Windows 7 RTM: Is it really better than Vista?

Now that Windows 7 RTM is out, it looks like Vista's replacement is just around the corner. Here's a rundown of all the major features.

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Windows Defender (improved)

Windows Defender, Microsoft's anti-spyware product, sports a new interface that is much easier to understand than previously. What's more, Windows Defender now integrates with the new Action Center, which helps to keep users better informed. Under the hood, Windows Defender has been improved to provide more reliable continuous monitoring.

Windows Firewall (enhanced)

Windows Firewall offers better integration with third-party security applications, which can now add extended features or provide customized firewall policies. Windows Firewall now supports multiple profiles, which can be active concurrently or separately based upon a user's connection status or other defined policies.

Other security enhancements and improvements include support for newer security devices, such as biometric access devices, as a means of logging into Windows 7. That feature will prove handy for the scores of notebook computers that sport fingerprint readers. Windows 7 also has plug-and-play support for smart cards based on elliptic curve cryptography (ECC), a highly secure method of storing data.

Another change: The autorun feature is now disabled by default for all media except for read-only CDs and DVDs. This should prevent drive-by virus attacks from USB key drives or other forms of rewritable media.

Although Windows 7's new and improved security features are welcome, they will not eliminate the need for third-party anti-virus and anti-malware products.

Navigation and UI

With each release of Windows, there are usually noticeable changes to the basic user interface and to Windows Explorer. Windows 7 follows the trend of changing things, but in this case it really is for the better. While Windows Explorer benefits from a minor face-lift, the real agent of change here is the user interface, where several new features have been introduced and other existing functions have been improved. The net result is more efficient navigation and a better experience for the end user.

Aero desktop (improved)

Enhancements to Aero include features like Aero Peek, which allows users to make open windows transparent to see what's underneath. Users will also find the new Aero Shake a welcome feature -- you can simply "shake" the active window (by moving the mouse rapidly back and forth) to minimize it.

Aero Snap offers the opposite approach: Users can simply "snap" (by flicking the mouse up or down) a desktop item to expand it to the borders of the screen. Other changes are far too numerous to mention here, but it is safe to say that the Aero Desktop sports plenty of improvements.

Windows Sidebar (enhanced)

The Windows Sidebar is no longer a Sidebar. Microsoft has decoupled Sidebar applications (called "gadgets") from the static area known as the Sidebar. Users can now place gadgets anywhere on the desktop and, thanks to Aero Peek, can see those gadgets behind transparent windows.

Jump lists (new)

Windows 7 offers a new feature called jump lists, which enhances the functionality of the task bar. A jump lists pops up when the user right-clicks on an application in the Windows 7 task bar, and displays frequently-used elements for that application. The jump list can be populated with documents, audio, images, links and so on, making those items faster and easier to access.

Microsoft Windows 7
A jump lists pops up when the user right-clicks on an application in the Windows 7 task bar.

Jump list information varies, depending on the application. According to Microsoft, the Jump List for IE 8 will show frequently viewed websites while the jump list for Windows Media Player 12 will list commonly played songs. Jump lists are customizable and users can pin anything they want to a jump list for a specific application.

Libraries (new)

Microsoft has extended the tried-and-true concept of folders into something new. Libraries are similar to folders, but they group files based upon file type. For example, you can define a library for music files; regardless of what folders those files are actually located in, they will be included in your music library. Libraries are only for files and not shortcuts or links; they rely on Windows' built-in indexing and search functionality.

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