Windows 7 first look: A big fix for Vista

Pre-beta Windows 7 addresses many Vista complaints -- and introduces a slew of changes

Paint app now uses ribbon

Paint app now uses ribbon

But wait: There's more. Microsoft says that Windows 7 will be smart enough to recognize when you're at home and when you're at your office. As a result, if you print a document, the OS will choose the appropriate printer to use. And a new federated search capability will let you sift through files on PCs across the network, and apply filters to your results. This means that you can do a keyword search and then refine it by specifying a specific file type.

Windows 7 promises easier Wi-Fi network and Bluetooth peripheral setup, too, though we weren't able to test either on the early beta software. Hovering over the Taskbar icon for these network adapters produces a jump list of available networks (or devices, in the case of Bluetooth); then you merely click the one you want to connect to (or pair with, in the case of a Bluetooth peripheral).

Another improvement is wake-on-wireless-LAN, the ability to bring a Wi-Fi-connected PC out of sleep mode remotely (just as you've long been able to do with ethernet-connected systems).

Back at the office, other networking improvements only apply if your company installs Windows Server 2008 R2 and your IT department allows them. For example, you might be able to click a link in a corporate e-mail message to launch an application behind the firewall--without having to make a VPN connection first (Windows 7 will transparently handle the security arrangements).

Searching and Organizing

One interesting new feature in Windows 7's Explorer is called "libraries." Essentially it's a way of making like content scattered in various folders easily accessible. The OS ships with several predefined libraries--for documents, music, pictures, and video--but you can create your own based on whatever criteria you choose--file type, date created, or other metadata such as music genre.

Libraries figure actively in Windows 7's improved search: Results are organized based on libraries rather than on file locations. Windows 7 also allows you to perform so-called federated searches--searches across multiple PCs on your network. So, for example, you might search for photos across the photo libraries of all the PCs in your HomeGroup.

More Multimedia in More Places

Once upon a time, Microsoft's approach to audio and video seemed to hinge on Windows Media Player and its file formats coming to dominate digital entertainment the way Windows dominates the PC. Instead, we live in a world where multiple approaches to media flourish, and where iTunes and the iPod, not Microsoft-based products, are everywhere. Windows 7's new multimedia capabilities acknowledge this reality by emphasizing features that help the OS play well with others--including with products that hail from a certain company named after a piece of fruit.

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