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Windows 7

10 reasons you’ll love Windows 7, part three: Aero Snap Gives You Window Control

Aero SnapThere are a lot of subtle functions and effects built into Windows 7 that may seem either rudimentary or pointless at first glance but end up being very useful when you realize what they can do. Of these the new window control tool called Aero Snap is a much needed and hugely effective addition.

Snap your windows to any location

We’ve all run into this problem: When working with multiple documents, multiple file folders or using a web browser to research content while writing a document, doing image editing or programming a web site we keep having to switch between different windows. And if there’s a lot of switching back and forth or you have a lot of windows open at the same time this can get quite tedious. To aleviate this issue many end up trying to resize the windows so that each fit half the screen. In extreme cases (like myself), they buy a second monitor so they can place one folder or application on each screen. But even so you are still left with the annoying task of resizing your windows and drag them around.

That’s now a thing of the past. Windows 7 has an intelligent “window snapping” feature built in that does the brunt of this work for you.There are five main positions for this snapping feature:

  • Grabbing the top bar of any window (even when it is maximized) you can drag it in “hovering window” size to any place on your desktop. This pretty much eliminates the need for the Restore Down button in the upper right-hand corner.
  • Grabbing the top bar and moving the window to the extreme left of the screen automatically snaps the window to the left so it covers exactly half of the screen widthwise.
  • Likewise moving the window to the right makes it snap to the right and cover the right half of the screen.
  • Dragging the top bar to the extreme top of the desktop automatically maximizes the window to full screen mode.
  • Grabbing the top bar of any window and shaking the mouse pointer back and forth a couple of times automatically minimizes all the other windows on the desktop leaving only the shaken one.

Control your windows with the arrow keys

The above snapping actions are all cool, but the mouse movements are just the beginning. A far more important innovation is that you can also control the same window snapping functions using the Windows key in combination with the arrow keys:

  • Windows key + Up maximizes the current window.
  • Windows key + Down sets the window to “float” or Restore Down mode. Hitting Windows key + Down while in a window that is already floating minimizes it to the taskbar.
  • Windows key + Left snaps the window to the left half of the screen
  • Windows key + Right snaps the window to the right half of the screen

Practical useage

I’m sure you, like me when I first heard about this, are thinking “Ok, so what’s the big deal? It’s not like I’m ever going to use this feature!” Trust me, you will. The power of this feature (and especially the key combinations) became obvious to me when I was doing the rewrite for my upcoming book Sams Teach Yourself Expression Web 3 in 24 Hours. A huge part of the rewrite consisted of opening two Word documents and cross-referencing them and opening two file folders and moving files back and forth between them. Since I do all my writing on my laptop I didn’t have the benefit of two monitors so I ended up having to fit two instances of Word or two opens folder on the same screen. This process now takes about 1 second and requires no fine motor skills or mouse work. Simply use the Alt+Tab combination to pick the appropriate window and hit Windows key + Left or Right depending on what location you want the window to be in. So when I was working with two Word documents side by side switching between single full-screen document view and dual document view became a matter of 3 or 4 keystrokes rather than Restore Down, resize with mouse, move around, switch back and forth etc etc.

It seems like a small thing but holy crap does it ever make my life (and yours) easier!

Bonus: Desktop Peek!

Desktop PeekOne of the things that really annoyed me about Windows Vista was all the Sidebar Gadgets. That is to say the gadgets themselves didn’t annoy me but the sidebar did. The whole point of having these gadgets available was, in my mind, to be able to access them and see them when I needed to without having to do a lot of moving around and closing windows etc. But the sidebar was a total pain and always got in the way so I ended up just turning the damned thing off completely. In Windows 7 the Gadgets are released from the sidebar and can be placed wherever you want them. But that still leaves the problem of how to see them quickly (not to mention all the other crap I store on your desktop). Well, there’s a really clever solution to this too: At the extreme right hand side of the taskbar there is a small rectangular box. If you hover your mouse over it all your open windows automatically become transparent and you can peek at your desktop. Clicking the rectangle minimizes all your windows so you have access to the desktop. Likewise clicking it again restores all the windows to where they were in the order they were stacked. Couldn’t be any easier.

