Moving past the desktop, the next obvious interfaces to examine are Explorer, the Windows 7 shell, and networking, the component that connects Windows 7 PCs to each other on a home network and to the world via the Internet.
Microsoft has been tweaking and generally mucking around with Windows Explorer since the first version appeared in Windows 95, combining the previously separate File Manager and Program Manager interfaces. Windows 7 is no different in this regard, and the version of Explorer found in this Windows version is as different from the one in Vista as that one was to the version in XP. This is both good and bad: If you've spent time customizing the Explorer Favorite Links panel in Vista, well, sorry, it's gone in Windows 7. On the other hand, the Explorer version in Windows 7 is generally much better than the one found in Vista. Whether it corrects core problems with Explorer--like the gradual descent into dementia that makes it forget window customizations--remains to be seen.
From a UI perspective, the Windows 7 Explorer is streamlined compared to the version in Vista. Gone are the color-coded toolbars (teal for namespace locations, blue for applications, black for digital media apps, and so on), replaced now by a pale blue toolbar with almost no icons. The Favorites List pane on the left is gone, too, and replaced by a new Navigation pane that seems to have been inspired by the Windows Media Player 11 navigational pane. The Details pane remains but is smaller and less obtrusive by default. Overall, the new layout is less cluttered and more readily useable. (Again, unless you've devoted time to getting used to the changes Vista brought.)
Aside from the new blue color and some organizational changes, the Windows 7 Explorer toolbar is largely similar to its predecessor. The Navigation pane, however, is quite different, and it combines the Favorites list and Folders pane from Vista's Explorer with some new 7-specific features. There are five areas in the new Navigation page, from top to bottom: Favorites, Libraries, Homegroup, Computer, and Network.
Favorites is analogous to the Favorite Links list from Vista, but it's been pared down greatly to just two default choices, Desktop and Recent Places. (You can, of course, add more of your own as with Vista.) Libraries is brand new to Windows 7, but we'll discuss that separately in just a moment. Homegroup, too, is new to Windows 7, and I'll look at that in the Networking features section below. Computer and Network should be fairly obvious, but they also provide a collapsible and expandable tree view that works much like the Folders pane from Vista.
Before jumping into the new Libraries feature, I should also call out some of the nice new visualizations that are available in Windows 7. There's a new Explorer view style called Content, for example, that appears to be a weird combination of Details and Tiles view, with one icon per line.
Thanks to the new Preview pane in the toolbar, it's much easier to toggle previews. (It used to be buried in the Organize menu.) And the stacks view, which previously looked like stacks of glass, now offers nice-looking file previews, making it more useful and useable, especially for rich media like photos.
I assume most readers are at least passingly familiar with Microsoft's abortive plans to include a new storage engine called WinFS in Windows Vista. The idea, dating back to the early 2000s, was that Windows would include a relational database-based storage engine on top of the NTFS file system. This engine would enable nearly-instant file searches and result in a new Explorer navigational scheme that abstracted hard-coded file system locations, like the C: drive and specific folders, into virtual folders that would aggregate their "contents" from multiple locations on the PC and, eventually, the local network.
WinFS sounded like a great idea to me, but it was technically complex and Microsoft originally axed it from the product. The virtual folder-based navigational scheme was also unceremoniously removed from Vista, because beta testers thought it was confusing. So while Vista does include the virtual folder subsystem, it's not a major, visible part of the system at all.
In Windows 7, this feature is making a major comeback, and my guess is that it will remain in the final product no matter how confusing it is to Microsoft's increasingly irrelevant beta testers. This time around, it's called Libraries, and like its WinFS-based predecessor, it's a scheme to abstract the file system and replace it with virtual locations that aggregate data from various system locations. Stupidly, this change has caused Microsoft to rename its special shell folders yet again, so the My Documents folder that was renamed to Documents in Vista has been renamed yet again in Windows 7, this time to Personal Documents. (The other special shell folders have similar new names.) Documents still exists in Windows 7. But now it's a virtual folder, or what Microsoft calls a Library.
A Library is a virtual folder, or the result set of an indexed query that displays like a folder in Windows Explorer. There are a number of built-in Libraries in Windows 7, such as Documents, Downloads, Music, Pictures, and Videos, and of course you can create your own as well. Documents draws its contents from two locations by default, Personal Documents and Public Documents, and the other Libraries work similarly. Using a new sub-toolbar in each Library window, you can see which locations are used to construct the current view. And you can arrange the view in interesting ways. The default Folder view works very similarly to traditional Explorer views, as do a few other view styles.
But you can also view by Library locations if you'd like. When you do so, the view changes in interesting ways. For example, in the Pictures library, you can arrange by Month to see photos in nice stack views. Other arrangements provide non-stack-based sorting.
