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ISSUE 222 JAN 2009

PERFORMANCE GEAR & GAMING

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LARA’S BACK AND KICKING BUTT! 26/11/08 4:24:58 pm


WINDOWS7 FIRST LOOK≥ Simon Bisson takes a spin around Microsoft’s next OS. Is Windows 7 shaping up to be the next XP?

M

icrosoft’s been developing Windows 7 behind closed doors for some time. OEMs have been getting regular builds for most of the year, but very little information has leaked out of Microsoft’s Apple-like secrecy. The public alphas and betas of old aren’t part of the Windows 7 plan, just a regular stream of milestones and interim builds for Microsoft’s partners. There have been one or two leaks yielding the odd snippet of information, but the most we ever really knew was the codename. Things, however, changed at Microsoft’s big developer conference,

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PDC 2008. The curtains were pulled back, giving attendees a peek at the state of Windows 7 development, and a chance to use a pre-beta build. Sessions at the conference unveiled many of the operating system’s new features, from improved graphics capabilities to direct access to hardware sensors. The pre-beta build, Build 6801 is one of the Milestone 3 family of Windows 7 builds, and is based on code that was finalised back at the end of the summer. While the underlying OS is feature complete, there’s still a lot of work to be done on the Windows look-and-feel. Presenters at PDC 2008 were using a range of later builds, which showed a much more polished user interface. Windows 7 isn’t the rumoured complete rewrite of Windows. It’s based on the same kernel as Vista SP1 and

Windows Server 2008, with much the same driver model. Applications written for Vista will run on Windows 7 without any modification, as should any drivers. Compatibility was a common problem for Vista, and Microsoft doesn’t want to have the same problems again. It’s even using its online support tools to automatically deliver compatibility information for software installs. Even so, Microsoft is already making promises about just what Windows 7 will offer. It’s stated that it will offer at worst the same, and in most cases, better performance than Vista on the same hardware – with a new, more memory efficient, window manager being one of the biggest changes. There’s also an improved set of security tools, and a plan to make downloading media codecs a thing of the past.

January 2009

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Windows 7 first look

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Windows 7 first look The public pre-beta of Windows 7 looks very much like its predecessor, Vista. That look, however, changes considerably in later builds, with a new task bar and new ways of interacting with the desktop. One of the biggest changes is under the hood. It has a new version of the Windows Desktop Manager that uses a lot less memory than Vista’s. It’s a change that makes machines seem much less sluggish, with Windows popping up quickly, even on laptops with integrated graphics. Giving Windows 7 a smaller memory footprint has to be one of Microsoft’s highest priorities, given the popularity of lower spec devices and netbook-class laptops. Asus has already announced it will be producing a Windows 7-capable device. There’s certainly support for netbooks in the windows development team, as during the Windows 7 keynote at PDC 2008 Steve Sinofsky, the Microsoft executive driving Windows 7’s development, showed his current laptop – a Lenovo S10.

“THE WINDOWS 7 DESKTOP LOOKS MUCH LIKE VISTA’S WITH THE MSOT OBVIOUS CHANGE A NEW TASKBAR”

Below The Windows Game folder lets Windows search for and download any updates to your games

to make sure they’re in the same place in the Taskbar. The new Taskbar will end that, as you’ll be able to place regularly used applications where you want on the new Taskbar, as well as reordering the positions used by running apps. Roll over any Taskbar icon and you’ll get a similar live thumbnail to Vista. Roll over one you’ve specifically placed there and you’ll see all the windows associated with that app. If it’s Word, then you’ll see all your documents, and if it’s Internet Explorer you’ll get to see all your open tabs. You can also view thumbnails

fullscreen – and use them to close unwanted windows. The January beta will also include what Microsoft is calling Jump Lists. Right-click on any Taskbar icon and you’ll get, at the very least, a list of recent files associated with that app. Out the box, Jump Lists use the standard Windows Recent Items API, though instead of just using one list, each application gets its own. If an app has been written to use Jump Lists you’ll get a lot more information, as well as app-specific functions. You can use

A NEW LOOK AND FEEL

There’s no big bang approach to a new Windows look and feel with Windows 7. If you’ve used XP or Vista, there’s not much new to learn – and much of what’s new is refinements of the way Windows has always worked. At first glance the Windows 7 desktop looks much like Vista’s, with the most obvious change a new Taskbar. Windows 7’s new Taskbar isn’t in the pre-beta, but Microsoft demonstrated what it would look like, and how you’d use it, in its conference keynote. The new Taskbar has been compared to the OS X dock, but it’s really something quite different – the merging of XP’s and Vista’s Quick Launch bar with the familiar Windows Taskbar. Microsoft’s user research showed that a large percentage of Vista and XP users were starting applications in a specific order

