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.

Serdar Yegulalp, Contributor

June 3, 2009

14 Min Read

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.

UAC's nag-a-riffic behavior can now be dialed down a great deal more easily.

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User Account Control

Apart from Product Activation, no other feature in Windows has generated as much ire as user account control. The basic premise was sound -- do not let programs run with administrative privileges unless the user explicitly allows it -- but the implementation turned out to be a huge bother. Some people tweaked UAC with Registry changes to make it more palatable; others turned it off entirely (and thus defeated the whole purpose).

In 7, UAC hasn't gone away -- it's just been sent to obedience school. It's now both far better mannered and manageable. By default, any changes you make to system settings through the Control Panel (or other things that are part and parcel of Windows itself) go through without needing UAC approval. Launching programs that must run as admin still need to be approved, although you can elect to allow such programs to launch "silently" (not a good idea).

And yes, it's also possible to turn UAC off entirely -- although if you do this you're essentially back in Windows XP land, where one piece of malware launched as admin without you knowing about it can ruin your whole day. Thanks, but no thanks.

Resource Monitor: Task Manager Reloaded

For years the Task Manager has been the most common way Windows users have peeked under the hood to see what's running (or, sometimes, what's not running). It's been augmented or even replaced entirely with third-party programs -- Sysinternals' excellent Process Explorer is one of the best -- but with Windows 7, Microsoft has bundled something that could be called Task Manager Reloaded: the Resource Monitor.

Fire up Resource Monitor and you're greeted with four tabs (plus an overview tab) that provide you with a running analysis of the four most common system resources: CPU usage, memory consumption, disk activity, and network throughput. This allows for a fast at-a-glance way to find out what's eating up most of any given commodity.

Example: If your system's suddenly exhibiting a great deal of disk "chatter," click on Disk and sort Disk Activity by Total Bytes/Sec to see what comes up at the top of the list. If you see something that's gobbling up a lot of disk throughput, there's your culprit. Note that if said program is listed as having an I/O Priority of "Low," that program should gracefully allow other apps to use the disk as needed, so the fact that there's disk activity alone is not a sign that your system is choking. Resource Monitor makes this kind of debugging relatively easy.

On the same note, if the Disk Queue column for a given disk in the Storage pane shows a high value, it means you have too many programs competing for what's on that disk. You might want to move things around -- place swap files on another drive, for instance.

Another thing you can do with Resource Monitor is analyze programs that seem to be stuck to find out what's holding them up. Right-click on the name of any process and select Analyze Wait Chain, and you'll see a breakdown of what that program is waiting for. It's a good way to find out if a program is hanging because it's waiting for something else to finish, and not because it is itself stuck.

The Action Center

Nobody likes being nagged. And apart from UAC, one of the biggest source of nags in Windows was the seemingly endless stream of "You need to do this and that" balloons that popped up from the System Tray for what seemed like days on end after uncrating a new system. Not that it ended there, but that was where most of it appeared. Worse, this would lead to situations where you'd reflexively dismiss something -- only to realize a split-second later you wanted to read that.

To that end, Microsoft consolidated as many of the nag dialogs generated by Windows and made them centrally manageable and accessible in the Action Center. Its behavior is vaguely similar to the "Search for solutions to problems" dialog we first encountered in Vista: messages can be reviewed there, and you can take action as needed or selectively dismiss or archive messages that don't need immediate action.

This at least solves half the problem -- that of dismissing a dialog that you realized you needed to read -- although it doesn't completely tame the original issue (being bombarded by nags). But it's a big step in the right direction, and if third-party programs can register their own actions with the Action Center, that'll make the process of collating and staying on top of such things far less disparate.

Devices And Printers

Time was, the only way to see details about hardware in Windows was to use the Device Manager. Not a bad way to do it, but it's far from intuitive, and crammed with too much information about things you never touch.

Windows 7 goes this one better with the Devices and Printers window. Here you have access to the settings and statuses of the hardware you use most directly: input devices, displays, communications hardware, printers, scanners, faxes, audio and gaming devices, and so on. It's far easier to navigate and get relevant information about everything. It also lets you see at a glance what devices might be missing drivers or experiencing trouble, and you can kick off the troubleshooting process for any piece of hardware with a simple right-click.

That's the good news. The bad news, as my colleague Alex Wolfe pointed out, is that troubleshooting problems through the Devices and Printers interface often leads you in circles. It's too easy to get stuck in an endless debug loop when trying to get devices to work, where you repeat the same sequence of actions in the futile hope that things will be different this time around. I experienced this myself a couple of times, and I, too, hope this particular process gets its rough edges smoothed down a bit.

