Do you need Windows 7? If you're happy with your current PC—whether it runs Vista, XP, or some other operating system—probably not. But if you're in the market for a new system, there's a lot to like about Windows 7, particularly in the look-and-feel department.
You can read all about Win7's new features on Microsoft's official Windows 7 site. But some of my favorites are the subtle interface tweaks that can be easy to miss.
Starting with the basics
I like to keep the Windows desktop free of icons, so the first change I make to any new Windows setup is to right-click the desktop, choose View, and uncheck Show Desktop Icons. Windows 7 gives me a reason to keep those icons in view. Move your mouse to the far right end of Windows 7's taskbar to "Peek" through all open windows to the desktop.
Windows 7 also lets you "Shake" a window to hide all other open windows and shake it again to get them back. Or "Snap" a window to the top, bottom, left, or right side of the screen to fill that portion of the screen, which is great for comparing files or folders.
The Notification area gets a facelift in Windows 7. To open the new-look Notification Area Icon Control Panel applet, right-click the Start button, choose Properties > Notification Area > Customize. The options to hide icons, always show them, or show only notifications are the same as in Vista, but the interface is slicked up a bit.
A new icon in Windows 7's Notification area is the Action Center, which centralizes all pending system alerts. Hovering over the Action Center's flag icon displays the number of messages in the queue. The How-To Geek explains how to customize Action Center messages and also provides instructions for disabling the feature.
Jump to a recent file or open window
Previous versions of Windows have offered ways to return to files, folders, and applications that were opened recently. Two new methods in Windows 7 are Jump Lists, which appear when you right-click a taskbar icon, and Aero Peek, which previews files when you over their taskbar thumbnails.
A new look for some old favorites
I've been using Paint and WordPad for so long the programs—both of which have been baked into Windows for years—feel like old friends. I was delighted to see that the versions of these apps in Windows 7 sport ribbons similar to those in Office 2007 programs. Of course, not everyone likes the ribbon interface, but I think it's easier to access the items I use most.
Frankly, I'm just glad Microsoft hasn't remove these Windows stalwarts the way it jettisoned Windows Mail, Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, and other formerly-built-in components to create the separate Windows Live Essentials.
Getting a feel for the Windows 7 interface
Perhaps the most impressive interface tweak in Windows 7 is apparent only to touchscreen users. Any iPhone user will appreciate the ability to control screen elements by using your fingertips to drag and tap elements on the display. CNET Senior Associate Editor Seth Rosenblatt gives a video demo of Win7's touch features.
But touch will be a novelty until significant numbers of PCs with touchscreens arrive. As Ina Fried explains in her Beyond Binary blog, consumers have balked at the added price of touch-enabled systems. However, as the price of touchscreens drops and software arrives that takes advantage of the feature, you may find yourself spending less time clutching your mouse.