If you haven’t already heard, the Windows 7 Public Beta is has been released through the Microsoft website, and anybody that registers from now until January 24th will receive a temporary license key for the Beta 1 version. Today we’ll run through the features and what you should expect.

I’ve been using the beta for a couple of weeks, and yesterday I got my hands on the official Beta 1 release, which is good enough to use on a regular basis if it wasn’t for the hard cut-off date… yes, the beta release has an expiration date on August 1st 2009, after which it will stop working.

If you wanted to sum up Windows 7 in a few words: it’s Windows Vista with a few new features and almost all the annoyances and bugs removed… and a really shiny coat of paint. It’s impressive, so we’ll hop straight into the screenshots.

The Screenshot Tour

The default desktop for Windows 7 is clean and simple, and like almost everything in this release, is really quite impressive.

Windows 7 Desktop

The first thing that you can’t miss is the new taskbar, which uses large icons instead of taskbar buttons and integrates Quick Launch functionality at the same time. You’ll notice in this screenshot that the Windows Media Player icon isn’t “active”, because I don’t have an instance open…  but it’s been Pinned to the taskbar.

Windows 7 Taskbar Previews

The popup preview thumbnails have been enhanced to show multiple windows side by side, which is much more useful than the Vista way, especially since Windows 7 combines windows by default: even if you have only two windows open, they will be combined into a single taskbar button.

When hovering over one of the previews, Windows 7 will automatically flip to that window so you can see in a larger view which window it is. Very useful for Word documents, I think.

Windows 7 Hover Previews

The new taskbar buttons also have a new right-click menu, which gives you access to special folders or recent documents. There’s a new API that allows applications to add items to this list, so expect in the future for this to become a big deal.

Windows 7 Jump List

If you don’t like the taskbar functionality, you can revert back to the Windows Vista method by opening up Taskbar and Start Menu Properties (right click \ Properties). The “Taskbar buttons” setting will let you turn off the single icon mode, and you can choose “Use small icons” to turn off the big icons.

Windows 7 Taskbar Properties

The next thing you might notice is that there is no longer a “Sidebar” for the Gadgets… you’ll have to right-click on the desktop and choose Gadgets to add more, which can be dragged to the desktop anywhere you’d like. You’ll also notice you can get quick access to your resolution from here.

Windows 7 Desktop Context Menu

If you want to dock the gadgets to the side like you used to, you still can: If you drag the desktops to the side of the screen, they will dock there:

Windows 7 Sidebar

The Start Menu is roughly the same as before, although you’ll notice the Shut Down button is much simpler, and can be configured to a different action right in the Taskbar and Start menu properties screen.

Windows 7 Start Menu

You’ll notice the arrow next to Getting Started… whenever you see an arrow on a pinned item, you can hover over it to see a list of tasks on the right-hand side, with a rather fun “slide out” effect that I can’t really show in a screenshot.

In fact, it’s tough to show off the real “slickness” of the UI in these screenshots… you have to try it for yourself to understand: things are just smooth.

Windows 7 Start Menu Tasks

When you search, the taskbar “morphs” into a full-size search screen – a huge improvement from Vista, and the search results are pretty good, although still not perfect.

Windows 7 Start Menu Search

Another really slick new feature lets you maximize or tile windows by dragging them to one of the sides of the screen… for instance, you drag the current window to the left side of the screen and you’ll see a glass window effect…

Windows 7 Tile Window Left

And once you let go of the mouse, the window will take up exactly half of the screen. Very useful for tiling windows.

Windows 7 Tiled Left Window

This also works for maximizing by dragging to the top of the screen… letting go of the mouse at this point would maximize the current window:

Windows 7 Maximize Window

This also works if you drag a window corner to one of the edges of the screen, Windows 7 will let you make the window fill the whole space from top to bottom.

Windows 7 Window Docking to Screen

You might have noticed a little unused area on the taskbar right next to the clock… this is the new “Show Desktop” icon, with an added twist: if you hover your mouse over it, it will turn all of the open windows to glass, letting you see what is beneath. This would maybe be useful if you have desktop gadgets on the screen, or just want to see your wallpaper.

Windows 7 Aero Peek

The system tray is also changed, with all extra icons being hidden behind a little arrow. You’ll also note that the current date is shown on the screen now, since the taskbar is taller.

Windows 7 Safely Remove

One of the default items is important: the Action Center icon now consolidates all of the Windows Security error or notification messages into a single icon…

And even better, you get to choose which errors you want to hear about, and which ones you don’t. HUGE improvement over Vista.