Imaging your system drive is the most complete way to back up a Windows 7 system, but it's far from the only way.

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Backup/Restore

Vista's full-system and crucial-data backup / restore system followed something of the same pattern as many other features introduced in that OS: the idea was sound, but the implementation really bothered a lot of people. Doing something as simple as backing up or excluding specific folders, as opposed to whatever arbitrary folder selection chosen by the program as "important," wasn't possible.

Backup in 7 seems to fix most of those issues. The single biggest and best feature -- full-system imaging -- is still here, of course, and the variety of backup methods ought to please everyone. If you have more than one hard drive, for instance, a common backup scenario is to make a live image of your system drive to your secondary drive and keep it updated. The real beauty of the backup system is that you can work uninterrupted while a backup is being made (apart from, say, needing to change blank media if you're burning to discs or something of that sort).

One gripe that might surface here: at first glance, it looks like making a system image is the preferred backup method. The only way to get to backing up and restoring individual files or folders is by going through what looks like the steps to create a full-disk image backup. For first-timers it might create the feeling you can't make anything but a full-image backup.

Defrag

You'd have to search far and wide to find someone who actually liked the stripped-down interface for Vista's defragmentation program. Part of that was meant to reflect the new way the defragmenter worked: it was designed to work in the background, with minimal babysitting from the user. But people wanted the defrag program to give them some information instead of nothing, if only because the black-box approach seemed so contemptuous of the end user.

To that end, the Windows 7 defragmenter offers the end user a little bit more info. You can obtain a drive's fragmentation quotient on the spot, or perform a defrag directly in the program and see a bit more detail about the progress of the operation. You still won't see a graphic map of the disk, but the only people who seem bothered by such an omission are the folks who micromanaged their systems to begin with. And since most of the effects of fragmentation are mitigated by having at least 30% free space on a drive (quick, how much free space is on your C: drive?), defrag's best consigned to the status of a silent background maintenance task anyway.

If you're still determined to do it yourself, you can always run the defrag command from the command line interface (be sure you're in admin mode), or pick up any number of third-party replacements (my favorite: JKDefrag). Just don't kid yourself about how much of a performance boost you'll get from defrag alone.

Complaints about Vista's defrag program not providing enough information to the end user prompted some revamping.

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Booting Virtual Hard Drive Images

This one's for pros, but it's nifty all the same. With a little work, a user can take a virtual hard disk file, mount it in the Windows boot manager, and boot to it as if it were a real hard drive. It's immensely handy if you want to try dual-booting between multiple instances of Windows without the hassle of creating partitions. Since the native Windows 7 system-backup tool saves disk images as VHDs, this can be handy if you want to boot directly into a backup image.

This trick has some limitations. You can only boot VHDs that run Windows 7 or Windows Server 2008, and you might run into a major hassle if you try to boot a VHD from another hardware configuration. It's also not a good idea to boot VHDs generated in anything other than Hyper-V or Microsoft Virtual Server. But there's little doubt that it's the start of something potentially revolutionary.

Microsoft has its own demonstration of how to do this, and you can always grab something like the Internet Explorer Application Compatibility Virtual PC image as an example. And if you just want to do bog-standard PC-within-a-PC virtualization, you can always snag a copy of VirtualBox or Virtual PC and use that as a trial.

And Everything Else

There's a great deal more -- a slew of small things, but significant ones.

In the "stop nagging me" department, another little irritant -- the nag box that forces a shutdown and reboot after a certain amount of time after critical updates are installed -- has also been tamed. Reboots no longer happen without your express permission. This ought to make a friend of mine happy: he lost data he was typing into a Web form when he got up to take an extended break and found the computer had rebooted to apply updates in his absence.

I ran across more than a few things that made me smile because they directly reflected my work habits. Fonts can now be installed without having to crack open the Fonts folder in Control Panel: right-click and they can be installed immediately. The Bluetooth manager is far easier to deal with and less flaky -- my BT stereo headset, for instance, connects and disconnects reliably, and audio streams follow suit without balking.

Finally, if you're curious about trying Windows 7 out for yourself, go get it and give it a spin. Nothing beats personal experience, and you might find something we only gave passing mention that's a perfect fit for your workflow.

About the Author(s)

Serdar Yegulalp

Contributor

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