Category Archives: windows 7

New in Windows 7 RC: Windows XP Mode, Remote Media Streaming

A new feature in Windows 7 has been announced as part of the Release Candidate rollout. Called XP Mode (XPM), it lets users run applications in a virtual instance of Windows XP itself, for excellent compatibility. Although not part of the retail Windows 7, XPM will be a free download or may be installed at no extra cost by PC vendors.

The neat aspect of this is that XP applications don’t have to run within an XP desktop, but can be published to the host system. What this means is that users can start an XP application from the Windows 7 desktop, and only see the application window. This is more user-friendly than having to cope with two operating systems at once.

The main advantage is compatibility. Since this really is XP, pretty much anything that works on XP should run correctly. That said, since the hardware is virtualized there could be issues with some devices, or with applications that require accelerated graphics.

Another aspect is security. For example, if you have some applications that do not work properly with UAC (User Account Control) enabled, you can run them in XP Mode rather than compromising the security of the entire system.

It is a clever move from Microsoft, since it will remove most compatibility concerns that could otherwise impede adoption.

Another interesting new feature is Remote Media Streaming:

Windows 7 offers new functionality called Remote Media Streaming that enables you to access your home-based digital media libraries over the Internet from another Windows 7-based computer outside the home. Simply associate two or more computers running Windows 7 with your online ID provider credentials (such as your Windows Live™ email address and password) and allow Internet access to your media.

says the press release. This feature extends to any PC in your home network, so if you have a fast enough connection you need never be parted from your music. Then again, you could just run Spotify. There’s also support for MOV files in Windows Media Player.

There’s a few more detail changes in the UI; I’ll report further when I’ve had a look.

Windows 7 RC will be released to Technet and MSDN subscribers on April 30th, and made generally available on May 5th.

Windows security and the UAC debate: Microsoft misses the point

Poor old Microsoft. When User Account Control was introduced in Windows Vista the crowd said it was too intrusive, broke applications, and not really more secure – partly because of the “OK” twitch reflex users may suffer from. In Windows 7 UAC is toned-down by default, and easy to control via an easy-to-find slider. Now the crowd is saying that Microsoft has gone too far, making Windows 7 less secure than Vista. The catalyst for this new wave of protest was Long Zheng’s observation that with the new default setting a malicious script could actually turn off UAC completely without raising a prompt.

Microsoft’s Jon DeVaan responds with a lengthy piece that somewhat misses the point. Zheng argues that Microsoft should make the UAC setting a special one that would:

force a UAC prompt in Secure Desktop mode whenever UAC is changed, regardless of its current state

DeVaan doesn’t respond directly to this suggestion which seems a minor change that would barely impact usability.

DeVaan also says:

There has been no report of a way for malware to make it onto a PC without consent. All of the feedback so far concerns the behavior of UAC once malware has found its way onto the PC and is running.

It’s an important point; though I wonder how DeVaan has missed the problems with autorun that can pretty much install malware without consent.

I am not one of those journalists whom Zheng lambasts:

This is dedicated to every ignorant “tech journalist” who cried wolf about UAC in Windows Vista.

Rather, I’ve been an advocate for UAC since pre-release days; see for example my post If Microsoft doesn’t use UAC, why should anyone else? which I later discovered upset some folk. One reason is that I see its real intent, best articulated by Mark Russinovitch, who writes:

UAC’s various changes and technologies will result in a major shift in the Windows usage model. With Windows Vista, Windows users can for the first time perform most daily tasks and run most software using standard user rights, and many corporations can now deploy standard user accounts.

and Microsoft’s Crispin Cowan:

Making it possible for everyone to run as Standard User is the real long term security value

In other words, UAC is a transitional tool, which aims to bring Windows closer to the Unix model where users do not normally run with local admin rights and data is cleanly separated from executables.

The real breakthrough will come when Microsoft configures Windows so that by default non-expert home and SME users end up running as standard users. Experts and system admins can make their own decisions.

In the meantime, I don’t see any harm in implementing the change Zheng is asking for, and I’d like to see Microsoft fix the autoplay problem; I believe users now understand that there is a trade-off between security and convenience, though they become irritated when they get the inconvenience without the security.

Update: Microsoft now says it will fix Windows 7 so that the UAC settings are better protected.

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Windows 7 beta image gallery

The Guardian has posted a gallery of screenshots I took from the Windows 7 beta.

It includes an actual Device Stage, for the Sansa Clip. I did actually use this to update the firmware, which is not something you can do from the generic device connection dialog. It wasn’t truly seamless though, involving a download and a separate setup application.

I also illustrated the Library feature with three screenshots. The third of these illustrates a wee snag with this feature – documents with the same name, but in different folders, can appear identical in some views.

You can get a similar effect in Vista. If you look in \users\public with hidden items showing, you’ll find a folder called Public Desktop. Items in this folder show on your desktop merged with items in your user desktop. Put an item here with the same name as one in your user desktop, and both appear without any indication that they are different. This is also the reason why desktop.ini appears twice on the desktop if you show hidden files.

