Up until a few months ago my computing at home was a sort of inhomogeneous affair. I had a windows XP Pro desktop (dual booting Crunchbang Linux), a G4 Powerbook running MacOS 10.4, and an old PII that originally ran Win98 and had been used for a variety of server duties, and even as a command-line only writing machine.
Then my mum said she wanted a laptop to replace her old, ugly, bulky and slow (800MHz, 384 Mb ram) PC. I said get a Macbook Pro, because learning OSX will be no more painful than learning Windows 7. She loves it.
I then realised the last new computer I had bought was in 2006, so I was probably due an upgrade. On impulse I got a Macbook Pro as well. Now it’s my main machine. The WinXP machine is used to play old games that I can’t let go, otherwise it would have been given away by now.
But I wonder what would have happened if I’d bought a PC laptop instead of the mac. And then by chance (well, luck over judgement) I’ve been selected to pilot the new work desktop, based on Win7. And today I got my new desktop.
It’s really shiny. In fact, it’s too shiny. Out of the box there are several “theme packs” that vary the desktop background and the window border/taskbar colours. I found that anything other than a variation of grey for the borders and taskbar just annoyed me. I was never a fan of the cartoonish default blue for the XP desktop (the Royale theme made it bearable, otherwise I just used classic).
Once the grey borders were turned on – and a fairly calm desktop background selected – the UI became a lot less distracting. I realised I’d chosen more or less the same colour scheme as I like on the Mac.
The Mac UI tends to put toolbar icons, if there are any, against a grey background in the top of the window. Folder icons in the finder tend to be muted grey or blue.
Win7’s folder icons are pale yellow – not the best contrast with the white background in an explorer window. And then there’s some weird shading thing going on with the folder icons and others that make small icons difficult to identify if you like to use a detailed view of the explorer tree all the time.
OK, that sounds like a stupid complaint, but hear me out. There are a lot of places where spots of colour stand out and really draw attention – like the close button on window borders, or the back button on IE. It means than the window decorations have a higher visibility than the actual content you’re working on.
The worst offender is MS Office. Yeah, I know that the Office Ribbon (from 2007 onwards) was a big UI change that annoyed a lot of users, but I really wasn’t concerned when running it on Windows XP where it had a nice pale blue background that let all of the options stand out. But in 7 the Ribbon background is somehow paler, and this doesn’t change if you switch Aero off. If your contrast is too high the toolbar turns white, meaning it’s harder to see where the toolbar ends and the content begins. Couple this with a dazzling number of icons of different sizes, shapes and colours, and it’s just so much harder to see the option you want.
Snap To It
While I miss the virtual desktops of OS X and Linux, I really like the Aero features. Aero snap, aero peek and the other tricks do raise visibility, and alt-tab (or win-tab) works nicely. Overall the accelerated desktop is lovely, although jerkier than I remember it (probably because of crappy integrated graphics).
Finally, this is where it’s either genius or stupidity.
A user’s documents are grouped together from different locations into “libraries”. The phrase Document Library is used, even though I don’t believe it’s the same as the Sharepoint definition (something else I’m also trialling at work).
I have never liked this trend of hiding the folder path from the user, but to combine more than one location into one symbolic link seems madness. OK, iTunes does that but then it’s a content delivery vehicle, not something you would upload to. It’s confusing and, I think, a bit unnecessary.
I used to think OS X hid absolute paths from the users, until I realised that if you want to know that information it’s easy to find out. Not so with the Windows 7 libraries. I have yet to “get” them, although I remain hopeful.
I have yet to encounter UAC but then it’s my first day with the new OS. But my initial impressions are they created a nice, hardware accelerated desktop and then made it so garish and busy that in many cases it’s not fixable. Compare to my OS X experience, then Win7 UI is inhomogeneous and confuses me. I have done productive work in the environment, but I can’t see a single thing that Win7 offers that WinXP didn’t aside from a longer future of security updates. Fair enough businesses need to migrate to Win7 for security updates past 2014, but aside from that I can’t see a single thing that Win7 brings other than some cute graphical effects. Maybe my opinion will change with time and experience. Or maybe I will just let the crushing inevitability of Windows 7 roll over me.
Thank goodness Windows isn’t the only option these days.