Looking beyond the user interface, Microsoft has made a number of other changes to Windows 7 since the Beta release.

Digital media and device improvements

Despite calls for it to cede Windows' built-in digital media playback functionality to the Zune team, Microsoft has instead forged ahead with a new generation of Windows Media-based software, services, and device integration. The result is surprisingly high-quality, but then that just further complicates the matter of choosing between Windows Media and Zune.

Windows Media Player 12

Windows Media Player 12 has been further improved since the Beta, particularly the new Now Playing Mode (formerly called the Lightweight Player Mode), which is now much cleaner and more attractive looking.

Windows 7 release candidate
The Windows Media Player Now Playing Mode is simple and clean.

But the biggest change is a brand new feature called Remote Media Streaming (RMS), which takes the player's existing ability to play content to and from PCs and devices on your home network and extends it to the Internet. What you do is associate, or link, two or more Windows 7-based PCs with a Windows Live ID (or, in the future, other ID providers). Then, you can access content from those media libraries as long as both PCs are connected to the Internet, no matter where they are.

Windows 7 release candidate
Windows 7 lets you associate your PC with an Online ID for Internet-based, peer-to-peer media sharing.

Windows 7 release candidate
Once your Online ID is configured, Internet-based, peer-to-peer media sharing is just a click away.

Additionally, Windows Media Player now supports the QuickTime MOV movie format, which is popular with digital cameras. (This format was previously supported by Windows Live Photo Gallery as well, for the same reason.)

Finally, WMP adds the ability to resume playing hard drive-based digital media content where you were when you left off, when the PC comes out of sleep. In this way, it works with digital content in the same manner that it already works with DVD movies.

Device Stage

The Windows 7 Beta introduced the excellent new Device Stage interface, which is sort of an "AutoPlay on steroids" interface that surfaces all of the functionality of compatible, connected devices. That compatible bit was, of course, the problem: Back in the Beta timeframe, very few devices were Device Stage compatible.

In the release candidate, device makers can choose to support older devices with a new baselines Device Stage interface that provides basic functionality, including a standard Jump List. If the manufacturer ever creates a custom Device Stage interface for those devices, that interface will replace the basic version.

Windows 7 release candidate
Device Stage provides a handy front-end to compatible hardware devices.

And while I haven't seen this yet, the Windows 7 RC also provides a Device Stage interface for PCs (accessed by double-clicking the computer's icon in Devices and Printers). This feature is only available when explicitly supported by the PC maker, which probably explains its scarcity at this time.

Windows Touch improvements

I'm still waiting on a touch-compatible PC to arrive, so it will be a few weeks before I can speak intelligently about Windows Touch. However, Microsoft tells me that the Windows 7 RC adds a number of Windows Touch improvements, including Thumbnail Peek, Windows Explorer Zoom, Multi-Touch support in the Touch Keyboard, Press and Tap Right-Click, Drag and Drop and Select Items, Touch Gestures, and more. I will examine these features in a future Windows 7 Feature Focus article.

Performance changes

In the Windows 7 Beta, the notification area-based Power icon displayed two of the three available power plans (Balanced, the default; and Power saver, but not high performance) when clicked. Windows Vista, by comparison, displays all three. In the RC, the Power icon behavior has changed slightly so that the two most recently accessed plans display in the flyout window when clicked. So High performance can actually appear in the flyout window, even if it is not the currently-selected plan.

Windows 7 release candidate
Previously missing in action, the High performance power plan can now appear in this Power icon flyout window.

Security changes

When my Windows 7 Secrets co-author Rafael Rivera complained that changing or disabling User Account Control (UAC) in the Beta ironically did not require UAC elevation, and was thus a security risk, Microsoft responded. Now, the UAC control panel runs in a high integrity process, ensuring that any changes will require admin approval.

In the Windows 7 Beta and in previous versions of Windows, non-optical storage devices (like USB keys and hard drives) would trigger auto-run when plugged into the PC. The problem with this behavior, however, is that it could be used by malicious software to infect your PC. So in the Windows 7 RC, these types of storage devices instead trigger a simple AutoPlay dialog that offers only one option: Open folder to view files. This allows you to browse the device before launching any software installs manually.

Windows 7 release candidate
Non-optical devices pop-up a sparse AutoPlay dialog that no longer supports auto-run for security reasons.

Enterprise and business feature changes

Many readers will know that Rafael Rivera and I exclusively revealed the existence of this new Windows 7 feature last week. But here's the low-down: Windows XP Mode combines a next-generation version of Virtual PC with application publishing functionality and a full Windows XP virtual machine to provide businesses with a way to seamlessly run legacy Windows applications under XP side-by-side with applications running natively under Windows 7. Like Windows Live Essentials, XP Mode will not be included "in the box" with Windows 7. Instead, it will be provided as a free download for users of Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate.

Windows 7 release candidate
Compatibility problems begone: XP Mode allows users to run Windows XP applications side-by-side with native Windows 7 applications.

Early Windows 7 users were confused by the secret 200 MB reserved partition that the OS created at the front of the system disk, but we now know that this partition is created so that Windows can install its Recovery Environment and, optionally, BitLocker. In the Windows 7 RC, the size of this partition has been reduced significantly: It's now just 100 MB.

Windows 7 release candidate
Windows 7 creates a hidden partition for recovery tools and BitLocker.

Features that have been dropped since the Beta

Curiously, and in one case secretively, a number of Windows 7 features have actually been dropped since the Beta. Chief among these is Guest Mode, previously called PC Safeguard, which I fully documented in a Feature Focus article. (Oh well.) Other dropped features include Bluetooth audio class driver support, and drag and drop Library creation.

Continue to Part 4: Conclusions...