Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My Windows 7 Upgrade – Part 3

Like looking through glass

Bear in mind that I never really used Windows Vista, which also had some pretty features that I am now seeing for the first time in Windows 7. With that in mind, I find that I like Windows 7 very much.

For starters, the Start menu and the taskbar have continued to evolve. The Start Menu now, in many ways, provides access to the key areas of the O/S that was once distributed between the Desktop, Windows Explorer, and the Windows Search feature. The taskbar has blended together its traditional function of displaying which applications are running, with that of the Quick-launch Toolbar that provides one-click access to programs that you use all the time. The combined functionality relies on some large-ish icons, some of which (the icons designated for Quick-launch) are always present, while others (those representing open windows or software) appear as needed. All of them get a somewhat vague translucent highlight around them to indicate applications that are currently running, and they get an orange highlight when they need the user’s attention. It all sounds a bit clumsy when you read it, but it really works quite well. See the pic below for a sample of a taskbar with the Windows “Start” button at the left, and a bunch of application icons arrayed to the right of it.

On the right side of the taskbar, we’re used to seeing the clock and the icons of the System Tray. They’re still there, but now they have a pop-up box when you want to see them all, and I find it more useful than the little arrow you could use to expand the system tray when a desired icon was hidden. But the new-fangled System Tray hides an even more powerful tool, and it’s so sleek and unassuming that you might very well miss it. It’s a simple vertical bar, the same height as the taskbar and quite narrow. You’d miss it entirely except for some frosted shading at the corners. But if your screen gets all cluttered with open windows and applications and you just want to see your pretty desktop background again, simply hover over the bar with your mouse and all of your open windows instantly become transparent boxes with thin outlines to show where they were. I honestly haven’t figured out a meaningful use for this capability as of yet, but it certainly looks impressive. If it’s useful functionality that you’d prefer, a simple click of that same vertical bar serves to minimize everything to the task bar, fully revealing the desktop. This is no different than the old button that used to sit on the Quick Launch Toolbar and do the same thing, but if nothing else it’s prettier. In the picture below, you're looking at the desktop THROUGH my open Microsoft Word window.

Windows 7 also adds a useful capability for creating a secure home network. If you’ve ever wondered whether you were putting your personal data at risk by enabling “sharing” of files, folders and printers on your home computers, you’ll appreciate the new “Homegroup” feature. Any given Windows 7 computer on your network is able to create a Homegroup password, that you then enter into any other Windows 7 PCs on your home network. They can then access whatever files you want them to from the various storage areas for Music, Video, Documents, and so on. Printers can be shared in this manner as well, and the password (which is case-sensitive) gives it a level of security that should ensure that your files are kept private.

Another feature of Windows 7 that I found very useful was the updated task manager and resource monitor. It works (and looks) very similar to past versions, but includes a breakdown of the services that are running and how much RAM each of them is using. Better still, it includes a button to launch the “Resource Manager,” which is a very similar tool except that it gives an even more detailed breakdown of CPU utilization, RAM usage, Disk activity and network throughput – including the ability to designate one or more individual programs to monitor. This is a wonderful tool that normally you’d have had to download from some 3rd-party.

But the improvements in Windows 7 are both great and small. They thought to include a very handy utility called the “Snip tool” that lets you select and copy graphics or text from any portion of the screen, then paste it into a document or even save it as graphics file. I confess that before I started working on my book and using OneNote in its full, glorious capacity, I still made great use if its’ ability to perform this same function – and now it’s included for free. Similarly, Windows 7 includes a tool that creates digital Post-it™ notes on the desktop so you can quickly scrawl messages to yourself. It’s not an especially remarkable tool, but it’s nice that it’s built right into the O/S. Add in the desktop gadget capability carried over from Vista and you’ve got a tremendous amount of power to make your desktop more than just a pretty picture – it’s a really dramatic and notable improvement over Windows XP. Heck, even the calculator’s been beefed up. And, of course, the Aero Glass visual effects look every bit as snazzy as they did in Vista.

It’s a shame that Microsoft took so many years and two tries to get a desktop operating system that works as well as Windows 7. In fact, even Windows 7 doesn’t include all of the features originally planned for “Longhorn” back in the early 2000s, such as the improved file system. But it’s a solid, stable, elegant operating system that is really an evolution from Windows XP. It does what an O/S ought to do – it enables you to get your work done while keeping out of your way as much as possible. It gives me new hope that Microsoft actually knows what the hell they’re doing, and helps me to believe that future versions of Windows may continue to blur the lines between the user and the computer, with the ultimate goal (in my mind, anyway) being a way to access your data and do your work without really thinking about how you’re doing it. Windows 7 nudges the bar in that direction.


  1. that translucent vertical bar by the clock you mentioned, is also a show desktop button. Just click on it and bam, your back to your desktop

  2. Yessiree! (hence the part where I wrote: "If it’s useful functionality that you’d prefer, a simple click of that same vertical bar serves to minimize everything to the task bar, fully revealing the desktop.")

    It's really no different than the icon that used to be in the quick-launch toolbar, except for the useless ability to make all open windows transparent, which I don't get but does look cool. Bit it's cool - I'll take silly, useless functionality that doesn't get in my way over, say, all the stupid permissions pop-ups in Vista that often DID get in my way, even given my brief experience with that O/S.