You can read a very long and detailed explanation of how this all came about in the article Designing Aero Snap in the Engineering Windows 7 blog.

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Windows 7

10 reasons you’ll love Windows 7, part two: The Taskbar

The Windows taskbar was introduced with Windows 95 and has functioned as a launching application as well as a place to store and access minimized or hidden windows. But through all it’s following iterations it never really changed. Meanwhile other OS developers were introducing fancy new features like application docking and taskbar customization and Windows users started looking to 3rd party applications like Rocketdock to get the features they wanted.

Windows 7 shows a complete reinventing of the Windows task bar. More than a launch platform it is now a full fledged object dock with tons of added functionality and it is fully customizable. I could write a whole article just on the new taskbar, but here I’m just going to give you some highlights:

Object dock

TaskbarThe most useful new feature of the taskbar is that you can now drag and drop any item, whether a shortcut, a folder or even a file, onto it for easy access. And whereas in the older versions the quicklaunch icons were separated from the actual running app icons, they are now one and the same. In practical terms this means when you launch an application already docked on the taskbar it gets highligted rather than duplicated. And if yo launch several windows (or in the case of most browsers several tabs) they stack one behind the other to give you access to all of them at the same time. The same goes for file folders and documents. Additionally you can move and reorganize any and all items on the taskbar in any way you want even when they are open.

Aero Peek

Aero PeekIf you have multiple windows or folders open at the same time it can be tricky to remember which one contains which item. To abolish this problem the taskbar has a new feature called Peek. Like the name suggests it gives you a peek of the opened content when you hover over the different active icons providing a preview and full access to all the options without actually having to open them.

Peek manifests itself like a bigger taskbar with preview images of each of the open windows, tabs, files or folders and when you hover your mouse over each of them, the full window gets switched to the object in question giving you a quick preview. When I’m writing I usually have multiple browser tabs, three or four folders and at least two or three Word documents open at the same time and this feature makes it infinitely easier for me to find what I’m looking for rather than having to Alt+Tab my way through all the opened elements.

Enhanced functionality

Enhanced functionalityIn addition to simply launching and previewing open applications, the taskbar gives you enhanced and program-specific functionality at the click of the right mouse button. This activates a pop-up menu which, depending on the icon in question, gives you a list of everything from bookmarked or pinned pages to recently viewed documents and frequently accessed folders. And for each of the pinned applications you can pin sub-elements directly to the taskbar for instant access. In practical terms it functions like a favourites list for all your applications allowing you to pin important or useful documents, graphics, web sites, folders, videos, projects, whatevers directly to the taskbar for instant access.

See only what you want to see

One of my pet peeves with the taskbar in XP and Vista was the section that is supposed to give you information about running background applications such as virus scanners, wireless status, audio, video etc. My big problem with this feature was that everything and it’s seccond cousin twice removed wanted to get top billing in the bar and as a result I had this insanely annoying accordion thing going on where I needed to hit a button to make all the icons appear and then quickly navigate to the right one to make my change.

Taskbar itemsNo more! The new Windows 7 task bar lets you decide exactly what icons to display and what icons to ignore. And you are provided with two levels of access: The icons on the taskbar itself and the icons in a pop-up menu that can be accessed from a button. With these two features you can hand pick what application icons you want to see and which ones you don’t care about. And as with the other applications you can reorganize the icons in any way you want giving you full control over your workspace.

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Windows 7

10 reasons you’ll love Windows 7, part one: It just works!

