Windows 7: Surprisingly nice UI - even to a Mac user

I finally got around to installing Windows 7 on my home computer, blowing a day off last month to back up and reinstall all my applications so I could move on from Windows XP.

Upgrade gripe:"Windows Easy Transfer" didn't quite live up to its billing. Yes, it dutifully saved almost all of my application data and settings. But no, it did not then reload most of them automatically when I reinstalled my apps. Would it have been too much to ask to code this for some oft-used software? If Windows Easy Transfer could figure out how to put back all my favorites, shortcuts and cookies in both IE and Firefox, why not do likewise for, say, my Thunderbird e-mail client? Or were we XP holdouts made to suffer for not jumping aboard the Vista bandwagon?

But back to Windows 7 itself. I'd been using it on and off for awhile now on my husband's desktop, but really got a chance to put it through its paces during the holiday week on my own system. And I've been pleasantly surprised so far by how well designed the user interface appears. Keep in mind that I've been using Mac OS X at work for a year now, so my UI standards are pretty high these days. Mac fans won't want to hear this, but there are in fact some (not all) Win 7 interface designs I like better than Mac OS X.

Not surprising for an operating system called, well, Windows, Win 7 makes it even easier than Leopard to manage your on-screen windows (disclaimer: I haven't yet upgraded to Snow Leopard). While both operating systems have elegant ways to show the desktop, I don't know of any one-step OS X equivalent to minimize all windows except the one you're working on. Win 7's "Aero shake" may be eye candy, but it also happens to be useful.

You can view your desktop by turning all open windows transparent, without actually closing them. And, you can see thumbnail previews of all open windows for each running app. If you're prone to screen clutter - and I most certainly am - this is a lot more convenient than it might sound.

The oft-advertised Windows 7 "Snap" feature, which makes it fairly easy for two windows to coexist side by side as you move back and forth between two apps (or files), is also quite handy. And, each application's menu bar is right at the top of its window, not at the very top of my screen. One of the few things I dislike about Mac OS X is that no matter where your application window sits on your monitor, the menu bar lives in the upper reaches of that real estate. I imagine that worked out OK when most screens were 13 inches or smaller; but in these days of large monitors and many windows scattered about, that can get annoying.

Also irritating: having to use a single corner of a window in order to resize it. Windows has long allowed you to draig and drop pretty much anywhere to change the size or shape of an open window, and that's useful. If there's a way of customizing window size and shape in OS X beyond the lone window corner (besides the basics such as the maximize button), I haven't found it yet.

Windows 7 appropriated (i.e. stole) some of the better ideas from the Mac interface that were missing in earlier Microsoft operating systems, such as a dock for often-used applications and a new start menu that acts like the Mac sidebar I've become familiar with. I'm very happy to still have an application dock when I move from my Macbook at work to my PC at home.

At home, I'm also appreciating Windows 7 "libraries." By default, they look similar to OS X's "search for" smart folders that automatically round up, say, all documents, images or videos. However, once I started creating my own libraries, they didn''t seem all that similar to OS X customized smart searches. Those allow you to set criteria for items to include in a folder, such as all spreadsheets modified in the last month. Those OS X searches, by the way, are extraordinarily handy - I don't have all that much experience trying advanced search in Windows 7 yet, but from what I've seen so far, I give the nod to OS X advanced search.

Instead, the libraries let you add specific folders or files to a library, regardless of location, and then browse or search through just those - although none of the items have actually been moved from their original location. In my limited hands-on with libraries, I'm viewing them as almost a second level of tagging on steroids -- and hope they'll finally cure me of my incredibly bad habit of making copies of the same digital photograph for different purposes. Possible to use in next year's family calendar? Add a copy to my "Calendar Photos" folder. Possible for photo club competition? Yup, another copy in the competition folder.. This wasn't so bad with a 3 megapixel camera. At 10 megapixels, shooting RAW + JPEG, it starts to get wasteful even in the era of cheap storage. And yes, I've got photo organizing software that allows me to file and tag and otherwise get a handle on all my files. No, it hasn't worked.

Windows 7 hasn't made me want to ditch OS X by any means. When it comes to coding, I'll take an operating system with Perl, PHP and Ruby already installed, thank you -- not to mention a Unix terminal windows that's orders of magnitude better than the Windows cmd prompt. And as much as I enjoy something like the third-party app AutoHotKey, which lets me program keys to perform different tasks and scripts with a single keystroke, those capabilities pale when it comes to automating daily tasks with AppleScript and Automator. Oh, to have an AppleScript equivalent on my Windows system at home...

Nevertheless, Windows 7 has gotten me beyond the Vista debacle. I was a Windows XP holdout to the point of, yes, paying more for the privilege of downgrading my system to an old operating system just so I didn't have to migrate to Vista. In fact, I ended up buying an oversized gaming PC I didn't really want/need, simply because it was one of Dell's only remaining models that still came with XP and I had to buy something because my home computer had just died.

I was indeed a supporter of the "Save Windows XP" campaign. Now? I'm ready to move on at last.

Update: Reader comments have convinced me to take a closer look at Windows PowerShell. It does indeed look more robust than just the networking and system administration tasks I'd first encountered. AppleScript still appears to be better at automating daily tasks for various applications, but PowerShell is, well, powerful. I finally dug up the Microsoft Task-Based Guide to Windows PowerShell Cmdlets and see several intriguing possibilities.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. You can follow her on Twitter @sharon000, send her e-mail at smachlis@computerworld.com or subscribe to her RSS feeds:
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