  3. Ah-ha! Actually, I just figured out why it's useful sometimes to just make every open window briefly transparent. I didn't notice it before because I don't have any desktop gadgets running on my primary PC. On my office computer, however, I have several, including a calendar because I'm always forgetting the date.

    I'm currently copying notes between Word and OneNote, and I wanted to check the date (since I date every entry to be able to tell later on which ones are older or more recent). Voila! The two windows, side-by-side, blocked the gadget until I moused over that little bar, then suddenly they were invisible and I could see my calendar.

    It really shouldn't have taken me so long to realize that there actually was a purpose for that feature.

  4. Mike,

    Do you use a version control system? If you don't, I recommend you take a look SVN (aka Subversion). If you are writing chapters, you can make changes, and role them back to what they were at any previous time in the past. There is lots of free online SVN hosting sites. The one that I use makes daily backups, and copies these backups to an Amazon data storage account (which is costing me about 10 cents per month). My PC can explode, and all my work is retreivable with little effort.

    That would take care of most of your data. For applications (like Firefox), try googling "PortableApps", and find apps (like PortableFirefox) that run entirely in its own folder, and does not modify anything else on your file system, nor the Windows registry. Cached files, bookmarks, etc, are all in the one folder. Put it on your USB flash drive, stick it into any PC. Your firefox (or any other portable app) will not know the difference.

    If you run OpenOffice as a portable app, almost nothing will have to be reinstalled (beyond the simple copy of the root folder) following an OS reinstall. (As for apps like Batman, you are probably on your own.)

    If this interests you, let me know and I will describe further how I have my own system set up. (At long last, by the way. I had backed up data to zipfiles on CD before, became confused about what files were most recent or in synch (following a system crash), zipped different archived zipfiles into other zipfiles on CD; I have legacy data that is a real mess, that I am slowly mining and sorting out. Never again. As of a year ago, this has ceased to be a problem.)

    - Largo

  5. Hey Largo -

    Nice to hear from you! I was hoping I hadn't bored you to tears at some point and led you to wander off. :D

    I'd love to read all about your setup. Funny your should mention Subversion, as that's exactly what I'd planned to use. I haven't set it up yet primarily because I didn't want to take time away from actual writing stuff to figure out how to install and use it. But the good news is that my wife (a programmer) is familiar with it and can help me get rolling in short order. I'm a horrible programmer so I've never really had direct exposure to version control software.

    For the most part, my books are the only things I'm really worried about. Most of my other "document" type files don't change very often, so an occasional backup of those is fine. I'd be bummed to lose the most current version of my outlook mailfile, but having to resort to an older backup wouldn't really be a big deal - most of the email I get (and keep) is crap.

    As for portables, it's funny that I actually enjoy wiping and reloading my system every year or so, getting a nice clean install of all my apps and starting fresh. Reinstalling Office, Firefox and a short list of other software doesn't take very long, so that's probably the part I mind the least. Portables are useful as hell when you're doing desktop computer troubleshooting, though, as you can jam in your flash drive and have all of your tools (or with Linux an entire Operating System) right at your fingertips without relying on (or cluttering up) the user's PC. I always liked that trick.


  6. What I suggest (because I am familiar with it, and have had good experience) is to get install the TortoiseSVN subversion client. Don't set up your own server. Register an account for free Subversion hosting at Unfuddle ( The free account will let you host one project, with as many repositories as you wish, to a limit of 100MB. All you will need at this point. Unfuddle, at your request, will make daily backups to your Amazon S3 account. The S3 fees are like 15 cents per GB per month, based on usage (i.e. storing 1MB is a fraction of a cent; they do not charge, eg, a full GB for a fraction used). Dirt cheap, and makes everything hands free. Getting an S3 account requires a credit card and about five minutes.

    Anything I produce other than large media files gets subverted, even things like daily medical logs, which will never be versioned or revised. It's like save once, and it is safe forever, and accessable from anywhere with Internet access.

    There are other fine SVN hosts other then Unfuddle, and data hosts other than Amazon (eg Google). But these are what I'm used to.

    (Later I hope to try running some virtual computers on the Amazon cloud infrastructure. This costs on the order of ten cents per hour to run, which I cannot justify at the moment. This sort of thing might go beyond your needs, but might be something you would enjoy playing with sometime. I can let you know if and when I get to that point.)

    I've nothing much more to add now. The more interesting story is what I use these for (and how), but that is a different story. If you run into trouble or confusion, or need clarification, let me know, and I may know what to add.

    BTW, I saw your comment on TiVo. Have you played with MythTV at all? (Another thing on my get-to list.)

    I shall be flying from Hong Kong back to Canada for Christmas. My son (who is eight) has never seen snow. I hope we will get some of the weather that you all have been having these past days.

    Merry Christmas!
    - Largo

  7. Great tips, Largo - Thanks! I had no idea Amazon's online storage was so inexpensive.

    I haven't really played with MythTV. I actually have a computer that's close enough to the TV to act as a media center if I were so inclined, but from what I've read the cablecards don't really work with PCs/tuner cards (though they were intended to by the FCC), so it's not something I've looked at recently.

    The closest I ever came to MythTV was when I beta-tested Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition (which was pretty cool - they shipped us an entire PC to test on), but I never followed up to put the technology to work for myself.

    I hope you and your family have a great trip! And you're more than welcome to as much of this weather as you can stand. :D