A Mac user's take on the Windows 7 UI

Does Windows 7 turn its UI around?

After I installed Windows Vista in November 2006, I was perplexed. Why was it suddenly so much harder for me to use my computer? I knew XP cold, and I could use it without thinking. But with Vista, I felt a little lost and began to notice the extra work required to perform tasks that had become second nature. By hiding various features in an attempt to simplify Vista's interface, Microsoft was in fact adding overhead to my Vista transition, forcing me to learn a new UI.

Like many, I just couldn't see how Vista's "new look" benefited the Windows experience. I became further entrenched in my belief that Microsoft's ongoing divergence from the well-established menu approach pioneered by Apple is fundamentally wrong.

[ Which OS wins the UI contest? See Windows 7 vs. Mac OS X  side by side in InfoWorld's comparative slideshow. ]

Microsoft Office -- and to a lesser extent Internet Explorer -- went nuts in this direction, relying on buttons, variable menus, and right-clicking for almost everything. These UIs made Vista's user interface appear intuitive by comparison, yet they also hinted at further UI confusion to come. It was as if Microsoft's strategy for UI design was to leave its customers at a loss for where to start or what to do next. Not surprisingly, users have rejected Microsoft's latest offerings in amazing numbers.

Me, I took the easy route: I switched to a Mac and have been happy ever since. Tiger, the Mac OS X version available at that time, proved robust, offering a modern yet familiar UI. The current Mac OS X Leopard is even better. But here comes Windows 7, seeking to breathe life back into Windows where Vista had stumbled. Less than a year from being released, Windows 7 aims to fix the many Vista flaws, including its UI. I decided to test-drive the Windows 7 beta to see whether Microsoft had redressed its UI sins.

The bottom line: Nothing in Windows 7 will tempt a Mac user back to the PC. There are some cool, useful enhancements, but overall, the UI remains largely unchanged. In other words, those who upgrade from XP to Windows 7 will still have to relearn Windows.

A caveat: Windows 7 is in beta stage, so it's not complete. Who knows what Microsoft will change before it ships sometime in the next year?

Where Mac OS X beats the Windows 7 UI
Finder toolbar and search: Known for delighting its users, Mac OS X offers extras that you grow to love the more you use them. Take the Finder toolbar, which you can customize to burn contents to disc, for example, or to get a quick look at an item's contents. File search in Mac OS X is much more sophisticated and easier to use than it is in Windows, allowing you to search and sort by practically any criteria in a simple window UI. Windows 7, for its part, offers very limited per-search controls; you can use them only before you start a search. By comparison, you can easily add and refine search criteria at any time on the Mac, refining your results live as you do so. Plus, Mac OS X's special folder views -- columns and the CoverFlow image browser pioneered in iTunes -- make it much easier to navigate large file stores and image sets, respectively.

[ See what has changed in Windows 7 with InfoWorld's performance tests, comparison to Vista, and video tutorial. | Can your PC run Windows 7? Find out with the Windows Sentinel compatibility checker. ]

Default desktop configuration: Microsoft clearly loves the blank slate, leaving its default desktop configuration for Windows clear except for the Recycle Bin. That's another reason I prefer the Mac: My hard drive is always in the Finder, giving me quick access when I need it. Sure, you can create an alias on the Windows desktop, but why require that step or the need to go through several mouse clicks in the Start menu? People access their files and folders frequently, so why bury them? Take a tip from XP and give your users the choice of removing default items on the desktop rather than burying them from the get-go, a philosophy Windows 7 carries over from Vista, unfortunately.

Control panels: Like Vista, Windows 7 insists on putting controls every which way. Say you right-click the desktop to change display settings. In XP, you get the settings in one window, with tabs to switch among them (the Mac has two system preferences, each with tabs, to switch between). In Windows 7, you get a window that has three sets of option lists, many of which open their own window. Soon your screen is littered with windows, each of which does one small piece of the customization task you wanted.

And I still wish Microsoft would get rid of its "friendly" view of control panels, which ask you to guess what Microsoft was thinking in terms of how it grouped its panels. Even if you know where each control panel could be found, the approach adds a second step to get to them. (As with Vista, you can switch to XP's more sensible "Classic" view.)

By contrast, the Mac system preference layout is better designed. It's easier to move among the panels, thanks to navigation controls and a menu that shows all available preference panels for quick access.

Hardware-dependent feature display: Speaking of control panels and system preferences, Windows 7 includes BitLocker encryption capabilities that you set up with a control panel, but only after you turn on this feature will Windows tell you that your PC doesn't have the required TPM module. I much prefer Apple's approach: System preferences that are hardware-dependent appear only if that hardware is installed, and system preferences typically don't show options your Mac doesn't support.

Taskbar preview: Windows 7 is slated to add a preview feature to the taskbar: If you hover over a running app, you're supposed to get a preview of what it is doing (the feature isn't working in my Windows 7 beta) -- a great idea that the Mac has had for years. All open windows display in the Mac's Dock with a preview of their contents. Also, the Mac Dock shows both apps and content windows, while the Windows 7 taskbar shows just running apps, which is why adding pop-up previews to those taskbar apps is so useful for PC users. Plus, the Mac's previews are always visible, while the Windows 7 preview disappears as soon as you stop hovering over the selected application's icon.