Windows 7 Device Driver Game Port Balloon

By clicking on the wrench icon you can choose which notifications appear on the taskbar:

You can also change which security messages show up:

Windows 7 Action Center Messages on or off

The Action Center is your new “hub” to review all of the messages and notifications… more on that in a future article, but one of the biggest changes in Windows 7 is hidden behind it… click on the User Account Control settings:

Windows 7 Action Center

And you’ll see a new “Slider”, which lets you change the amount of UAC notifications, and by default UAC is nearly disabled for users with administrative rights. The only time you will see UAC messages is during a new application install.

Windows 7 UAC Slider

Continuing through the Control Panel, there is a completely new panel for customizing your desktop using themes, with easy access to all the relevant settings from a single window.

Windows 7 Theme Chooser

Many of the windows that used to be separate dialogs are now integrated directly into the regular Control Panel, like this one for changing your display appearance:

Windows 7 Display Properties

A smaller thing to note… the Windows Experience score maximum has been increased to 7.9 instead of 5.9 in Vista.

Windows 7 Experience Score

One important thing to note is that when you go to your user folder, you will see a bunch of “Libraries”, which are essentially search folders banded together so you can find all your pictures, documents, or music in a single place. This feature is quite useful, but is going to take some time to get used to.

Windows 7 Libraries

You’ll notice in the screenshot above there’s a new “Homegroup” item in the list, and yes, they’ve completely revamped network sharing in Windows 7 with a much simpler interface that we’ll cover in future articles.

Other Features

There’s a whole bunch of other features in Windows 7 that we don’t really have time to cover today…

  • New Calculator.
  • Internet Explorer 8 is integrated by default.
  • XPS Viewer integrated.
  • New versions of Paint and Wordpad with the “Ribbon” interface.
  • Revamped Windows Backup.
  • New “Home Groups” for sharing files and folders.
  • New, easier Wireless connections tray icon.
  • Media Center is Updated with new features.
  • Faster bootup and installation times.
  • Other stuff.

The other thing to note is that Windows Mail, Calendar, Photo Gallery, Movie Maker and Contacts have been removed from Windows 7 and are now part of the downloadable Windows Live Essentials.

Installing Windows 7

I realize it’s illogical, but now we’ll skip to installing it (the other screenshots were more interesting). The startup installation screen is pretty familiar looking…

Windows 7 Install Screen

Should I Install Windows 7?

If you don’t mind the fact that it will stop working on August 1st, Windows 7 beta 1 is very stable and usable.

Do I Need a License?

Windows 7 works just like Windows Vista did… you can install it and run it in “Trial mode” for 30 days. Yes, this does mean that you can borrow the disc from a friend, or download it “illegally” and use it, at least for a trial period. (I’m not advocating piracy here).

It’s Only a Download?

That’s right, you will need to download the ISO image file and then burn it to a DVD in order to do an installation… I recommend ImgBurn.

What About Drivers?

Windows 7 uses the exact same drivers as Windows Vista, and by this point the majority of devices have drivers. You most likely won’t even need to install drivers, since Windows 7 has a lot more drivers included by default.

Important Installation Notes

When you get to the screen which recommends upgrading vs custom installation, I would recommend installing a new installation into a completely blank partition. If you want to test it on the same machine as Vista, you should dual-boot. I would recommend against using the upgrade feature unless you are very brave (also note that it only supports upgrading from Vista SP1)

If you don’t have a second hard drive or partition already, you can use the Shrink Volume feature in Vista to resize your current partition. If that doesn’t work, you can work around Vista’s shrink volume problems as well. If none of that works, you can use GParted to resize the partition.

Windows 7 Install Choose Type

Once it installs (which doesn’t take that long), you’ll be prompted for a computer name and user name:

Windows 7 Choose Account

You’ll be prompted for what your default homegroup settings are (personally I’d probably turn most of them off, but I’m security-conscious). Make sure to write down this homegroup password and save it somewhere!

Windows 7 Homegroup Setup

From this point you will be able to get to your desktop, and start actually using Windows 7.

Windows 7 Bug

There is a known bug in Windows 7 that will potentially damage some mp3 files if you load them into Windows Media Player. You’ll want to make sure to install this patch, or turn on automatic updates once you have Windows 7 installed… it should update automatically.

For more information and the download links check out this ArsTechnica post.

What Should We Cover?

One of my recent articles asked what exactly we should cover in 2009, and Windows 7 is definitely going to be on that list. The question is: What do YOU want to see about Windows 7? What is the most important topic when it comes to learning a new operating system?

Leave your thoughts in the comments, and we’ll try our best to cover that topic in a future article. (If you are reading through RSS or Email click here to leave a comment)

Profile Photo for Lowell Heddings Lowell Heddings
Lowell is the founder and CEO of How-To Geek. He’s been running the show since creating the site back in 2006. Over the last decade, Lowell has personally written more than 1000 articles which have been viewed by over 250 million people. Prior to starting How-To Geek, Lowell spent 15 years working in IT doing consulting, cybersecurity, database management, and programming work.
Read Full Bio »