How does one review a supposedly new version of a product that they have, in reality, already been using for months? It's not easy, believe it or not: The Beta version of Windows 7 (build 7000) that Microsoft will later deliver to tech beta testers and then, in January, to the public, is nothing more than a very finely tweaked version of the various post-M3 (Milestone 3, or build 6801--see my lengthy overview of that build) builds I've been using since October. In fact, there is almost no difference at all between this version of Windows 7 and M3, assuming you've enabled all the hidden M3 features using Rafael Rivera's "Blue Badge" tool.

Now, that's not a complaint per se, though it does make my job as a reviewer a lot less interesting. Windows 7 simply isn't changing over time. And that says a lot about the state of Windows 7 development at this point in time. That is, Windows 7 is much further along now than was any other Windows version when it reached its first beta release. In fact, this build is much closer to a release candidate (RC) build than a beta from a quality standpoint. It is feature complete, it is reasonably stable, and it is highly compatible with the software and hardware I use on a regular basis. Yes, there are some weirdisms. And I'm curious to see whether the Beta "degrades" over time as did the last M3-era build I used day-to-day. (I've been running Windows 7 full-time since the M3 shipped.) But over the past few days, I've put the Windows 7 Beta through its paces. And I must say, wow: Windows 7 isn't your father's Longhorn.

Installing the Windows 7 Beta

First up on the list of things that hasn't changed in the Windows 7 Beta is the interactive Setup routine, which you typically launch by booting your PC with the Windows 7 Beta DVD. (Separate x86 and x64 versions are available but are identical from a usage standpoint.) In keeping with the design mantra of Windows 7, Setup is simpler and more streamlined than that of Windows Vista, which was itself a huge improvement over the Windows XP Setup rigmarole.

For example, to clean install (not upgrade) Windows Vista, you had to step through 8 screens worth of information before the OS began installing. With Windows 7, this number has been cut to 5. And in Vista, the post-Setup configuration phase required six screens of input, followed by an annoyingly lengthy performance test: In Windows 7, this number actually increases to 7 because of an optional homegroup setup screen. (In both Vista and Windows 7, you will face one additional post-Setup screen if you must connect to a wireless network.)

Windows 7 Beta
Windows 7 interactive Setup is very similar to that for Windows Vista.

Between fewer screens and some performance tweaks, the Windows 7 Beta installs more quickly than does Windows Vista, and that's particularly noticeable when you install the build in performance-challenged virtual machines. (Some of my colleagues only install new builds in virtual machines, so that should be a big help to some of these risk-averse people.) On a physical PC, Windows 7 generally installs in 20 minutes or less.

Windows 7 Beta
The few post-Setup tasks now include an optional HomeGroup configuration.

To see the Windows 7 Beta Setup experience in action, please refer to my two Interactive Setup screenshot galleries (one and two).

Using Windows 7 Beta

As noted previously, I've been running pre-Beta versions of Windows 7 day-to-day on virtually all of my PCs, and certainly on all of my regularly-used PCs, since October. The Windows 7 Beta does not differ from these several builds in any meaningful way, and if you've played around with build 6956 in particular--see my screenshot gallery--then you won't find any important differences. So while I'm cognizant that most of the world is still unfamiliar with Windows 7 at this point, I don't feel that it's hugely necessary to reiterate what I've already written about this OS. Instead, I simply ask that you review my multi-part Windows 7 Preview, which describes the M3 build. Here, I'll discuss what's changed since then.

Desktop enhancements

The most obvious changes, of course, are that the many desktop enhancements that Microsoft first revealed at PDC 2008 but did not fully include in the M3 build are now available. These include the controversial new taskbar, which allows you to confusingly comingle shortcuts for non-running applications and windows with those for running applications and windows. I've already written a lengthy and impassioned plea for Microsoft to reconsider this decision--please refer to my article, Windows 7: Simple vs. Easy, for details--but I'm now even more concerned about this feature than I was a month ago. For all the niceties of the new taskbar, this comingling of different functions is a whopper of a mistake, and one that will actively harm most Windows users.

Windows 7 Beta
Look, ma: Icons for running applications and non-running shortcuts, comingled in one place. Just like the Mac OS X Dock.

The problem is many-fold. There are now far too many places to launch applications and windows. If you feel that an application or window shortcut is important enough to "pin" to the taskbar --i.e., keep it there permanently--Microsoft actually removes that shortcut from the Start Menu's Most Recently Used (MRU) list: So even if that item is one of your most recently used shortcuts, it's now gone from the one place in the UI that's dedicated to such things. Also, taskbar shortcuts behave non-intuitively and exhibit unique behavior, especially with their Jump Lists, which are themselves non-intuitive. The whole thing is a mess. But it's a pretty mess, and to be fair to Microsoft, it's the single major shortcoming in Windows 7.

Aside from the taskbar and its Jump Lists, we also see a fully-functioning Aero Peek (see my Aero Peek Feature Focus) in the Beta: This feature lets you "peek" behind open windows and see the desktop, which could be useful, especially if you use any Windows 7 desktop gadgets (the successor to Vista's Sidebar gadgets). It's enabled by mousing-over a new glass panel that's locked to the lower left of the screen by default.

Windows 7 Beta
Aero Peek helps you "peek" under the floating windows to see what's on the desktop.

Jump Lists also make a very useful appearance in the Start Menu, so as you mouse-over items in the MRU (on the left), you'll see Jump Lists for appropriate items expand on the right. For example, the shortcut for Microsoft Word displays a list of recently accessed documents. And the shortcut for Windows Live Messenger provides a customized Jump List with Messenger-specific tasks.

Windows 7 Beta
Jump Lists work really well in the Start Menu.

Speaking of the Start Menu, this suddenly venerable bit of Windows UI has been modified a bit more since M3 with a new Shut Down button that replaces the previously confusing two buttons that occupied that area. Press the button and Windows will shut down. Or, click the arrow on the right and get a range of options in a weird little pop-up menu.

The Action Center has been tweaked a bit since M3 and gets a new flag icon, which is quite a bit nicer and more easily recognizable than the old lighthouse icon from M3. And Microsoft's efforts to simplify the tray notification area continue though, as with the usability issues that dog the new taskbar, I'm unsure if hiding things by default is the right approach.

Windows 7 Beta
Action Center replaces Windows Security Center and figures to be an important component of Windows 7.

The new Personalization options are really coming along in the Beta as well. Now there are several pre-built desktop themes, which include desktop backgrounds, window colors, sounds, and a screensaver. There are even pre-built themes that utilize the desktop slideshow feature to routinely display different desktop background images. You can, as always, mix and match your own.

Windows 7 Beta
Personalization is much simpler and more discoverable in Windows 7.

Continued...