There’s a lot to love about the Windows 7 operating system: it’s fast, it looks great, and it has some cool features–like Jump Lists for quickly opening recently used files, Homegroup for sharing files between computers, and Aero Snap to help you quickly organize your open desktop windows.
Windows 7 addresses some of the problems that plagued its predecessor, Windows Vista, such as the Universal Access Control security system, the constant stream of notifications, and the lack of device drivers for printers and other peripherals.
Microsoft hasn’t solved all of those issues–in fact, getting Windows 7 drivers for some printers continues to be a struggle–but so far Windows 7 is a vast improvement over Vista, despite their underlying similarities.
That said, Windows 7 has downsides of its own. Some of the problems involve minor inefficiencies that grow annoying over time; others truly degrade the user experience through lack of functionality, poor organization, or an overabundance of choice. Here are the problem children of Windows 7–the faulty features I found in the Home Premium version of Microsoft’s latest OS.
When Clicking Isn’t Switching
If you’re looking for a good reason never to use Internet Explorer 8 in Windows 7, try this: Open multiple tabs in IE 8, and open a Microsoft Word document. Then click the IE icon in the taskbar, and…nothing happens. Instead of switching over to Internet Explorer as you’d expect it to, Windows 7 greets you with miniature pop-ups for every tab you’ve opened in IE and asks you to choose the one you’d like to go to.
This feature, called Aero Peek, is actually a nice idea, since you get to choose the tab you want to see. But we’ve been trained for years to expect to switch to a new program when we click on its icon in the taskbar, so why change the behavior now? In Windows 7, many Microsoft-made programs (including Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer 8, and Windows Live Messenger) use this feature. But since you can also activate Aero Peek by hovering over a taskbar icon instead of clicking it, a better solution for Windows 7 would be, hover to peek but click to switch.
The Automatic Switch
Thanks to another Aero Peek function, when you move your pointer over any of the small pop-ups, you suddenly find yourself in the new program–except that you aren’t really there. When you mouse over a pop-up, the corresponding application fills the screen, but when you move the pointer to go to the app the app disappears. The purpose of this feature is to enable you to quickly navigate to another program like IE, refer to something in the browser, and then jump back to where you were. But suppose that you’re in Microsoft Word and you jump over to IE 8 to check out a news item on CNN. As you read the article, you decide to click an accompanying video–but the moment you move your mouse, you’re back in Microsoft Word. That’s not helpful; it’s frustrating.
Windows 7 behaves similarly when you hover over ‘All programs’ in the Start Menu. Hover too long over ‘All programs’, and Windows 7 will switch to your full programs list instead of remaining in the primary Start Menu. Unfortunately, this little trick takes just under 2 seconds to pull off, which is too slow to be useful but just fast enough to be annoying.
Too Many Notifications
Windows 7 greatly improves on Vista by cutting down the number of system notification pop-ups that interrupt you during a Windows session–but there’s still room to cut down on the excess. For example, Windows 7 issues an “Information” notice when you plug headphones or speakers into your computer’s headphone jack. You can’t get a virus through a headphone jack, though, so why alert me to something so innocuous?
The most ridiculous alert I’ve encountered was an update telling me that Windows 7 was going to check for a system update at 3 a.m. Do I need to know this? Just do the update; and if you need my authorization to proceed, let me know when it’s time. My computer should work on my schedule, not interrupt me with details about its itinerary.
User Account Control
When it introduced UAC in Windows Vista, Microsoft hailed it as a significant step toward making Windows systems more secure. But most users detested UAC–in particular, the way it blanked out the screen and then repeatedly asked whether they really wanted to install something. Microsoft has made the UAC in Windows 7 dramatically better, with fewer screen blank outs (you can even turn them off) and alerts. Still, there must be a better way than UAC to handle security issues.
Windows Live an Essential Hassle
With Windows 7, Microsoft has removed some basic programs from the operating system and bundled them in a free download called Windows Live Essentials. Windows Live programs include Windows Live Mail (the successor to Outlook Express), Messenger, Movie Maker, Photo Gallery, Call, and Writer (a blogging tool). Microsoft says that it decided to make these programs available as a download, instead of including them with Windows 7, so that it could update the applications “without being tied to the OS upgrade cycle.”
The drawback of the Windows Live Essentials download is that it adds a step to the initial Windows 7 setup process. Given that Live Essentials are basic programs that most users will want to have at their fingertips, why not figure out a way to bundle them with new computers right out of the box?
I’ve never been a huge fan of gadgets, but they can be helpful for quickly checking a flight time or weather forecast. In Windows 7, you can put gadgets anywhere on your desktop; but just as in Vista, you don’t have an automatic hide option for gadgets. Instead, to make your gadgets disappear, you have to right-click your desktop, select View, and uncheck ‘Show desktop gadgets’.
That’s not a very convenient procedure, so your gadgets are likely to remain visible on your desktop pretty much all the time. An automatic hide option that would enable you to make gadgets reappear with a keystroke would be a nice thing for users who value a clean desktop.
All I wanted to do was change my desktop background–not get new system sounds or a new color scheme or a new mouse pointer. In XP, adopting one of my own photos as my desktop background took just a few clicks; and even in Windows Vista, the process was pretty straightforward. But Windows 7’s themes take changing your desktop background to a new and unpleasant level of complication.
