for Windows Vista seem to work fine, though this may not be true in every case, confirming Microsoft's statement that the core architecture is the same.

This raises the question that I put to John Curran, head of the Windows client group in the UK, during a Windows 7 briefing. Since under the covers it is so similar to Windows Vista, how does Microsoft justify calling it a full new version? Curran responded by mentioning new features: Digital Living Room Network Alliance (DLNA) compliance in Windows Media Player (WMP) for easier media sharing, Bitlocker to Go for encrypting USB storage devices, Direct Access for network access without VPN, and new support for sensors and devices that will enable location-aware laptops.

Wndows 7 taskbar

Thumbnail previews simplify navigation in the new taskbar

Fair enough I suppose, though distinguishing between applications and the core operating system is a matter of debate. That said, Curran did not nail the two things that matter most in Windows 7. The first is the changes to the shell, by which I mean the taskbar, desktop and Explorer. The second is less tangible, but it is the countless minor changes Microsoft says it has made to make Windows faster, smoother and less annoying.

Let's start with the taskbar. In Windows 7, this is a combined tool for both launching and switching applications, and the Quick Launch toolbar has been retired. The Start menu still exists, but if you pin an application to the taskbar it appears there whether or not it is running. It makes sense, because from the user's perspective launching or switching to an application is not much different, though the two states look confusingly similar in the beta.

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