Looking forward to Windows 8, what Microsoft missed in Windows 7
Already talk about Windows 7 has moved forward to Windows 8, as Microsoft last month began hiring for posts within that division. With this in mind I thought that, from a usability standpoint, I’d take a good in-depth look at Windows 7 and see what changes could have been implemented already and what we can perhaps look forward to in the future.
I want to start with Windows Explorer because this is essentially the same beast that we saw in Windows 98. Okay, so Microsoft overhauled the main interface with Vista by introducing the breadcrumb bar, but if you open an explorer window today in a basic installation of Windows 7, you’ll be very used to what you’ve seen for over ten years.
Why is this a bad thing? If we take a trip back to the good old-fashioned 20th century then we’ll see a time before the mass adoption of MP3 players, portable video players and digital cameras. The files we stored on our PCs were sparse and usually consisted only of office type documents and PDFs.
Now of course things are very different and we all have a plethora of diverse files on our PCs. For some reason however, and even though you can change the settings, the default explorer view is of mixed file types all sorted alphabetically. The option to change this to, for instance, my personal choice of grouped by file type, isn’t the easiest feature to find.
There are other omissions in the Windows 7 version of explorer too including the fact that we’re still seeing drive letters by default and compressed drives highlighted in blue when we really don’t need to any more.
Don’t get me wrong at this stage. I love Windows 7 and want it to be the best product it can be. It’s just a shame though that while Microsoft overhaul great chunks of the user interface they’re missing certain small usability issues that go along-side these. I’ll write more about this in coming chapters.
In the first part of this article series I wrote about what I consider failings in explorer and problems that date back to Windows 98. Explorer is a bit of a problem in Windows 7. It’s simply not moved on enough from the software we’ve used in the past and, given that we spend so much of our time using it, these usability issues should have been rectified by now.
With Windows 7, Microsoft introduced Libraries to help us find and organise our files and folders more effectively. It’s a bit of a half-way house though. In principle the idea is fantastic. You can aggregate files and folders on your hard drive, for instance all your photos and organise them by tags (metadata).
This assumes that the average user has all their files tagged and, indeed, knows how to do it. Microsoft have really missed a trick with this. If you think back to Windows 95, Microsoft became the king of the wizard. Popping up everywhere, literally, were excellent wizards and utilities for doing almost everything. Microsoft could easily release a wizard or two to help users tag their files at any stage, it would not have to be bundled with Windows 7. This useful addition is sadly lacking though.
The biggest criticism Libraries have come under though is that you can only add folders to them. You can filter the content by file type, date or author. This simple functionality would take the feature to new heights of usefulness. It would literally transform the way people organise their files.
Which brings me on to one last point. There’s a big focus I’m talking about here about aggregated storage, finding your files wherever they have been stored. Since Windows XP though Microsoft have been making it easy, and actively encouraging us to store our files in the right places to begin with. The Documents, Pictures etc. folder structure and the way they are accessed, especially with the favourite links pane and breadcrumb bar in Vista have been intended to make life much simpler for users. Is this new move towards aggregated storage an admission from Microsoft that it hasn’t worked?
In this article I would like to discuss a much requested feature in Windows… “Gaming Mode”.
Simply put, Windows as you all no doubt know, is bloated. Previous versions have suffered from having too many services running in the background and Vista’s performance was a complete dog. I have met very few people who are even prepared to play online games in Vista, they’re sticking with XP.
That OS had its faults too though which included a Data Execution Prevention system that thought some games were viruses.
As I’m sure you know the essence of a gaming mode is a stripped down version of the OS, running only what’s absolutely essential to run your game happily. Games these days are extremely demanding on even the best hardware and, let’s face it, not many of us have a couple of thousand to spend on a PC.
I’d be interested in your thoughts on this because, although Windows 7 is leaner and much quicker than Vista, I still can’t see gamers rallying around it. Also the new ‘XP Mode’ won’t sadly act as a substitute for a gaming mode as it’s only a glorified version of Microsoft Virtual PC, which was also a dog.
I believe that we’ll never see a dedicated gaming mode in Windows, Microsoft just won’t concede that stuff needs to be switched off in order to have a happy computing experience because…
A) The likes of Google, Real Networks and other companies who have sued Microsoft in the past will use it as absolute proof that features such as Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player et al can be happily removed from the OS forever and…
B) Because they’ll just say it’ll make the system extremely insecure and prone to all sorts of meanies and nasties. Even though this probably wouldn’t be true.
There is an alternative however and it’s one I’m going to examine in more detail ready for the official launch of Windows 7. What’s more, it’s one that can be back-ported to both Windows XP and Vista. Quite simply, the magic alternative is PowerShell, Microsoft’s scripted replacement for the ‘should have been dead long ago’ DOS prompt.
PowerShell allows you to write scripts to automate jobs such as switching services on and off, and I’m going to look into writing a PowerShell script in the near future to provide the optimum streamlined gaming experience for a standard Windows installation.
Will this convince hard core gamers to switch to Windows 7? To be honest I believe they’ll eventually make the switch anyway unless we start reading horror stories as we did with Vista, which isn’t very likely. This won’t be because of Windows 7 however, it’ll probably be because of massively quick new hardware that will mean any lags in the OS really won’t be noticable any more. Every little extra to help though can only be a good thing.
As I write this I’m sat in the office with a colleague’s PC running the ‘system file checker’ in a corner of the room. He owns a laptop, it’s getting on a bit now but still good, on which his copy of XP wouldn’t start up. He, like so many other people, hadn’t backed up his files so restoring the existing system, rather than formatting and reinstalling was the only real option.
The tools I’ve used for this are the ‘recovery console’ and, as I’ve previously said, the very useful ‘system file checker’. With Vista, Microsoft removed the recovery console and replaced it with an automated set of tools you could run from the install DVD. Better still, in Windows 7, these tools were included within the operating system itself, running automatically if Windows detects that it can’t start and saving people from having to dig deep within boxes to find their original DVD.
The system file checker is a different matter though. Once I’d got his copy of XP to start I then ran it only to discover that it wanted an XP Home Service Pack 3 install CD, so last night I had to create one of those for him. This is an extremely useful tool, run from the command SFC /SCANNOW at the command prompt, that will check the integrity of all the operating system files and, if it finds any that are corrupt, will restore them from the original install disk.
With Vista, Microsoft greatly improved the monitoring and performance tools within Windows itself and, with Windows 7, have made them even better. I still can’t understand though why the system file checker isn’t something that can either be run from the Start Menu or a tool that will run automatically under certain circumstances, like after a blue-screen and reboot or another failure that the Windows Error Log would class as ‘serious’.
PCs are years away from being consumer electronic devices still, but Microsoft have missed a trick with this. Hopefully Windows 8 will build on the already excellent recovery and diagnostic tools and automate this brilliant little utility.