Windows 7 Feature Focus
Hardware Support

One of the primary complaints about Windows Vista when it first arrived was that it lacked compatibility with some of the legacy hardware devices that were then on the market. Though these compatibility issues were overblown, Microsoft improved Vista's compatibility dramatically over time, via various driver releases that were collected into both of that OS's service packs and delivered seamlessly to customers. And when it came time to deliver Windows 7, Microsoft decided that it would retain the same compatibility model as Windows Vista plus service pack 2. The result was an OS that offered excellent hardware compatibility right out of the box. Windows 7 has always been broadly compatible with the hardware people are using and buying.

Offering this level of compatibility eliminated complaints, but it also allowed Microsoft to look more closely at how its OS interacts with the underlying PC hardware and provide some unique Windows 7 features related to hardware device support. And in this feature focus article, rather than focus on a single new Windows 7 feature, I'm going to highlight several hardware-related features that are unique to this Windows version. I'm all about more bang for the buck.

Device Stage

Because they're always pushing forward with new device types, hardware makers often have to create software applications that expose new capabilities to users. And these software applications are, almost universally, horrible, and that's as true of the simplest applets as it is of the full-blown applications they provide. So in Windows 7, Microsoft has created a new Device Stage platform that provides hardware makers with a consistent, task-based environment in which they can expose the various features of their products.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Hardware Support
A typical Device Stage interface for an individual device.


Device Stage is optional, however, so it's only sparsely available, and is of course hardware dependent. It is particularly useful for multifunction printers--where the device's different functions, online ink ordering, and other features can be otherwise difficult to access--but can be found for other device types including MP3 players and even entire PCs. Some Dell computers and many Lenovo PCs utilize Device Stage, for example, as a front-end to access various PC-related features and services.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Hardware Support
A Device Stage interface for an entire computer.

Finding a Device Stage interface can, however, be difficult. Certain device types will trigger a Device Stage UI when they're plugged into the computer. But you can check whether any of your devices provide a Device Stage UI by checking a related feature, Devices and Printers. And this one is available on all Windows 7 PCs.

Devices and Printers

While Device Stage provides a way to view and interact with individual devices, Devices and Printers provides a way to view and interact with all the devices that are connected to your PC. It is a superior and friendlier interface than the old Device Manager (which is still available in Windows 7), and replaces the old Printers folder (which is no longer available in Windows 7). And like the interfaces it replaces, Devices and Printers can be used both for troubleshooting purposes and to manage the devices that are found in the PC.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Hardware Support
Devices and Printers provides a handy front-end for managing and troubleshooting all of the hardware in and connected to your PC.

The easiest way to launch Devices and Printers is via Start Menu Search (type devices), but it can also be found in the Control Panel under Hardware and Sound. As you select an individual device, you'll typically see one of two interfaces, a Device Stage interface for those devices that support it, or an old-school device property sheet. (Some devices, like Fax, can launch other applications.) And if the entire PC is exposed via Device Stage, you'll only see the PC listed under the Devices section; all of the other contained and connected devices (sans printers) are found within.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Hardware Support
If a device doesn't support Device Stage, you'll get this old-school property sheet instead.

With regards to printing, Devices and Printers contains all of the capabilities that were previously exposed via the Printers folder. You can set the default printer, manage printer capabilities, view each printer's print queue, and so on.

Location-aware printing

Rather than require each Windows 7-based PC to have a single default printer, Microsoft has engineered the system to understand differences between the networks to which you connect--at work and home, for example--and to configure a different default printer for each location. Thus, when you're at work, any print jobs you start will go to the work-based printer you prefer. And at home, when you print, it will select your preferred home printer.

Location-aware printing requires a business-class version of Windows 7 (Professional or higher). It works automatically, but you can also manually configure which printer to use at which location (i.e. on which network) via the Manage Default Printers control panel.

Sensor and location platform

While many people associate location awareness to GPS hardware in smart phones, this capability doesn't necessarily require a GPS, but could also work with other interfaces, including various sensors, gauges, or other hardware interfaces. To this end, Windows 7 includes a new sensor and location platform that allows software applications to interact with whatever sensors and other hardware that may be connected to the PC.

To date, there haven't been many high profile sensor and location platform solutions, mostly because of the lack of compatible hardware. But my Windows 7 Secrets co-author Rafael Rivera has created an intriguing sensor interface called Geosense for Windows that allows any PC to report its location information using Google Location Services (Wi-Fi or IP-based), and without requiring proper GPS hardware. It's worth checking out.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Hardware Support
Using a location sensor, compatible applications--like the weather gadget--can automatically detect your location and respond accordingly.

Better power management

As underlying PC hardware has improved and become more efficient, so too has Windows improved to take advantage of those changes. In Windows 7, Microsoft provides its best support yet for power management, providing improved battery life and performance when compared to identical PCs running Windows XP or Vista. These improvements run the gamut from deeper integration with the capabilities of the hardware to simple but effective tricks like dimming displays sooner and automatically disabling power-sucking hardware that isn't being used. (For example, Windows 7 will disable networking hardware when you're offline, such as on a plane.)

Windows 7 also provides simpler and more efficient power plans and power options, including a default power plan for both connected and unconnected states that scales back processor performance unless it's really needed. With Windows 7 for the first time, it's possible to achieve Mac-like resume times and appliance-like switchovers between power management states.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Hardware Support
Windows 7 provides simpler and more efficient power management plans.

Windows Troubleshooting integration

The new Windows Troubleshooting infrastructure in Windows 7 provides a number of useful task-based wizards for solving PC problems. Many of these troubleshooters, not surprisingly, are hardware-related. The Hardware and Sound troubleshooters provide front-ends to fixing problems with sound devices and other hardware, printers, TV tuners, and more, and other troubleshooters cover display, networking, and power management hardware.

You typically access Windows Troubleshooting via Action Center, but you can also launch it directly from Start Menu Search (type troubl).

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Hardware Support
Many of the troubleshooters in Windows 7 are hardware related.

But wait, there's more...

Of course, there is much more going on with Windows 7 hardware support. I will cover additional hardware functionality in a future Feature Focus article.