Obviously, the point of Libraries to give users quicker and more obvious access to files that may be scattered all over their PC and, via networking, other PCs in their home network. And sure enough, it does just that. But there is a weird disconnect in a virtualized world like this. If you copy a file to the Documents "folder" for example, where does it really go? It turns out that it will be copied to the Personal Documents folder, which is logical enough. But it still remains to be seen whether this virtualized system confuses the masses.
Windows has supported networking basically forever and while each version of the past several years has sought to simplify things while addressing new technologies as they've appeared, networking remains a difficult and sensitive topic for users. Part of the problem is security: By nature, a connected PC is far more vulnerable than a disconnected one. So here we are in Windows 7. And they're trying again.
Network and Sharing Center revisited
The Network and Sharing Center in Windows Vista has been criticized because of its obtuse UI and the way it hides previously-accessible options under layers of dialogs. Well, Network and Sharing Center is back in Windows 7 and it's been improved a bit. More important, perhaps, the most visible networking features--such as those you use to connect to wireless networks--have been improved dramatically.
The big change in Network and Sharing Center is that the Sharing and Discovery stuff has been stripped out and replaced by a separate HomeGroup feature, which is described below. The resulting UI is simpler, yes. But it still hides things like adapter settings, a la Vista.
Windows 7 includes a new View Available Networks (VAN) interface that appears as a Jump List-like window above the network tray icon. You can access this interface via the Connect to a network link in Network and Sharing Center or by just clicking the network tray icon.
What makes this interface superior to the similar pop-up in Vista is that it's interactive. When you select a new wireless network from the list, for example, you're given a Connect button right there, in-line in the window. And if that wireless network requires you to logon via a Web page, as many hot spots do, you'll even see a pop-up telling you to do so. Nice.
In Windows Vista you can pretty easily share folders and printers, and, via Windows Media Player and Windows Media Connect, digital media files like photos, videos, and music. The problem is, Vista's solutions are still somewhat complex. If you want to share files, for example, you have to choose between two different interfaces (one that's like XP, and one that's new to Vista). And of course printer and media sharing are both completely separate experiences as well.
Microsoft toyed with something called Castle-based networking during the development of Windows Vista, but as was so often the case with that oft-delayed system, it was dropped from the product along with a bunch of other concepts from the original Longhorn vision. But with Windows 7 seeking to make everyday tasks faster and easier, Microsoft is at it again. And what they've come up with is now called HomeGroup.
HomeGroup is a consumer-oriented technology for network based sharing. It doesn't replace the peer-to-peer workgroup computing model, and it's not a pseudo-domain like Castle would have provided. Instead, HomeGroup is all about sharing and it provides three basic functions: It lets Windows 7 PCs identify and connect to each other on a home network. It lets you decide exactly which computer resources you want to share and, optionally, with whom. And it allows you to see and access the resources that are shared by other PCs in your HomeGroup.
Thanks to the new Libraries scheme in Windows 7, much of what you're sharing is, of course, libraries of content. And that's a convenient way to think of things that are essentially files, like Word documents, digital music, and the like, especially when such files are often located in different locations, all around your hard drive.
HomeGroup is configured from the new and improved Network and Sharing Center. You have to be connected to a network whose location type has been configured as "Home," of course, and Microsoft provides a very simple UI for sharing pictures, music, videos, documents, and printers.
It then provides a password so that you can configure other computers to join the HomeGroup. That's right, it's password protected by default.
Once the HomeGroup is created, you can access a slightly different UI that lets you control sharing in a more fine-grained way. (And if you add your own custom libraries later, they'll be added to this interface so you can share them as well.) From here, you can choose to share media (pictures, music, video files) with all non-PC, DLNA- and Windows Connect Now (WCN)-enabled devices on your home network (things like digital media receivers).
You can also access an Advanced Sharing Settings interface, from which you can configure related (and mostly legacy) network sharing settings such as network discovery, file sharing, public file sharing, and password protected sharing. You can also change the HomeGroup password (which you will probably want to do) and leave the HomeGroup.
Networking and power management
As the world moves to more mobile computing devices, Windows has had to adapt to the changing needs of such machines, which must provide advanced power management functionality and become available as quickly as possible when resuming from sleep states. Windows 7 is designed to wake up and boot up as quickly as possible. More important, perhaps, there shouldn't be a wait before essential services like wireless networking become available. So Windows 7 comes out of Standby mode in seconds--it's literally one second on the test laptop I'm using--and the wireless network is available immediately. (Take that, Mac: In Mac OS X, resume is almost immediate but the availability of networking is painfully slow.)
Windows 7 also extends the Wake On LAN functionality in Vista to include wireless network connections: In Vista, it only worked on wired networks. It supports a technology called Smart Network Power that intelligently doles out power only to those devices that need it. So if you have an enabled Ethernet port but are not connected to a wired network, Windows 7 will not power that port. Plug in a cable and the power is turned on.
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