Windows Vista was often derided because of the poor implementation of security features. The reality was that Vista did improve security over Windows XP, but contrived enhancements left many unhappy. Users had to deal with cryptic messages, frequent pop-ups and several layers of security, which made security more of a hassle than it was worth. Even so, the core security functionality of Windows Vista proved to work quite well, meaning that most of the security fixes under Windows 7 were only minor changes. But those changes will make a big difference in the user experience.
Windows 7 User Account Control (UAC): UAC has been reworked in Windows 7 to make it more user-friendly. With Windows 7, UAC has not lost any of its essential security capabilities, but users now have more control and can reduce the number of annoying messages. Users are able to reduce the frequency that UAC asks for permission to install or change a program and can even turn off permission requests and set UAC to notify only. Those changes add up to a security system that is easier to use and master.
AppLocker: AppLocker is a new feature, which is used to restrict program execution based on firewall profiles. Users will appreciate the ability to 'lock down' applications and can now set up portable systems that can be used both in a business environment and in a home environment. Applications that are deemed less secure can be disabled when a user is connected to a corporate network and re-enabled when on a home or public network. AppLocker also features in-depth application controls, which can be used to define polices to allow or prevent an application from launching. With Windows 7, Microsoft has reduced the number of applications that require administrator-level permissions to execute. Users will be less frequently prompted for permission to run system applications.
BitLocker: BitLocker arrived on the scene with Windows Vista, but it was a severely limited encryption mechanism that worked only under certain circumstances. BitLocker is now much easier to use and supports single key instances, which allows data to be recovered using a common encryption key assigned by the network administrator. BitLocker Mobile adds support for removable devices, such as USB drives, to keep information secure while in transit. Network policies can be defined to require all users to encrypt data on removable devices, perhaps preventing data leakage problems.
Action Center: Windows 7 brings with it "Action Center," which is a new management console designed to handle all alerts and warnings. Action Center keeps users informed of critical events, ranging from security problems to diagnostics to solutions. Action Center makes it much easier to deal with the numerous events, warnings and messages that Windows generates.
Windows Defender & Windows Firewall: Windows Defender has a vastly improved interface, which is much easier to understand. What's more, Windows Defender events are relayed to Action Center, which keeps users better informed. Windows Defender offers improved continuous monitoring, helping to better protect systems. Windows Firewall now supports more third-party security applications, which add extended features, such as customized firewall policies. Windows Firewall offers multi-profile capabilities, which are concurrently or separately activated based upon a user's connection status or other defined policies.
Windows 7 also adds many other security enhancements and improvements, including support for newer security devices, such as biometric access devices. That proves handy for the scores of notebook computers that sport fingerprint readers. Users will also find plug-and-play support for ECC-based smart cards. While Windows 7's security enhancements are welcome improvements, users will still need third-party anti-virus and anti-malware products to properly protect a Windows PC.
Media Player and Media Center
Microsoft has always been a little behind the curve when it came to media capabilities. Most users had to rely on third-party products and applications to add any real multimedia muscle to a Windows PC. Most users would choose applications other than media player to watch video, listen to audio, and perform other multimedia tasks. The same was true of Microsoft's Media Center, which lacked robust features and the stability offered by third-party products, such as TIVO. It has long been Microsoft's dream to make Windows the centerpiece of a modern entertainment center and, with Windows 7, Microsoft comes a little closer to realizing that dream.
Windows Media Player 12: Microsoft has added support for more media formats than ever before, including AAC audio and H.264, DivX and Xvid video. Users will no longer have to install third-party codecs to use those file formats. Media Player can be used to stream media to remote PCs or devices, which allows a Windows 7 system to function as a media server. Windows Live leverages that feature and users can now stream media to remote systems over the Web. The redesigned interface of Windows Media Player offers some much needed enhancements, including a nifty pop-up mini music player. Common tasks are now much easier to accomplish, especially functions like Play, Burn and Sync, thanks to a new set of tabs on the right hand side of the UI.
One of the most interesting additions is the new 'play-to' feature, which has the ability to send music, video and photos to any compatible devices on the network, without the need to run proprietary software and without any additional setup. In other words, sending a song, video or photo to an Xbox or other compatible device just takes a mouse click and nothing more. All of these enhancements should make Media Player 12 a multimedia force to be reckoned with.
Windows Media Center: A new UI makes Media Center much easier to navigate and use. Media Center supports more devices and can be used with Windows Touch, allowing users to add touch screen TVs to the mix. Cable-TV users will welcome the addition of ClearQAM support, a technology that receives unencrypted digital TV over cable-TV lines. ClearQAM can eliminate the need for adding a cable company set-top box to receive digital cable TV feeds. Those looking for an improved TV experience on a PC will appreciate the improvements to the channel guide, which include faster updates and improved controls, making it easier to record programs. Other usability improvements include an on-screen keyboard, which eliminates the need for a wireless keyboard and brings more functionality to a media center remote control. TV viewing is enhanced with features like 'commercial skip," which allows viewers to skip ahead 30 seconds at a time. Those looking to build large libraries of recorded content will appreciate the new sorting features, which allow users to sort by title, date, length and so on, almost instantly.
Microsoft's enhancements to Windows 7 multimedia capabilities could place the operating system back into competition with other PC-TV solutions and could eventually make a Windows 7 PC a fixture in the entertainment center. With both Media Player and Media Center, it appears that Microsoft closely listened to user gripes and has put much effort into getting those two feature sets right with Windows 7.
Improvements to connectivity are always welcome. Although Windows Vista and Windows XP offered several connectivity options, Microsoft did find a way (or several ways) to improve the connectivity experience.
Wi-Fi and Wireless: Windows 7 offers support for many more wireless devices and technologies. Wi-Fi security sports improvements, thanks to the addition of support for the industry standard Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS). Joining wireless networks is now much easier, thanks to Windows Connect Now (WCN), which offers a cleaner, leaner UI-using the new 'View Available Networks' applet. New wizards are bundled in, which add support for wireless printers, NAS devices, cameras and other wireless devices. Windows 7 can act as a wireless access point, allowing users to share a wireless broadband connection over a Wi-Fi network, a very useful feature for mobile workgroups that can share a single 3G WAN connection over a Wi-Fi Lan.
Remote Connections and Internet Access: Mobile workers will appreciate the changes made to improve remote connections, as well as Internet access. Simple enhancements, such as automatically reconnecting VPN sessions and automatic synchronization of offline files eliminate the need for user intervention for common tasks. Remote connections to corporate networks can be automated to work whenever Internet connectivity is available. RDP (remote desktop protocol) adds some new capabilities, which will enhance remote desktop functions and capabilities when used with Windows Server 2008R2. Windows Parental controls now offer more blocking and filtering options, better reporting and monitoring capabilities.
There are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of other improvements incorporated into Windows 7, so many that a thick book would be needed to explain them all. Other significant features, such as XP Mode, will prove themselves just as critical to Windows 7's ultimate success. XP mode, which uses virtualization technology, is currently available as an add-on download.
One thing is certain: Windows 7 will prove to be much more than just a rehash of Windows Vista. It seems Microsoft has learned a lot from the failures of Vista and has created Windows 7 as a new operating system that looks to change people's perceptions about Microsoft's products.