I guess it’s something users won’t run into very often (it’s pretty hard to do by accident in Vista); but it would be good if Windows could detect this situation and indicate it in some way. Bad outcomes would be if you deleted one of them thinking it was a duplicate, and lost some data; or sent someone a draft thinking it was the final version.

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Another useless Microsoft search experience

I do not make posts like this just to needle Microsoft. I’d like to see it compete better with Google, not because I have anything against Google, but because competition is good. So I’m explaining why I can’t use Microsoft’s search product as currently implemented, in the hope that it will help to improve it.

I am aware that the Windows 7 beta SDK is now available, and wanted to download it. I tried the search on Microsoft’s site:

Top hit is from November 2007 and is a forum discussion of dxtrans.h. Correct result nowhere to be seen.

So I tried Live Search:

I get ads for double-glazing and a top hit for the QuickTime 7.3 SDK from Apple. Correct result nowhere to be seen.

So I tried Google:

Top hit is relevant but wrong. Second hit is a blog post which has the URL I’m looking for, not bad. Fourth hit is the exact URL. By the way, the Windows 7 SDK beta is here.

It is no use Microsoft doing search bundling deals with Dell. If it cannot fix the product, users will run back to Google.

Incidentally, I believe US searchers get better results from Live Search than I do, because of faulty regionalisation. Live Search seems to have a heavier bias than Google towards what it thinks are (in my case) UK results. That doesn’t explain why it gives an Apple QuickTime site as its top hit for “Windows 7 SDK”.

Windows 7 beta 1 performance observations

There are various reasons why someone might be impressed with the performance of the Windows 7 beta. One is that the beta is a clean, plain Microsoft install – no anti-virus, no cruft and clutter, no OEM foistware. The only fair comparison is with an equally clean install of Windows XP or Vista on the same hardware.

That can be arduous to arrange, but I was given an opportunity perforce. I installed Windows 7 beta 1 on a laptop using an old hard drive, from which I upgraded last year. I have a second hard drive bay in this laptop, making it particularly suitable for multi-boot. However, in order to install Windows 7 I wanted to boot from CD, which means removing the hard drive bay, so I took out the main internal drive temporarily and replaced it with a spare drive for Windows 7.

Everything went fine until I replaced the old drive. I’m still not sure exactly what went wrong; suspects include the storage controller BIOS possibly detecting the drive as RAID rather than JBOD, or vice versa, or a resume failure. The outcome though was a thoroughly scrambled Vista installation – file corruption and then refusal to boot – that “missing winload.exe” message.

This was going nowhere so I reformatted the drive and did a clean Vista install (with SP1). It struck me that this gave me a good opportunity to run PassMark on the two relatively clean systems (just Office 2007 is installed, on both). Note that you are not meant to publish benchmarks for beta versions of Windows, so treat this as for anecdotal interest only. I am not going to give the exact figures.

The test was not quite fair, since the newer hard drive is faster than the old one, and the graphics driver is a different version. The drive difference probably accounts for why overall Windows 7 result was slightly below that for Vista – the “disk mark” was over 40% worse. Windows 7 was also slightly worse for 2D and 3D graphics, by 5-10%. The result was not all bad for the beta though. The CPU score was around 4.5% better, and the memory score was over 9% better. On the memory allocation tests Windows 7 came out nearly 25% faster.

One final observation: performance is not just about raw speed in tests. I believe some of the most annoying Windows slow-downs are to do with synchronous API calls that time-out before they return, or inefficient Windows utilities. I hate seeing the progress bar that Explorer shows sometimes, when trying to enumerate files in the current directory. If Microsoft simply manages to speed up Explorer and reduce the number of mysterious Windows pauses, users might perceive Windows 7 as faster even if benchmark tests showed otherwise. Some of the changes in Vista since its first release have improved performance by addressing specific defects. Zip extraction and file copying are examples.

Talking of file copying, I can’t resist posting this Vista dialog which I saw when copying a CD image to my new laptop install (note the time remaining). Fortunately for me, it was pessimistic, and the copy completed a few minutes later.

File copy shows 10627 days and 22 hours remaining

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I’m looking for comments on Windows 7 beta vs XP or Vista

Tried Windows 7 beta 1? I’m looking for comments to quote in an article. I’m interested to know what you think of it so fare in comparison to either XP, or Vista, or both; and whether you expect to upgrade as soon as you can, or will put off the upgrade, or not bother with it at all. With reasons of course.

By all means comment anyway, but in order to be quoted I’d need (along with your presumed consent if you comment here or by email):

1. You have actually tried the Windows 7 beta

2. You do not work in PR or for Microsoft or for a PC vendor (or have other obvious reason for non-objectivity)

3. You give your full real name, company and job

Comment here or by email to tim(at)

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The computer desktop is a faulty abstraction

In Windows 7, Microsoft has made further efforts to make the desktop more usable. There is a "peek" feature that makes all running applications temporarily transparent when you hover over the Show Desktop button. If you click the button the apps all minimize, so you can interact with the desktop, and if you click again they come back. Nice feature; but it cannot disguise the desktop’s inherent problems. Or should I say problem. The issue is that the desktop cannot easily be both the place where you launch applications, and the place where they run, simply because the running application makes the desktop partly or wholly inaccessible.