DEVICES & NETWORKS One of Windows’ strengths has always been the number of devices you can connect to a PC. It’s also been one of its weaknesses, especially with the latest multi-function devices, as functions are scattered all through Windows. Windows 7 will change all this, introducing a new Devices and Printers control panel. Click on the photo-realistic icons in the control panel and you’re taken to the Device Stage. A new way of working 74

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with devices, the Device Stage opens up a new view that brings all the information and services associated with a device into one place. If you plug in a multi-function printer the Device Stage will show fax and scanning tools, as well as the print queue and if the device manufacturer has an online store you can also use it to order refill print cartridges. You can’t make your own Device Stages, as they’re XML docs, bundled with images and delivered either as a part of an installer or over the internet from Microsoft. It’s easy for manufacturers to build and deliver updates, and for Microsoft to show them how their users are interacting with their hardware.

Then there’s wireless support. Connecting to a WiFi network has always been a convoluted process, made even harder in Vista. Windows 7 treats WiFi the way you’ve always wanted Windows to, and instead of multiple dialogues and windows, all you have to do is click on the wireless icon on the System Tray, select the network you want to use, and fill in any necessary credentials. If you need to go to a web page to fill in details, you’ll even be taken there automatically. Windows 7 uses the same View Available Network menu with mobile broadband services, so you can use the same tool to connect to 3G networks with a wireless broadband dongle.

January 2009

27/11/08 5:00:24 pm


Windows 7 first look

Above Due in the January beta, Jump Lists make it easy to open recent and frequent docs

Media Player’s Jump List to play songs, or open playlists, while Internet Explorer’s lets you work with your history and bookmarks. You’ll find that Jump Lists aren’t only in the Taskbar – apps on the Windows 7 Start menu also get to use Jump Lists, without leaving the Start menu. The System Tray also gets a work over, only hosting power, network and sound icons, by default. Anything else is installed in a hidden icons pop-up. You can drag icons you want to see onto the

System Tray, and leave everything else where you can get at them when you need to see what they’re showing. Vista was hard to customise, and Microsoft is making it a lot easier to give Windows 7 your own look and feel. The new Taskbar is a given, though, much like the ribbon in Office 7, and there’s going to be very little scope for a Windows XP look-and-feel in Windows 7. Vista’s Personalize right-click menu option is still there in Windows 7 (along with the return of Display Settings), and this takes you to a new Themes control panel, where you can choose a mix of desktop backgrounds, window glass colours, sounds and screen savers. Themes can be packaged up and saved (and shared with friends or online). Microsoft will be renaming Themes to Styles in a future beta release. One big change is the disappearance of the Sidebar. Instead of one place to host on-screen Gadgets, Windows 7 lets you place them anywhere on the Desktop. You will be able to snap Gadgets to the sides of your screens, making them easier to manage, but that’s not the same as having a dedicated control that can prevent windows from using all your pixels. With

Above You can quickly add existing and new folders to your libraries, making them part of Windows 7’s virtual file system

“THE SYSTEM TRAY GETS A WORK OVER, ONLY HOSTING POWER, NETWORK AND SOUND ICONS, BY DEFAULT”

Above Setting up a HomeGroup for the PCs on a home network means you can quickly share files, folders and libraries (as well as printers)

the sidebar taking a lot of screen real estate on laptops, it’s not surprising that Microsoft has removed it – especially when you remember that laptop computer sales are set to outstrip desktops in the next couple of years. Microsoft’s also making it clearer just what Gadgets are for, suggesting that they’re to be used for delivering at-a-glance information, whether it’s from system apps or from the internet. Seeing Desktop-hosted gadgets would be a problem, if it wasn’t for the new Desktop ‘peek’ features that will be in January’s beta. All you need to do is roll over the bottom right-hand corner of the Desktop to temporarily make Desktop windows transparent – just leaving your Gadgets visible.

GETTING IN TOUCH

Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates used Wall Street Journal’s D conference to show some of Windows 7’s touch features. Things have changed a lot since May, and the latest builds is a much simpler, more iPhone-like, way of working with touch. Simple finger swipes and gestures let you navigate through web pages, while a modified mouse driver means that applications like Word can still benefit from touch – using finger touches much like a scroll wheel, with a simple bounce effect to show when you’ve reached the end of a document. Windows 7 makes a few basic changes to its user interface when you switch to touch, adding 25 per cent extra vertical space in menus to make it easier to make selections. Applications written to use the new touch features will be able to use two-finger gestures to zoom, rotate and scale – and even, in the case of the new Paint, draw on the screen. Despite all this, touch is only going to be of limited use to most of us, as touch screens are expensive, and like the tablet PC before them, are unlikely to become mainstream. If touch is going to become an everyday feature, devices January 2009

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Windows 7 first look different libraries, covering everything from your contacts to your photographs, videos and music. Some libraries are automatically created by apps, while you can quickly make your own. Most libraries are cached searches, which update as soon as you add files to the folders being searched. The idea behind libraries is simple enough: you’re going to end up with your photos in different folders, so why not make them appear to be in the same place. Some will be on your hard disk, some will be on an external backup, some on a home NAS, and some on another PC (or PCs) in your home network. Making a folder part of a library makes it easy to see just what you’ve stored without having to look for your files.

