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Microsoft tries to win back fans with Vista alternative

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / January 22, 2009
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Someone should say a kind word about Vista, Microsoft Corp.'s oft-scorned operating system, so here goes - it's mostly harmless. Bloated, sluggish, and sometimes mystifying, but otherwise harmless. It never ate my files or succumbed to a hideous malware infection. As for its failings, you can learn to live with them.

Not that I ever did. After running it for awhile, I switched back to its predecessor, Windows XP, and have rarely looked back. Millions of other users never even bothered to give Vista a try, with the result that it's the most despised version of Windows ever.

Vista certainly hasn't been harmless for Microsoft. The company's share of the personal-computer operating system market fell below 90 percent last year, for the first time since records were kept.

Microsoft has fought back with a recent ad campaign that shows consumers falling in love with the new Mojave operating system, only to learn that it's really Vista. How clever. But Microsoft would be better off creating something that it won't be ashamed to sell under its real name.

That's the goal of the new Windows 7 system, which is currently available from Microsoft in a "beta" or test version. Windows 7 isn't exactly a Vista sequel; it's more like one of those extended-edition DVDs with an alternate ending. Maybe this time, the hero gets the girl.

The most obvious difference is Windows 7's tolerance for relatively low-powered hardware. It runs nicely on a Panasonic Toughbook laptop with a 2.6 gigahertz dual-core processor and 2 gigabytes of memory. But I've got it running just about as well on an Asus Eee PC, one of those lightweight "netbook" computers that are so popular nowadays.

Most of today's netbooks either run a modified version of the Linux operating system or Microsoft's aging Windows XP software. That's because Vista would likely overpower the typical netbook, with its slower processor and smaller memory bank. Not so with Windows 7, which gets along fine with the Asus' 1.6 gigahertz Intel Atom processor and its mere 1 gigabyte of memory.

And even on the netbook, Windows 7 fires up fast, booting up in just over 40 seconds. That's crucial, since companies like Phoenix Technologies are bringing out instant-boot alternatives to Windows that will get a laptop running in under 20 seconds.

Windows 7 sports much the same look and feel as Vista, except for the taskbar at the bottom of the screen. Once again, Microsoft's borrowing an idea or two from Apple's Macintosh software. This time, it's the Mac's taskbar design, known as the Dock.

On a Mac, your favorite programs appear in the Dock at all times, unlike the traditional Windows taskbar, where you see an icon only when a program is running. The Windows 7 taskbar shows active and inactive programs, and you can "pin" your favorites to the bar, so you always know where to find them. No more clicking the "start" button and searching a software menu.

There are a bunch of other user interface improvements. Say you've opened multiple windows of the same program. Hover the mouse over that program's taskbar icon, and you see the contents of each window, in miniature.

We also get an overhaul of the notorious User Access Control feature. The current system frequently interrupts Vista users, flashing an "are you sure you want to do that?" message as they install software. Meanwhile, the screen goes dark and all other computing activities are halted till the user answers the User Access Control's question.

It's all done to protect consumers against viruses and other toxic software, but the UAC has become one of Vista's most reviled features. Apple even made fun of it on national TV, in one of its "Hi, I'm a Mac" ads. Microsoft has gotten the message. Windows 7 lets users fine-tune the system to make it less annoying. For instance, you can set it to let you keep working on other tasks when a warning message appears.

Other Windows 7 improvements are hidden well under the hood. For example, there's a cool little program that will record what you're doing on the computer - button pushes, mouse clicks, and the like. When your computer malfunctions, the program can send the recorded data to a tech support expert to help him figure out what went wrong.

Another Windows 7 feature I haven't been able to test seems especially tasty. Windows Sensors will make it easy to create computers that become aware of their surroundings. Say you've got a laptop with a Global Positioning System chip inside. Windows Sensors will detect it and share the GPS data with compatible software. A frequent traveler's computer could automatically display local news, weather, sports scores, and directions to the nearest Dunkin' Donuts the moment it boots up in a new city. Windows Sensors will work with other devices, too. Add a light sensor, and your screen would get brighter or dimmer as lighting conditions change.

It all sounds grand, but so did Vista when Microsoft unveiled it two years ago. We know how that turned out. Still, with its zippy performance and upgraded features, Windows 7 is off to a good start.

Microsoft won't say when a finished version will go on sale, but promises that Windows 7 won't see daylight until it completely meets the company's standards. Looks like it has realized being harmless is not enough.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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