When I first learned how to use a computer, I used Windows 3.1 and DOS. At the time, Windows was a little unwieldy, especially for someone just learning the basics of a computer, but it did provide a visual interface with which to navigate the folders, files, and applications scattered around your C:\ drive. At its heart, that's what Windows is; a user interface to store, organize, and retrieve things on your computer. Of course, just when I was getting used to the 3.1/DOS combo, Windows 95 was released and made interacting with your computer dramatically better.
For the vast majority of users, Windows hasn't changed a whole lot since the interface was redesigned for Windows 95. Some updates have been more stable, some less, but the Taskbar, Start Menu, Quick Launch Bar and System Tray have been the standard components that defined the Windows interface for the past fifteen years.
With the release of Windows 7, Microsoft has finally given the taskbar an overhaul. All open windows now group by default, and show up as an icon without a title on the taskbar. Right clicking on an icon or dragging a program that's not in use onto the taskbar allows you to "pin" that application to it for easy launch, essentially turning the taskbar into a large quick launch bar.
Outlines appear around taskbar icons to let you know a program is in use. Hovering over the icon will produce interactive thumbnails of all windows which that program is currently using. Hovering over one of the thumbnails will allow you to quickly preview that window, showing it if it's minimized and making all other windows invisible, letting you find the window you're looking for with ease.
The thumbnails are somewhat interactive, based on the program. For instance, you can close a window just by clicking the close icon in the corner of the thumbnail. Windows Media Player provides a small interface in its preview thumbnail. One of my favorite implementations of this is in Internet Explorer 8, where hovering over the icon will produce preview thumbnails for each open tab in the browser in addition to each open window.
Thumbnails of individual tabs in a single IE8 window
One of the more frustrating aspects of Windows editions prior to Windows 7 was not being able to reorganize the order that open windows appeared on the taskbar. Now it's easy to rearrange programs and folders on the taskbar by dragging and dropping. Additionally, right-clicking on the icons on the taskbar brings up lists of frequently accessed documents, pages, or tasks associated with it.
On the other end of the taskbar, the system tray has gone through a minor redesign. The calendar and volume control are pretty much the same as they are in Vista, but the network manager is a lot simpler to handle now. When you clicked it in Vista, a small pop-up would ask if you want to search for networks. In 7, the small pop-up just gives you a list of networks to choose from, with the option to open the Network and Sharing Center appearing at the bottom of the list.
Right-clicking an icon on the task bar lets you select common files or tasks
A click on the network manager will list all available networks
One innovation that will make a lot of Vista users happy is the addition of the Action Center to the taskbar. The constant barrage of security pop-ups and notifications are now hidden away, allowing you to deal with them when you need to without being bothered every two seconds.
While the taskbar's new design certainly makes navigating easier and more intuitive, 7 also lets you manage your windows with mouse-dragging gestures. Grabbing the title bar of a maximized window and dragging it towards the middle of the screen will restore it down to its non-maximized dimensions. Dragging it up to the top of the screen will maximize it again. Given that most home monitors are now large enough to handle two side-by-side documents/websites comfortably, you can drag the window to either end of the screen and it will automatically resize to fill that half.
Dragging windows to either side of the screen resizes them to fill that half of the screen
A quick way to minimize all windows but the one you want is to grab the title bar and shake it. Giving it another shake will restore the minimized windows. To hide all windows, the rightmost part of the taskbar features a "peak" button that shows you your desktop when you hover over it, and minimizes or restores all when you click it.
Windows 7 also includes a number of home networking features. First off, HomeGroup is a much more user-friendly way of sharing media across computers than was available in previous versions of Windows. HomeGroup is easy to set up and manage, gives everyone access to media and shared network devices like printers. It's secured with password protection, so the media on your wireless network is safe even if your router password is compromised.
Right-clicking on media also gives you the option to "Play To" devices around your house, including monitors, stereos, and entertainment systems. You can play different media to different devices around your house, letting you listen to music in one room while playing a movie in another, all from the same computer.
Another great new media feature is remote access support for your home media library. Since hard drive space is often at a premium on notebooks, being able to access your entire media library over the internet is a godsend.
Of course, the biggest concern everyone has with the new version of Windows has to do with speed. It was a normal occurrence for me to turn on my laptop in the early days of Vista and just leave it sitting for fifteen minutes simply because it would be more-or-less unusable during that time. Fortunately, it seems that Microsoft managed to get Windows 7 to start up significantly faster than Vista did. From the time I hit the power button on my laptop until the time the computer connected to the wireless router, loaded the browser, and connected to bhphoto.com was less than 45 seconds.
For several years, Microsoft was producing new versions of Windows that, to the average user at least, didn't amount to more than a few cosmetic changes. Windows 7 finally gives the operating system a much-needed upgrade to the interface, one which is much more intuitive and easy to use than Windows has ever been..