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Microsoft Windows 7 Under The Hood

We dig into the operating system's security User Account Controls, Resource Monitor, and Action Center and uncover a trove of advanced features in Vista's upcoming successor.

Windows 7 screen shot.
(click for larger image and for full photo gallery)

After all the speculation and hype -- both from inside and outside Microsoft -- Windows 7's taken something very close to its final form. By and large, people who've tried out the operating system are thrilled. So what is it they're excited about? Come and take a look.

In this article, I'm making the rounds of the features in Windows 7 that have people buzzing. Some of the features covered ought to be familiar -- the new desktop and Taskbar, for instance. Some are more deeply buried and require a little technical know-how to unearth (virtual hard drive booting, the Resource Monitor), and don't get nearly enough press.

Start Menu, Taskbar, And Desktop

The fact that Windows 7 is an all-new Windows fairly smacks you in the face as soon as you log in. The Start menu and Taskbar are different enough to hint that something's up, thanks to a major redesign. The end result has been compared to Apple's Dock or the organizational widgets in the KDE desktop for Linux -- although it's not so different from previous iterations of Windows that you'll be lost.

The Taskbar's undergone the most revamping, both in look and behavior. Right-click on any running program icon and you can "pin" it to the Taskbar for quick re-use. Running program icons can also be dragged around and re-ordered -- a feature people have asked for many times and previously was only available through third-party programs. I've found that you'll want to pin only the few most commonly used programs down there -- e-mail client, Web browser, Explorer -- to avoid cluttering things up. (You can still pin stuff to the Start menu as before -- or create a folder somewhere, dump shortcuts into it, and add it to the Taskbar as a pull-out toolbar for quick access to programs you use.)

Note that many of the old behaviors can be restored on demand by right-clicking on the Taskbar and selecting Properties. Don't like the big icons? You can dial them back down to their old original sizes and get back that much more vertical real estate.

Another nice touch is the way the System Tray has been cleaned up. Users now have much more precise control over which notification icons appear or are automatically hidden. I'd still like to have a tool that lets you clean up the Notification Area icon metadata manually instead of a rather messy Registry hack, though; that part still hasn't changed.

Finally, the desktop underwent a clean-up of its own. Desktop gadgets no longer need the sidebar; they can snap to each other or to screen edges. And most everyone's heard now about the window-organization functions, which work either by hotkeys or by grabbing window edges and snapping them to the sides of the screen. With this and the Aero Peek feature (hover the mouse over a Taskbar icon to see all its attendant windows and switch between them), virtual desktops are almost antiquated.

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