Themes in Windows 7 are predefined profiles that compile everything from your system sounds, screen savers, and windows colors in one place, where you can activate them with just one click. For the most part this is a great and highly customizable feature, but one of the things people are most likely to want to change is their desktop background. So why not make this basic act something you can do on the fly in just a few clicks, instead of the confusing rigmarole Windows 7 makes you go through now?
Vague Control Panel
The problem with the Control Panel started with Windows XP’s introduction of Classic View. In truth, there’s nothing classic about this view, and “Standard View” would be a more apt name for it. Though the Classic View in XP has a very practical organizational structure, Microsoft insisted on switching to a new default organization in Windows 7 called ‘Category.’
Supposedly, Category provides a simplified version of the Control Panel; but in reality it’s vague, confusing, and much harder to navigate. The display closest to the Control Panel’s old Classic View is called ‘Large icons’, and you select it in the ‘View by’ drop-down menu in the upper right corner of the Control Panel window.
The other trouble with the Control Panel is that, ever since Vista, some icons have acquired more-confusing names. The straightforward ‘Add or remove programs’, became ‘Programs and Features’, and ‘Accessibility Options’ became ‘Ease of Access Center’. Give me that old-time Windows 98 Control Panel any day.
Screenshots: Easy but Not Simple
Creating screen grabs, which I do every day, has always been a chore in Windows. Before Windows 7 you had to press Ctrl-Print Screen, open a program such as Windows Paint, paste the image into Paint, and then save it. You can still do this in Windows 7, but Microsoft has tried to make the screenshot process easier by introducing the Snipping Tool. To access this new application, clicking Start, Accessories, Snipping Tool.
The Snipping Tool offers such options as a one-window snip, a full-screen snip, a rectangular snip that you frame yourself, and a free-form snip for tablet computers. You select the snip you want, the application performs the action, and then you save. But again, Windows 7 falls short by making the screen capture path unnecessarily difficult.
In contrast, Mac OS X gives you two basic choices for screen grabs: Command-Shift-3 takes a shot of the whole screen; and Command-Shift-4 lets you frame your own shot. Screenshots in OS X are saved directly to your desktop as a Portable Network Graphic file (.png). Like the Snipping Tool, Mac OS X offers various other screenshot options, but in OS X the variations use keyboard shortcuts and don’t require you to open any applications. Microsoft should create a similarly easy method for capturing screenshots.
Tip: To make screen grabs a little easier, create a keyboard shortcut to the Snipping Tool. Click Start, Accessories, and right-click Snipping Tool, Properties. Move your cursor into the Shortcut tab’s entry box, enter s (or any other keystroke), and click apply. From now on, whenever you type Ctrl-Alt-s, the Snipping Tool should open up.
Elusive ‘My Documents’ Folder
Wondering what happened to your old ‘My Documents’ folder (from Windows XP) in Windows 7? In a practical sense, My Documents has become ‘Documents’–but that description isn’t quite accurate. Actually, Windows 7 introduced a new file hierarchy called Libraries that differs from the file systems in previous versions of Windows. As a result of this change, the My Documents folder rarely appears in the main section of Windows Explorer in Windows 7. Instead, it sits in the side panel on the left under Libraries, Documents, My Documents, but it almost never appears in the main window.
The new arrangement is helpful in that you can see the My Documents subfolders right away; it also reduces the number of clicks needed to get to the folder’s contents. But the new hierarchy provides what appear to be two places to save a document, though in fact you end up in the same location either way you do it.
To illustrate this, save a file to My Documents in Windows 7: Select Libraries, Documents, My Documents; once your document is saved, right-click the file and select Properties. Under ‘Location’ you should see something like ‘C:\ Users\USERNAME\Documents’. But didn’t you save that file directly to the ‘My Documents’ folder? So shouldn’t it be ‘C:\Users\USERNAME\Documents\MyDocuments’?
If you use the left navigation pane in Windows 7 to get to My Documents, you’ll still see your file listed as part of the My Documents folder, but you’ll also see it standing alone in the Documents view one level up. So Windows 7 appears to the user to maintain two different navigation structures for getting to the same file: Libraries, Documents, My Documents, FILENAME, and Libraries, Documents, FILENAME.
It may be a great way to organize your files, but I find it redundant. Windows 7 should either discard the My Documents folder or embrace it; the OS shouldn’t try to do both at the same time.
The Exclusivity of Homegroups
Homegroup in Windows 7 lets you easily share documents, music, pictures, and videos between different computers at home. It’s a great feature, except that it only works with Windows 7 computers. It’s a shame that Microsoft hasn’t brought this functionality to computers running Windows Vista. You can still share files between Vista and Windows 7 PCs through Windows Media Player, or you can set up a home network the old-fashioned way under Network Settings. But I wish that Microsoft had brought Homegroup to Windows Vista–and enabled Homegroup to share with Mac OS X computers, too.
For the most part, Windows 7 is an excellent operating system that includes an array of great new features as well as some basic improvements on its predecessors. I’ve never seen Windows interact so seamlessly with peripheral USB devices, for example; and monitoring your default and startup programs in the new OS is remarkably easy. But if Microsoft tweaked a few more things in Windows 7, the experience would be nearly perfect.
Connect with Ian Paul on Twitter (@ianpaul).