I’ve been using Windows 7, first in Beta and now in Release Candidate, since early March or so. And I am thorroughly impressed. I was never a Vista hater – and I think most Vista haters either never actually tried Vista or refused to accept that Vista and XP were not the same thing – but there were still a lot of things I didn’t like about the operating system. With Windows 7 on the other hand, I really don’t have any complaints at all and I can honestly say that when the masses get their hands on this operating system they will fall in love with it. Not because it’s shiny and new, not because it doesn’t crash (although Vista really doesn’t crash either, but that’s not what I’m talking about here) but because it makes life easier for the user.

So in the coming week I will publish ten articles outlining ten Windows 7 features that will make you fall in love with the application (and quite possibly reconsider your “Mac is better” stance):

1. It Just Works – Right Out of the Box!

The first thing that astounded me with Windows 7 is that it works properly out of the box. That may sound weird but if you’ve even tried to reinstall a Microsoft operating system on a computer, be it a branded unit, a custom built machine or a laptop, you know that the OS install is just step one of several. In the old days, simply installing the operating system would give you a computer with terrible screen resolution, no networking and generally sub-par performance. To get things running properly you needed to search for and install numerous drivers including screen drivers, motherboard drivers, networking drivers, audio drivers etc etc. All of this took time, effort and a lot of patience – three things people normally don’t have.

To try to curb this problem many PC manufacturers ship their computers with custom OS installs that revert the system back to store shelf operation. The problem with this is that the manufacturers have started selling space on these reset systems and filling that space with bloatware and garbage you don’t want and don’t need. And when you revert your system to shelf operation it means reinstalling all the trash – an operation that ruins performance and clutters your PC. All in all it’s a crap chute.

No more: Windows 7, out of the box with zero custom drivers and no setup, works properly on most if not all modern computers. Case in point: I just installed Windows 7 RC on my wife’s aging Toshiba Satellite M100. It took 15 minutes in total and once the OS was installed, everything except the audio and the scrolling function on the mouse pad worked perfectly (and in the Windows 7 team’s defense, there is a known problem with the M100 audio because the drivers from the audio manufacturer don’t work properly). I had wireless networking, full functionality including custom Fn keys, optimal screen resolution and performance and even card reader functionality. When I installed Vista Ultimate on the same computer a week earlier I had to download and install 12 drivers to get the same functionality.

The same can be said for my Sony Vaio SR140D only this time no drivers were needed to get the computer up to fully working status.

Why does it work so well now? With the release of Windows Vista, Microsoft ran into an unexpected problem: The 3rd party component manufacturers were unbelievably slow in rolling out drivers for the new OS and as a result users were stuck with computers that didn’t work properly. And even though the driver problems sorted themselves out over the first 6 months of Vista’s life, the damage was done and people wrongfully blamed Vista (and Microsoft) for the problems. The Windows 7 team took the experiences from the Vista launch to heart and devised a novel yet ingenious solution: Invite all the hardware manufacturers to work with the development team on the Microsoft campus to create generic drivers for all their hardware, and place those generic drivers either in the install itself or in an open repository for easy access.

As a result when you install Windows 7 on a computer with hardware from a known manufacturer, the installation disk more than likely already has a fully functional generic driver for that hardware that works to spec making the search for specialized drivers pretty much pointless.

But does it crash?

Much has been made of the Windows platform’s uncanny ability to crash at the most inopportune of times. But truth be told this really isn’t as big an issue as it is made out to be. In my experience (and for the record, I currently have 7 computers running in my house) computers crash for two reasons: Either you make them do something they really shouldn’t be doing or something inside the computer goes bump in the night. System crashes caused by “crappy” operating systems are incredibly rare and just as likely to happen on a Mac or a Linux based computer as a PC.

That said I have managed to crash Windows 7 RC once while trying to run a corrput .avi file in Windows Media Centre, Windows Media Player and VLC at the same time. Not surprisingly when all three applications encountered the same bad part of the clip at the same time things went horribly wrong and the famous blue screen of death appeared.

My point is this: If your Windows 7 computer is functioning properly hardware wise and you’re not trying to bring it to its knees, it won’t crash. Period.