MASS MEDIA

Above Another feature due to appear in the beta, the Device Stage brings all the apps and services associated with a device into one place

“MEDIA CENTER WILL SUPPORTMORE TV TUNERS AND IPTV, BUTIT’S MEDIA PLAYER THATGETS THE BIGGEST MAKEOVER” like Asus’ touch netbook and HP’s touchscreen all-in-one PCs will need to be as cheap as standard screens. Windows 7’s touch features work well with some of the new window handling tools. If you want to create a full screen window, just drag it to the top of the screen. Returning it to its previous state is as easy as dragging down. Need to tile two windows so you can copy from one to the other? Drag one to the left and one to the right. The window layout tools are also multi-monitor aware, so you can tile on one monitor without affecting the other.

MANAGING YOUR FILES

Way back, in the original Longhorn builds, Microsoft toyed with the idea of a virtualised object file system. Where your files were wouldn’t matter, just what they were and what you’d labelled them. WinFS was the first of the three pillars of Vista to be left behind, and Microsoft has been trying to rebuild many of its features on top of Windows NTFS file system ever since. Windows 7 builds on Vista’s search features by adding a new set of filters. You can quickly choose the filters to use, whether they’re name, or type. The 76

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available filters vary depending on the files in your search results – so you don’t get overloaded with pointless information. If you’re looking for a specific image you can quickly drill down to just searching for JPEGs or PNGs, rather than TIFFs and GIFs. Microsoft takes advantage of file metadata when creating indexes, and all that the new search filters do is make it easy to use this in a search. It may seem a trivial change, but it certainly speeds up working with your files. Another WinFS-like feature is Windows 7’s Libraries. While Longhorn automatically grouped files into stacks, Windows 7 lets you pick and choose the folders that are grouped into libraries. Out the box you get a set of several

Microsoft looks set to differentiate Windows 7 from its competition with improved, and simplified, media tools. Media Center gets an overhaul with support for more TV tuners and IPTV, but it’s Media Player that gets the biggest makeover. While most of us will be pleased with its built-in DIVX support, there’s also support for the codecs used by most popular video cameras, including the latest HD models. Music fans will find there’s also support for Apple’s AAC format (though not for its FairPlay DRM), so Media Player will work with music from iTunes. A lightweight player mode makes it easier to quickly watch videos and listen to music from inside Explorer – an approach that comes into its own when working with shared music and video

Right The Windows 7 Solution Center is where you’ll find all the messages that used to clog up your System Tray

Above If a wireless access point needs you to authenticate with a web page, Windows 7 will prompt you to open your web browser

January 2009

27/11/08 5:00:25 pm


Windows 7 first look

SENSORS & LOCATIONS

Above You can stream media from a Windows 7 PC to media extender devices all round the house, including audio and video players (and even TVs fitted with the right hardware)

libraries. There’s also a thumbnail player launched from the Windows 7 Taskbar, so you can play music without having to open the full Media Player. You’ll also be able to stream music from your desktop to other PCs and media devices in the house. Media Player’s PlayTo option lets you pick and choose devices, sending your choice of audio and video to any DLNA-compliant hardware. You can even stream music to high quality audio players like the wonderful Sonos ZonePlayer.

SIMPLE SHARING

Running a home network isn’t easy, especially when you’re trying to put together a quick and easy way of sharing files and printers between several computers. That’s where Windows 7’s new HomeGroup feature comes in. At its heart, the HomeGroup is

just another implementation of a peer-to-peer network, much like the Windows Workgroup of old. The difference is in how easy it is to set up. All you need to do is plug the first PC into a network, and use a wizard to create a HomeGroup. This creates a password that’s all you need to add any extra machines to the group, using the same wizard to select the files you’re sharing with everyone else. Plug in a new PC, choose to join a HomeGroup, and then enter the password for an instant connection. HomeGroups also simplify printer sharing, automatically adding shared printers and their drivers to all other PCs in a HomeGroup. The secret behind HomeGroups is Windows 7’s libraries. You choose which libraries to share with other users, and they’re instantly available for the rest of your network to see and use. You’ll be

