TEST DRIVE: Windows 7 Beta 1, Build 7000

Anxious IT and development managers got a New Year's gift when the first beta of Microsoft's Windows 7 operating system leaked onto the Web last month. According to published reports, Microsoft is expected to release the new beta as early as Wednesday evening as company CEO Steve Ballmer gives the opening keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

We asked Stephen Chapman, author of the Charlotte, N.C.-based UX Evangelist blog site, to provide an in-depth look at Windows 7 Beta 1 Build 7000. Chapman tested the 32-bit Windows 7 beta (the 64-bit version was not yet available at test time) on a mid-range desktop containing a 3GHz Celeron processor, 1GB RAM, an ATI Radeon x1550 DX9 GPU, and a Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-Fi soundcard.

Here is his hands-on report on Windows 7 Beta 1.

Diving In
Off the bat, there are two important things to note if you plan to use Build 7000 of the Windows 7 beta. First, if you obtained a key for Build 6801, it will not work for this version. That means reinstalling the software every 30 days. Second, and perhaps most urgent, there is a bug in this build that causes Windows Media Player 12 to corrupt certain variable bit rate (VBR) MP3 files. Microsoft is working on a patch for this issue and I'm assuming the legit (not leaked) Beta 1 build will come with the patch baked in. With that being said, from the perspective of a developer, Windows 7 Beta 1 Build 7000 seems to perform incredibly well.

I'm also happy to report that this build was fully compatible with my test PC, with no need to manually install or find any drivers. My system produced a Windows Experience Index (WEI) rating of 3.8, determined by the subscore of my processor. Other system components rated higher: 4.2 for RAM, 4.7 for graphics, 3.9 for gaming graphics, and 5.4 for the hard disk.

When it comes to the next version of Windows, the state of the User Access Control (UAC) security feature should be top of mind for almost any developer. Nothing has changed since the M3 Build 6801, which was distributed at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in October. The user still has four levels of reporting to select from, instead of Vista's limited on/off option. The Windows 7 UAC default behavior is set one notch below Vista's "enabled" default. With every application I installed, I only encountered a UAC pop-up at the beginning of the installation. My experience indicates that applications tuned for Vista's UAC environment should fair quite well under Windows 7.

Overall application compatibility is much better in Windows 7 Build 7000 than in the M3 Build 6801. While I experienced the typical gripes with just about every application developed for XP, every Vista-centric app installed and worked beautifully, without exception. Of course, your mileage may vary, but my experience indicates that Microsoft has come a long way since M3 Build 6801.

Another point of mention is the improvement to Windows 7's Data Execution Prevention (DEP), which foils buffer overflow exploits. If I had a nickel for every headache DEP gave me in Vista Ultimate, I'd be a rich man. Build 7000 is much better. Still, it's important for developers to keep DEP in mind when coding applications.

Taken to Taskbar
Next up is the new taskbar. Some people like it, some people hate it, but personally I love it. There is real potential for developers who want to provide exciting new functionality for users, and it's incredibly simple to integrate with.

Depending on the complexity of your application, removing system tray notifications and placing them -- along with application history and commonly used tasks -- in "jump lists" will make your users jump for joy. Additionally, developers of, say, multimedia applications could create thumbnail previews containing interactive controls. Microsoft has already done this with Windows Media Player, which you can play with right out of the box.

There's plenty for developers to wrap their minds around, including touch computing, Windows Biometric Framework, Windows Sensor and Location Platform, .NET Framework 4.0 (coming with Visual Studio 2010 and not yet baked into Windows 7) and Direct3D WARP 10. Imagine developing a 3D game that uses DX10 without requiring a DX10 GPU (via WARP 10). Not just that, but you can craft a game interface with a bio reader to allow access to certain data, which a user can interactively manipulate via multi-touch functionality.

For instance, a user can zoom in on some content, select it, flip it 180 degrees, resize it, then move it somewhere else on the screen -- all without touching a mouse or a keyboard. You can even have a character in the game eerily interact with the user, by using the Sensor and Location Platform to quietly gather locale data behind the scenes. The possibilities are endless, and Windows 7 is definitely shaping up to be an incredibly fun platform to develop for.

Look and Feel
Microsoft has added some nice touches, including a beautiful boot animation and a slew of new wallpaper choices that weren't present in Build 6801. There are some slight changes to the icons, such as in the system tray, as well as to the Start button, which has been changed to reflect different states for idle, hover, and click.

Perhaps one of the best additions to come through in Beta 1 is the automatic enablement of all the glitz and glamor previously lacking by default in build 6801 -- desktop snapping, Aero Peek, desktop preview, Aero Shake and more. In order to get desktop preview working, you need to right-click the button in the far right-hand corner of the taskbar and check the box that says, "Preview desktop." Then, all you need to do is hover your mouse over that button while other windows obscure the desktop. The windows will become translucent. Personally, I have no use for that feature but it sure looks spiffy.

The taskbar performs nicely and I noticed with a few select icons that the mouse animation “moves” in such a way that it accentuates icons with shadows behind them. Take for instance the Opera browser's ‘O' icon. Quite simply, it looks awesome down in the taskbar as you mouse over it. Just another small feature to bear in mind when you are designing an icon for your application.

Gadgets in Windows 7 have been given free reign to live outside of the Windows Sidebar. In Beta 1, gadgets seem to play nicely on the desktop at various opacity levels.

From a performance standpoint, applications in Beta 1 Build 7000 produced consistent responsiveness across the various Aero interface settings (Aero enabled, Aero-basic enabled, and Windows classic), though there was a noticeable drop in certain system resources. It's worth noting that Internet Explorer 8 seems to perform much, much better than it did in Build 6801, though IE still lags behind Opera in responsiveness.

Windows 7 Beta 1 displayed excellent stability, running consistently through all my tests. I also fiddled with the interface in an effort to unearth bugs and observe the behavior of the OS. For example, I extensively tested taskbar behavior by positioning the taskbar at various heights, moving windows behind it and testing functionality like desktop preview. So far, so good.

Drawing Conclusions
All in all, my impression of the Windows 7 Beta 1 build is quite favorable. Microsoft is moving strongly in the right direction with this build, delivering a level of stability and functionality that Vista is sorely lacking. Windows 7 Beta 1 feels incredibly stable and has performed well in my tests under many different applications, including anti-virus, compression/decompression software, media applications, audio recording applications, Internet browsers and numerous others. All this on a relatively modest client PC.

I wouldn't recommend you install this build and trust it with all of your data, but if you're a developer, by all means get started. Windows 7 has the look of an outstanding target for application development.

About the Author

Stephen Chapman is an investigative blogger who writes for ZDNet and authors the Microsoft enthusiast blog Microsoft Kitchen. He was recently named by Redmond magazine as one of the top 10 influential Microsoft pundits. His coverage of emerging Microsoft technologies affords him a unique perspective and sound insight into the future of products such as Windows, Office, Windows Phone and more.