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

The new UAC settings reside in a new Control Panel section called Windows Solution Center, which replaces Vista's Security Center. It's home to a bunch of features for adjusting security settings, using Windows Update, and backing up data. And it also lets you turn off various Windows notifications, such as the ones that warn you about security settings. Turn off every nagging notice that Windows 7 lets you disable, and you could wind up with the least intrusive edition of the OS in a long time.

Did we say that Windows 7 is longer on substance than style? For most part, it's true. But the new features for applying Themes to the Windows interface are nicely done. As before, they let you choose collections of wallpaper, color schemes, sounds, and screen savers that provide Windows with an instant makeover. Windows 7's version lets you see a full-screen preview of a Theme's effect on the OS with one click, however, and it's easier to create and save your own Themes than with Vista's antediluvian Theme controls. (Microsoft, incidentally, says that Themes will be renamed Styles before Windows 7 ships: That's a classic example of the company renaming a familiar feature without any clear purpose.)

The Magic Touch?

One major area of change in Windows 7's interface won't mean much to most PC users at first blush: Only a handful of current machines, such as HP's TouchSmart PC and Dell's Latitude XT laptop, support multitouch input; but in theory this feature would let you operate a touch-screen-equipped Windows 7 computer as if it were a massive iPhone, using your fingertips to launch applications, shuffle windows around, and enlarge and shrink photos by grabbing them with both hands. Not surprisingly, Microsoft hasn't yet enabled all of this functionality. Using a TouchSmart PC at the Windows 7 workshop, we could fingerpaint with two fingers in Paint, but we couldn't perform two-fingered photo manipulations that would be a lot more useful in real life.

Microsoft promises that Windows 7 will ship with more touch features. The company is also working to make the OS smart enough to figure out whether you're using a mouse or your fingers so it can adjust itself accordingly. For example, if you tap the Start button with your fingertip rather than with the mouse pointer, you'll get a slightly larger Start menu that requires less finesse to navigate. And you don't get a mouse pointer when you touch the screen with your finger--which makes perfect sense, since your finger servers as its own pointer. Instead, you get a momentary puddling effect to indicate that you've made contact with the screen.

Will the touch interface that makes the iPhone cool work on a notebook or desktop system? We're skeptical, but Windows 7 lays the software groundwork that will allow PC manufacturers to give it a try, at least.

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