Booting and compatibility
The first thing you notice after installation is that Windows 7 boots up almost instantaneously – as anyone who has had to go off and make a cup of tea while waiting for Vista to boot will be relieved to hear.
And, unlike Vista, we're also promised that it'll work on much lower-specced machines – netbook users should be able to whack it on to their machines with little problem. We haven’t tested at this stage, but we’re keen to see if this claim holds up.
UI and appearance
The first thing that you notice about Windows 7 is the cleaner desktop and improved user interface. Many of the bells and whistles of Visa, such as the nice but frankly pointless 3D browsing has been stripped down to be replaced with even more glassy, Aero task bar at the bottom of the screen.
Apps are no longer launched using Quick Launch – large icons across the bottom of the screen are now used to launch applications. Some Apple users may find this strangely familiar. Also very familiar is the fact that you can add and remove apps just by dragging its icon into the bar and move them around in an order to suit you.
Any open pages in these apps are also managed from here – hover your mouse over any app and you'll see live pages appear in a horizontal thumbnail menu above the app icon. If you want a closer look, just hover over your chosen thumbnail to have it maximise and double-click to open.
The ethos behind the homescreen is to enable you to do computing tasks easily, and with less clicks. Using this task bar means you can skim through your most recent tasks with ease.
The settings for desktop themes have been sexed up to an Apple-esque degree, with slide bars for incremental selection and lots of reflections and customisation options for background and appearance, while gadgets are now liberated from their right-hand cage and can be sized to your own proportions.
Browsing web pages and docs has been tweaked as well, and there are a couple of neat touches to make the whole experience more intuitive. If you’ve got multiple windows open on your desktop at the same time, a double click will automatically make the other panes transparent, while a little mouse-shake will maximise a chosen pane into the centre of your screen.
If you want to clear your desktop in a hurry, the Aero Peek fuction makes all windows transparent (although retaining borders) with a click of a small rectangle at the bottom right of your screen. Mac owners may recognise this as F11.
“Jump lists” if you hover over each app will let you see what recent tasks you’ve completed in that particular app, while an OSX-like preview feature will let you view documents without having to launch the whole app. Which is nice.
We also saw a demo of Windows 7 running on an HP Touchsmart – Microsoft claim that touch functionality is "in Windows 7's DNA" and it's true that functions like jump lists, the scrolling bottom menu bar and the sliding menu options seem to have been made with prodding and sliding on future touchscreen displays firmly in mind.
Networking and connectivity
Traditionally, setting up a home network on a PC would take you a whole day, but the new “Homegroup” feature brings up a blissfully simple pictorial representation of your home network options and it’s a simple button-click to add other PCs, and radio button ticks to decide which particular content you want to share.
It’s in Homegroup that you’ll also find networking options for any devices, and Microsoft has been keen to stress the super-simple convergence message behind its new OS.
Devices are easily detected and again, represented as an image and it’s a simple click to send music to your player, video to your Xbox etc.
Device Station is another unique feature – some manufacturers have embedded code in their new devices that mean that when plugged in, a thumbnail will appear in your menu bar (it’ll even be the same colour as your device). Once clicked, you’ll be able to see tons of information on your gadget, from how much memory it has left, to a full user manual. There are already over 60 products with this coding on board, from cameras to MP3 players.
This is the sexiest Windows OS we’ve seen – it’s dispensed with the brash, pointless whizz-bangs of Vista and and replaced it with a suite of neat features – housed in a gorgeous UI – that work simply and much more intuitively than we're used to on a PC OS.
Playing music, home networking, talking to devices and everyday computing are all made easier and – gasp – more fun. If the full version of Windows 7 can deliver on the Beta promise, then Apple has a fight on its hands for the sexy OS title.