Examining the New Windows 7 User Interface

by [Published on 18 Aug. 2009 / Last Updated on 18 Aug. 2009]

What you need to know about the new features in Windows 7’s user interface.

Introduction

Windows 7 is finally upon us, and with it comes Microsoft’s latest user interface. While this interface is designed to boost productivity, it may initially result in increased helpdesk calls. This article teaches you what you need to know about these new features.

Those of you who are familiar with the books and articles that I have written know that I normally like to focus on topics related to enterprise networking. In this article though, I want to take a break from the norm and talk about some of the new features in the Windows 7 user interface. The reason why I am doing this is because many of the organizations that chose not to upgrade from Windows XP to Vista are expected to upgrade to Windows 7 relatively soon. The Windows 7 user interface is different enough from the Windows XP interface that your help desk is bound to get calls from some confused users. That being the case, I wanted to give you a crash course in some of the new user interface features.

Aero Snap

The Aero Snap feature is a welcome addition for anyone who typically works with multiple windows at the same time, but who is not running a multiple monitor configuration. The basic idea behind this feature is that it makes it easy for you to divide your screen in half so that you can view one window on one side of the screen and another window on the other side of the screen. Yes, you can do that with both Windows XP and with Vista, but not quite as easily.

In previous versions of Windows, if you wanted to look at multiple windows simultaneously, you had to drag the windows into position, and then manually resize them. It was tough to get two windows to be exactly the same size.

In Windows 7 the Aero Snap feature does all of the work for you. All you have to do is to grab a window and then drag it to either the left or the right side of the screen. Once your mouse nears the edge of the screen, you will notice that the Windows desktop darkens. This is a signal that Aero Snap has engaged. If you let go of your mouse button, the color of your desktop will return, and the window will snap to either the left or the right side of the screen and size itself to occupy exactly half of the desktop. If you look at Figure A, you can see an example of two windows that I have put into position using Aero Snap.


Figure A: Aero Snap allows you to automatically size windows to take up exactly half of the screen

Aero Snap allows you to do more than just splitting the screen though. If you drag a window to the top of the screen, the window will maximize automatically. Likewise, dragging a window to the bottom of the screen will cause the window to minimize.

Aero Shake

One of my favorite new desktop features is something called Aero Shake. The reason why I like this feature so much is because it helps you to cut through the desktop clutter. The computer that I do all of my writing on has three monitors, but I still tend to get bogged down with too many open windows. For example, right now I’ve got ten windows open, and that is actually less than normal for me.

Aero shake is designed to quickly minimize all of the windows except for the one that you are currently using. To use this feature, simply grab an application with your mouse and shake the application a few times. When you do, all of the other applications will minimize. If you shake the application again, all of your windows will go back to their previous positions.

I am betting that this feature is going to confuse more than a few users who accidentally shake an application only to have their other windows disappear.

Aero Peek

Another handy feature is something called Aero Peek. In Vista, if you held your mouse pointer over an open application on the task bar you were treated to a live preview of the application. This worked really well unless you had multiple instances of the application open, in which case the previews were stacked. This meant that if you had ten browser windows open, you would only see a preview of one of them.

Aero Peek does things a bit differently. If you have multiple instances of an application open, then hovering your mouse over the listing for the application on the task bar will cause Windows to display a thumbnail preview of each of the instances. Furthermore, you can click on a preview to go directly to that window. This feature is going to be a huge time saver for people like me who always have an excessive number of windows open.

The Task bar

The taskbar has also changed in Windows 7. If you look at Figure B, you will notice that the Windows 7 taskbar is a little bit thicker than the one that Vista uses. You will also notice that it includes icons for Internet Explorer, Windows Explorer, and Windows Media Player. These applications are said to be pinned to the task bar.


Figure B: Windows 7 allows you to pin applications to the task bar

Pinning an application to the task bar allows you to launch the application without having to use the Start menu or a desktop shortcut. If you want to pin an application to the task bar, simply drag the application from the Start menu to the task bar. To unpin the application, right click on its task bar icon, and choose the Unpin This Program From Taskbar option from the shortcut menu.

Jump list

The last feature that I want to tell you about is something called jump lists. In Windows Vista, the Start menu contained a Recent Items container that you could use to access all of your recently used documents. The problem with this container is that it did not care which application the files were associated with. You might have MP3 files right alongside PDF files.

Jump lists make recent item lists application aware. Hovering over any application on the Start menu or on the task bar will reveal a list of documents that were recently opened with that application. In the case of Internet Explorer, the jump list contains a list of recently viewed Web pages. This means that it is possible to just hover over the icon for Internet Explorer on the task bar and pick a recently viewed Web page, and go to that page without having to open Internet Explorer first. This feature saves you from having to fumble with your list of recently viewed Web pages once Internet Explorer has been opened.

Conclusion

As you can see, Windows 7 user interface is quite a bit different from the interfaces used by Windows XP and Vista. My personal opinion is that Microsoft has done a really good job creating an interface that will make using Windows more efficient after the initial learning curve. Having said that, I also think that a few of the features (Aero Shake and Aero Snap specifically) may end up confusing some users who initiate them accidentally, which may lead to help desk calls.

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