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Windows 7

Windows 7 Beta Report Part 1: Bugs

Windows 7I had Windows 7 installed on my trusted Vaio SR140D laptop a couple of weekends ago and have been running it on a near constant basis since. Now after 3 weeks or so I have compiled a list of bugs and bonuses that should be helpful to the development team as well as users who are curious about this new operating system.

Overall I have to say Windows 7 has been a revelation (of the good kind that is). People say that Microsoft get things right every second release of something major, and since Windows 7 can be said to be a second coming of Vista the saying rings true. Windows 7 sees vast improvements in everything from usability to functionality to performance and puts a final nail in the coffin of most of the negatives the naysayers and Mac fanatics have been riding so hard on for the last two years.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Because I know you came for the trash talk I’m going to start with the bugs, ‘cus there are some nasty ones. My Windows 7 Bonuses article with the many reasons why Windows 7 is the best OS I have ever worked with will be up some time next week.

System Fatal Program Crashes

Yes, you read that right; system fatal program crashes. In the first week alone my computer crashed upwards of 40 times from this error. Bizarrely that number has gone down to almost zero in this last week but still, there is something horribly wrong going on here.

Although I can’t reproduce the problem at will, it is obviously related to files being written to drives, both internal and external: When saving one or multiple files from different applications, one or more of the applications will freeze, display “Not Responding” in the window header and a fade effect is applied. There is no way of turning the program off when this happens; even opening Task Manager, selecting the process and hitting Delete does not kill the application and you are left with a dead program locking up your computer. This problem is cascading so once it has occurred and you attempt to save another file from a different program, that one will also stall and so on.

But the problem doesn’t end there: Because Windows 7 is unable to terminate the application even from Task Manager, it is impossible to shut down or restart the operating system by normal means. When you try to shut it down, the Open Applications window will appear listing the stalled applications with and you are asked if you want to shut them down. But no matter what you try, the applications just won’t shut down and the computer is left in an infinite loop. At the end the only way of resolving the issue is to do a manual restart by holding down the power button for 8 seconds.

And now for the really bizarre part: As I said, this problem appears when you try to save a file. The application stalls almost immediately after the saving process has started so one would think the file was never saved, right? Wrong! For some inexplicable reason, once the computer has been restarted you will find the file that caused all the problems to begin with in the location where you saved it. And it works the way it is supposed to.

At first I thought that the problem was caused by some sort of drive writing conflict but that theory was shelved when I discovered that the files were actually written properly. My new hypotheses is that the problem is a broken communication between Windows 7 and the applications as to the writing process itself; a checksum error or something along those lines. That still wouldn’t explain why the applications stall so completely nor why Windows 7 is incapable of shutting them down, but it is a start.

The system fatal program crash has been triggered by both Windows 7 native and 3rd party applications including these ones: Windows 7 native zip extractor, IE 8, FireFox, Expression Web 2, PhotoShop CS2, Illustrator CS2, Notepad, Notepad ++, Opera and FileZilla. In the case of the zip extractor the crash occurred multiple times when I tried to drag-and-drop files out of an archive and onto my desktop. As for the browsers the crash occurred when I tried to save files from the web.

Caveats

Note that the system fatal program crash only happens during write-to-disk operations. I have managed to crash several programs for other reasons but in all the other cases the program has either shut down properly on its own or been possible to shut down through the Task Manager. Also note that I have been unable to find any similar references to this specific problem anywhere else on the web. However I highly doubt the problem is caused by my computer itself – I installed Windows 7 on an empty hard drive and the computer is only or 5 months old and running perfectly – and there is no possible way I’m the only one experiencing it. And even if I was, there is a good chance someone else will run into it further down the line and since none of the conventional shut down techniques work once it rears its ugly head I foresee true panic unfolding among the Windows 7 using masses.

