Windows 7 has entered the home straight, with the appearance of what looks likely to be its one and only Release Candidate (RC). Microsoft's VP for Windows Platform Strategy, Mike Nash, is confident enough to suggest that users and businesses should "Treat the Beta like a RC, treat the RC like a final product". He also expects that the RC will be used to test deployment and applications, so that businesses can jump straight to Windows 7, without the traditional wait for the first service pack. It's something that Nash felt that Microsoft "Had to earn the right to do — by making the process more predictable".
Sprucing up the desktop
There's very little difference between the user interface of the Beta and the RC. Microsoft's engineering team has done some tuning and tweaking on the user experience, refining many of the new elements it introduced in January. Some of it simply makes actions clearer, including a brighter Start orb and more distinct boundaries around open applications in the Taskbar. Many of the Windows applications and applets get new icons too, although some, like Control Panel's, aren't immediately clear.
Aero Peek has now been added to the Alt-Tab task switcher.
One of the nicer tweaks (rectifying one of the more obvious omissions from the Beta release) is the addition of Aero Peek to the Alt-Tab task switcher. As you switch between applications and windows, the others fade away, leaving current selection visible. This makes it easier to be sure that you're switching the right application and the right window.
More to manage
System administrators will be glad of Windows 7's PowerShell support, and the bundled PowerShell tools now support JumpLists — so recent scripts will be accessible from the start menu or the taskbar, making it a lot easier to access common tools. With Windows Server 2008 R2 on the same schedule as Windows 7 there's also a new version of the Remote Server Administration Tool (RSAT), which can manage several servers from a Windows 7 system.
Beta users weren't happy that they were left using an older version of Internet Explorer, and the RC now includes the final version of IE8. One big change here is the ability to turn Internet Explorer off, so that it doesn't appear in the Start menu. It's not completely uninstalled, as there are plenty of Windows 7 components that use the Internet Explorer HTML engine, but it won't suddenly launch when you're expecting to use the browser you've made the default.
There's a lot more granularity in the features that can be turned on and off — something that's reflected in the 300 new Group Policy Objects that ship in Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2. Over 150 of them alone are intended to control IE8, but you can also control features like the Gadget platform, along with Windows 7's power management features. Microsoft admits that you'll need Windows Server 2008 R2 to get the most from Windows 7 — especially if you're planning on using the VPN-less DirectAccess and bandwidth-saving BranchCache features.
The PowerShell-scripted troubleshooting tools also get some updates, with additional support for DirectAccess. If problems occur, then the standard Diagnose Connection in Internet Explorer or Troubleshooting Control Panel will help determine the cause of the issue — and can even provide a solution — without calling support. Although it's not part of the RC, Microsoft has also made a Troubleshooting SDK available, so you can create your own Troubleshooting Packs for your network or for your applications.
Securing the loopholes
Security gets an uptick with a change to the way AutoRun works. In the past, the OS treated USB flash drives just like CD-ROMs, trusting applications on them enough to let them run automatically. Worms and malware like Conficker have changed that, as they've used flash drive autorun to propagate. Now flash devices don't get an autorun option, and you'll have to manually launch any applications they host. If you're using portable applications and flash drive launchers you'll find this an inconvenience — but most people shouldn't notice, and PCs will be that little bit more secure. This change isn't just for Windows 7: Microsoft will also be making it to existing XP and Vista installs.
There are also some minor changes to AppLocker, so you can now redirect users to a web page when an application install is blocked. It's a simple Group Policy Object, and adding it to a standard Active Directory configuration can cut down on angry telephone calls — especially if the page is a copy of your acceptable use policy!
Compatibility through virtualisation
Backward compatibility has always been one of Microsoft's strengths — and also one of its weaknesses, as ensuring that older programs run well has meant that new technologies are often left on the sidelines. Enterprise users have had access to Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualisation tools (MED-V) for some time, which lets administrators control a virtual XP desktop running alongside Windows Vista. This blends XP applications with the Vista desktop using a new version of Remote Desktop to connect to the remote machine — letting new applications use Vista and MED-V to host older applications and redirect files to Vista's file system.
Windows 7's new XP Mode is MED-V without the management tools — a version of Virtual PC with a copy of Windows XP. It's not for every PC, as you'll need a CPU that supports Intel's VT or AMD's AMD-V hardware-based virtualisation. As it's really a separate PC, you'll need to have appropriately licensed antivirus and security tools installed — which aren't part of the standard virtual machine.
Windows 7's new XP Mode is essentially the existing Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualisation (MED-V) without the management tools.
XP applications can be installed in the VM and then run straight from Windows 7's Start menu just like standard Windows applications (as long as they have program icons in the All Users section of the XP Start Menu), although you don't get Windows 7's taskbar previews. As application windows are delivered using Remote Desktop you can't have the full XP desktop open at the same time as a virtual XP application. Performance isn't the best — unsurprisingly as this is a hosted VM, unlike one using the bare-metal Hyper-V — and there's initially some lag between keyboard and mouse and the virtual machine. XP Mode won't ship in the Windows 7 box, but will be an additional download for the Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate editions.
Microsoft has done a lot of work to tune performance across a wide range of platforms, and startup and wake-from-sleep times are noticeably better than Vista; hibernate remains much the same as it depends on disk reads and writes. The RC installs on Vista-capable PCs with little or no problems, and runs well on netbook-class devices — even those which wouldn't have been able to run Vista. If you're doing an update install be prepared to wait a lot longer than for the clean alternative: a fresh install took less than 20 minutes, while updates took more than two hours (depending on the number of files and applications that needed migration).
One surprise in the RC is a set of new tools that allow media to stream from one PC to another — even over the internet. Remote Media Streaming isn't the easiest of features to set up, as the two machines need to be linked by an online ID (and currently only LiveID is supported). But once connected, music and video can be seen anywhere there's an internet connection. Microsoft sees this as a way of extending Media Center outside the home, and Mike Nash has indicated that this is Microsoft competing with set-top boxes from the likes of Sling.
We've been using Beta and RC code since Windows 3, and this is by far the most solid and feature-complete RC we've seen. The Beta of Windows 7 proved stable enough to be usable as an everyday operating system, and the RC looks to be very close to what Microsoft will launch — probably later this year. Windows 7's Vista and Server 2008 heritage means that driver issues are a thing of the past: it's really only applications that need low-level access that may have problems. The new OS's performance improvements mean that it runs on a much wider range of hardware than its predecessor.
As Microsoft's Mike Nash has said, this is a release for piloting deployments and doing final application compatibility tests. It's also a free copy of Windows for a year, as the RC won't time out until June 2010 — although it will start shutting down every two hours from March 2010.