System utilities: Apple's system utilities are night and day ahead of Microsoft's. Some examples: The Startup Disk utility lets you boot off any drive easily; try that with Windows. The Sharing system preference makes it much easier to control your Mac's security than Windows' tools do; plus, you get more control in one place with Mac OS X. (And the Secure Delete feature is an easy way to secure deleted files when you empty the trash -- another feature Windows doesn't offer.) The Time Machine software is an incredibly easy, powerful backup utility bundled with the OS that makes Windows 7's look like a holdout from the DOS era. Backup is automatic, sure. But recovery is where Time Machine really shines; just zoom to a past state and select it to go back to that point. If you're in an application, you can restore just that application's state, so changes elsewhere aren’t also rolled back.

You see the same sophistication in the other system utilities. The Address Book, iCal, and Mail apps are well-integrated, and your system information -- even your log-in photo, if you take one -- is automatically synced across all of these.

Stability: A big reason I moved to the Mac was OS stability, which admittedly is more about user experience than user interface. The Mac OS rarely crashes, and it recovers much better when apps freeze. You can even restart the Finder without taking down the OS. My experience is that Windows not only crashes more often, but it also more often needs a full reboot. I can’t tell whether Windows 7 is more stable than Vista yet, as stability only reveals itself over time. The Mac, however, doesn't offer the same registry madness that Windows does, so it seems to resist corruption better.

Where Windows 7 beats the Mac OS X UI
Gadget sidebar: My favorite aspect of the Windows 7 UI is in fact a carryover from Vista: its gadget sidebar. With Windows 7, however, the sidebar is no longer displayed automatically. As such, your desktop is no longer partly obscured by "gadget" utilities that, quite frankly, you won't use often. Instead, you can toggle the gadget sidebar when you want it -- just as you can with Mac OS X. And you can drag them out of the sidebar and let them free-float where you want. The big difference is that Mac OS X's sidebar equivalent covers your entire desktop, rendering everything else inaccessible, and the individual gadgets can't be pulled out of that covers-everything sidebar. The Windows 7 approach to gadgets shows the kind of elegance and simplicity that Microsoft needs to do more often.

Network and Sharing Center: Windows 7's new Network and Sharing Center provides a worthwhile visual cue as to your network's setup. It also includes straightforward setup tools to diagnose the network and switch location-specific configurations. Although it is easier to actually connect to other Mac users in Mac OS X than it is to connect to other PC users in Windows, the latter provides a better overall picture of your network state than the Mac OS does.

Window resizing: Another plus for Microsoft, Windows has long let users resize application and other windows by dragging any side. Mac OS X still forces you to use the lower-right corner, which the Dock sometimes obscures.

Dialog box actions: Although this breaks with Apple's purist mentality, I've always liked the fact that in Windows when I'm using an Open or Save dialog box I can rename or otherwise manipulate files and folders through that dialog box, without having to close the box and switch to Finder. Yes, I know that breaks the architectural line between applications and the OS, but it makes life easier. And, yes, I know you can usually create folders from apps' Save As dialog boxes on the Mac, but that's not enough.

Uninstall: The one big deficit in the Mac OS is its lack of a central way to uninstall applications and their support files. Although the Windows uninstall doesn't always clean up everything, the Mac provides no facility for finding and removing these stray files. They don’t seem to do harm, but why leave them around?

Where Mac OS X and Windows 7 even out
Security warnings -- or lack thereof: Windows 7 reduces the UAC security nagging of Vista, putting it on par with XP and Mac OS X. I really noticed the difference, so I rarely canceled an action I wanted because of incessant, confusing security warnings -- a frequent problem in Vista.

Taskbar vs. Dock: Windows 7's taskbar works more like the Mac OS X dock, making the "pinned" (docked) applications more visible than the XP/Vista taskbar's quick-launch icons. Plus, they animate when opening, copying a concept from the Mac OS Dock. (In what I assume was a beta bug, the taskbar's pinned icons appeared only after I dragged an application onto the taskbar to pin it there; using the Pin to Taskbar contextual menu didn't toggle on their display in the taskbar.) Beyond the strictly visual design, the biggest difference between the Windows 7 taskbar and the Mac OS X dock is that you can add status controls, such as checking on available networks, to the taskbar. In the Mac OS X, such controls reside in the taskbar at the edge of the application bar, not in the Dock. Either way, you get quick access to essentially the same things. And the stacks capability for displaying folder contents in the Mac OS X Dock is more customizable in terms of its display than Windows' equivalent.

File and folder navigation: The file-and-folder approach to navigating storage media is essentially the same in Mac OS and Windows, and both Mac OS X and Windows 7 (like Vista) let you put your favorite directories into the easy-access lists in the folder windows, as well as offer quick-look file previews. I've always liked Mac OS' ability to let you color folders, as a visual mnemonic; Windows can't do this, but a lot of Mac users don’t use it, either.

Overall, Windows 7 does not yet present a clear step away from Vista in terms of user experience. There are some nice UI enhancements, but nothing to undo the learning curve necessary to transition from XP. Then again, at least it hasn't gotten worse -- a real possibility given what Microsoft has done to Internet Explorer and Office.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.