“THE HOMEGROUP, AT ITS HEART, IS AN IMPLEMENTATION OF A PEER-TO-PEER NETWORK ”

PCs now come with all sorts of hardware – from light sensors, to accelerometers, to GPS hardware. There’s even software that pretends to be sensing hardware, picking up location data from WiFi networks. The average PC now knows a lot about the world. The only problem is that they’re all controlled by proprietary drivers, with no easy way to build them into everyday software. Windows 7 will have a new API that device drivers can link into, making it a lot easier for applications to adjust to the world around them. If it gets too bright, an app can change its contrast and font size to stay readable, even in bright sunlight. A game could use accelerometers to turn a laptop into a steering wheel, tilting its way through a game world. Giving Windows access to GPS hardware does leave some privacy concerns – so Microsoft is making it easy for users to control just what location information apps have access to. A new control panel manages sensor connections, letting you pick and choose just what Windows can use. One option is a dummy location sensor, which just returns the text string you set up in the control panel. Microsoft wants to encourage developers to use this new set of capabilities, and gave PDC2008 attendees a USB-attached sensor development board. With a set of light sensors and an accelerometer, the board has most of the sensors you’ll find in today’s laptop hardware. Of course that’s only part of the story. Now Microsoft needs hardware vendors to ship sensor API-aware drivers.

Above With Windows 7, Microsoft’s GPS unit could change the way your use your PC in the real world

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Windows 7 first look

Above Styles will bring together backgrounds, colours, sounds and screensavers

“THIS IS THE WINDOWS THAT VISTA SHOULD HAVE BEEN, WITH A LARGE DOSE OF ‘WOW’ ”

Above Windows 7 search tools use file metadata to make it easier to track down the information you really want

able to look at photos on one PC from another, or listen to shared music, without needing to know exactly where it’s stored. HomeGroup libraries even show up in Media Player, so you’ll be able to access all the music and videos on your network from one place. There is one big piece missing from the HomeGroup picture – Home Server. While Home Server directories can be made part of Windows 7 Libraries, it would make a lot of sense for Microsoft to make Home Server the hub of any HomeGroup network, with simplified management and backup tools.

SEVEN HEAVEN?

GOODBYE TO GDI Microsoft hasn’t said much about the role of Windows 7 as a gaming platform yet. One thing is clear, DirectX (in the shape of Direct3D, Direct2D and DirectWrite) is going to be in more places than games – letting Windows take advantage of the power of the current generation of GPUs. Microsoft claims graphics rendering in DirectX under Windows 7 is smoother and quicker than traditional Windows graphics techniques. A PDC2008 session had a demo that compared various graphics techniques in Windows 7. Rendering without a graphics card, but using GDI delivered 60fps with a lot of jagged edges Below Graphics rendering in DirectX under Windows 7 is likely be smoother and quicker

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on curves, while using GDI+ produced smooth edges but only at 13fps. Windows 7’s new Direct2D API (for 2D vector graphics) managed 30fps with smooth curves and anti-aliased edges. Microsoft will be deprecating GDI+ and GDI in favour of Direct2D, so gaming-style effects will become part of the Windows desktop. There’s also a new UIAnimation API for animating user interface elements, so you can now have animated icons and menus – much like OS X’s CoreAnimation. Text will take advantage of DirectX in Windows 7, using the new DirectWrite text processing system. Microsoft expects that the results should be twice as fast as in older versions of Windows. Character edges are certainly much smoother and ClearType now uses blending to smooth horizontal edges to match the way it uses sub-pixel rending to smooth vertical lines. If you haven’t switched to a LCD panel yet, Windows 7’s new graphics features won’t look as good – so it may well be worth investing in an upgrade. One obvious change for gamers will be to the Windows 7 Games folder. If you click the ‘Options’ button in the Toolbar you’ll be given the choice of having Windows automatically check for updates to your games. This should, in theory, make it a lot easier to pick up the latest patches without any hassle.

With what we’ve seen, and with what we’ve tried out, Windows 7 looks set to be a winner. The mix of features is good, and the new look and feel is surprisingly intuitive. We won’t miss the bundled apps, and Windows Live Essentials will more than make up for losing Windows Mail and Movie Maker. This is the Windows that Vista should have been, with a large dose of ‘wow’ amongst the necessary advances and updates. A public beta is due early in 2009, and we’re expecting the final launch of Windows 7 sometime in the autumn. ¤

Above Apps written for Jump Lists can add extra functions to the list

January 2009

27/11/08 5:00:30 pm


WINDOWS 7 FIRST LOOK  

Microsoft’s been developing Windows 7 behind closed doors for some time. OEMs have been getting regular builds for most of the year, but ver...

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