First Start Program Incompatibilities

The second major problem I’ve run into is a transient one: Upon first installation a lot of programs do not run properly. I’ve installed a huge pile of applications under Windows 7 and for the most part (often surprisingly) they work without a hitch. But in some cases things go badly wrong until I reboot the computer. The most recent example is when I installed Camtasia from TechSmith yesterday. Upon installation the application seems to run fine, but when I stopped my screen recording and tried to start it again, the actual recorder portion of the program stalled. A warning windows opened asking if the application terminated properly and when I said no, the recorder shut down wihtout shutting down Camtasia in the process. I am guessing this is because Camtasia actually runs several different sub-programs and the crash only occurred in the recorder sub-program. Anyway, the recorder shut down and I had to restart it. After experiencing the exact same problem 5 times in a row I restarted the computer and after that everything worked perfectly.

This problem also happened when I installed PhotoShop and Illustrator CS2, FileZilla and some other applications. The problem seems to be rooted in registry rewrites or some other element that runs in the “bottom” of the operating system and needs to be restarted to be reset. Because it is transient and is easily resolved by restarting the computer it is not a major problem like the one listed above but it is still hugely annoying.

A solution?

If I’m right (and I think I am) the problem is caused by a registry rewrite or something similar that unlike Vista, Windows 7 requires a restart to apply. If that’s the case it shouldn’t be too hard to create some form of conditional operation within Windows 7 that tracks such changes and suggests that the user restarts the computer for the newly installed program to run properly.

Compatibility Mode Annoyances

As I mentioned before I am running PhotoShop and Illustrator CS2 on this computer (dont’ ask why – long story). If you’ve played with these programs under Vista you probably know that there are some crazy and annoying compatibility issues (though they are nothing like the ones in Premiere Pro CS2 which pretty much becomes nonfunctional under Vista). Fortunately the wise minds at Microsoft foresaw this problem and created something called Compatibility Mode where you can set applications to run as if they were running under older operating systems like Windows XP SP1, SP2 or even older ones like Windows 98 or 95. And this worked great. In Vista.

Annoying User Account ControlIn Windows 7 on the other hand things get a bit annoying. Because of the Vista problems with CS2, I set PhotoShop and Illustrator to run in Compatibility Mode for XP. But when I did, Windows 7 started treating the applications as unwanted bastard step children. First off, the otherwise wonderful icons displayed in the Start menu and the new and vastely improved task par are branded with an ugly User Account Control sheild warning you that something is very wrong. Seccondly, when you open the application, a User Account Control warning appears saying that an application from an unknown publisher is trying to run on your computer and asks if you still want it to run. This is totally rediculous because if you run the same program under either Vista Compatibility Mode or without Compatibility Mode, that warning doesn’t appear. Finally, in XP Compatibility Mode the splash screen at startup is totally mangled and ends up looking like some poorly hacked knock off. This of course is purely aesthetic but it still bugs me.

Yes, I know you can turn User Account Control off etc etc but the majority of user won’t do that. And even if you did, it still wouldn’t explain why the application while running under Compatibility Mode all of a sudden becomes a potentially malicious piece of software from an unknown publisher. That’s just plain rubbish and it should be fixed.

Crazy Window Dither Effect

Window Dither EffectThis last bug is one that occurred twice, but I have not been able to reproduce it since then. It is hard to describe but the screen grab above pretty much says it all: The top and bottom bars of the windows are dithered and screwed up by horizontal lines that spill out to the sides. The effect is distracting and makes it hard to work with the windows but had no actual effects on the window functionality. Click here or on the image to see the full screen grab with multiple busted windows.

This dither effect appeared during the installation of Adobe Reader and also appeared after the reboot I did to get rid of it (which is when I took the screengrab). For a while I thought this was some sort of permanent screen driver glitch but after another reboot everything was back to normal. Very weird.

That really is all there is to it. Apart from the bugs listed above, all of which should must be fixed before the final release of the new operating system, Windows 7 is running flawlessly on my laptop and I am so content with it I am considering wiping the Vista partition on the machine to free up more space for fun stuff work.