The Show Desktop button (sans Peek) is in XP and Vista too, and there is also the handy Desktop toolbar which makes desktop shortcuts into a Taskbar menu. All worthy efforts, which are workarounds for  the fact that having shortcuts and gadgets behind your running applications is a silly idea. The desktop is generally useful only once per session – when you start up your PC.

In this respect, the computer desktop differs from real desktops. Cue jokes about desks so cluttered that you cannot see the surface. Fair enough, but on my real desktop I have a telephone, I have drawers, I have an in-tray and out-tray, I have pen and paper, and all of these things remain accessible even though I’m typing. The on-screen desktop is a faulty abstraction.

The inadequacy of the desktop is the reason that the notification area (incorrectly known as the system tray) get so abused by app developers – it’s the only place you can put something that you want always available and visible. In Windows 7 the taskbar is taking on more characteristics of the notification area, with icons that you can overlay with activity indicators like the IE8 download progress bar.

It’s true that if you don’t run applications full-screen, then you can move them around to get desktop stuff into view. I find this rarely works well, because I have more than one application visible, and behind one application is another one.

Why then do OS designers persist with the desktop idea? It’s possibly because it makes users feel more comfortable. I suspect it is a Skeuomorph (thanks to Phil Thane for the word) – “a derivative object which retains ornamental design cues to structure that was necessary in the original”. An example is that early electric kettles retained a squat shape with a large base, even though the logical shape for an electric kettle is a slim jug, enabling small quantities of water to cover the element. The reason for the squat shape was to spread the heat when boiling water on a stove. It took years before “jug” kettles caught on.

It is better to call the computer desktop a workspace, and to forget the idea of putting shortcuts and gadgets onto it. Which reminds me: why does Windows still not surface multiple desktops (or workspaces) as is common on Linux, and also implemented in Mac OS X Leopard as Spaces?  Windows does have multiple desktops – you see one every time UAC kicks in with its permission dialog on Vista, or when using the Switch User feature – but they are not otheriwse available.

I’m also realising that sidebar gadgets were a missed opportunity in Vista. Microsoft made two big mistakes with the sidebar. The first was to have it stay in the background by default. Right-click the sidebar and check “Sidebar is always on top of other windows”. Then it makes sense; it behaves like the taskbar and stays visible. Not so good for users with small screens; but they could uncheck the box. I know; you don’t like losing the screen space. But what if the gadgets there were actually useful?

The other mistake was to release the sidebar with zero compelling gadgets. Users took a look, decided it was useless, and ignored or disabled it. That’s a shame, since it is a more suitable space for a lot of the stuff that ends up in the notification area. If Microsoft had put a few essentials there, like the recycle bin, volume control, and wi-fi signal strength meter; and if the Office team had installed stuff like quick access to Outlook inbox, calendar and alerts, then users would get the idea: this stays visible for a good reason.

In Windows 7, gadgets persist but the sidebar does not. Possibly a wrong decision, though apparently there is a hack to restore it. It’s not too late – Microsoft, how about an option to have the old sidebar behaviour back?

I’d also like a “concentrate” button. This would hide everything except the current application. Maximized applications would respond by filling the entire screen (no taskbar or sidebar), save for an “unconcentrate” button which would appear at bottom right. This would be like hanging “Do not disturb” outside your hotel room, and would suppress all but the highest priority notifications (like “your battery has seconds to live”).

My suggestion for Windows 8 and OS 11 – ditch the desktop, make it a workspace only. Implement multiple workspaces in Windows. And stop encouraging us to clutter our screens with desktop shortcuts which, in practice, are very little use.

OpenID embedded into Windows 7?

While reviewing Windows 7 I noticed an interesting new option when sharing files or folders in a homegroup – the ad-hoc network intended for home users, equivalent to the old peer-to-peer workgroup. In this scenario there is no central user directory, so it is difficult to set fine-grained permissions, such as when you want Sally to have read-write access to a document, but Joe read-only access. The messy workaround is to create user accounts for each user on each computer.

At least, that’s how it used to be. In Windows 7 there is a new option, though it is not fully enabled in Beta 1 (what was that about feature complete?). Users in a homegroup can be identified by an “online ID” instead of a Windows username. In effect, this makes the internet-based ID provider into the central directory for your homegroup, and enables sharing with “specific people” rather than entire homegroups:

The further advantage is that this identity persists across different networks, as the documentation makes clear:

If you have an online account, such as an e‑mail account, you can link that account with your Windows user account. Linking these accounts lets other people share files with you on a homegroup using your online account name (or ID) instead of your Windows user name. This makes it easier for people to share files with you, because they can use the online ID they are familiar with instead of adding your Windows user account to their computer. For example, if you have an e‑mail account that your friends and family use to communicate with you, such as, they can use that online ID to share files with you on a network. You can also use that online ID to access your information on other computers on a network, such as accessing files on a home computer from your work computer.

Linking your account is a two-part process. First, you need to add your online ID provider, and then you need to link your online ID with your Windows user account.

So what is this online ID provider? My immediate assumption was that it meant a Live ID. You have always been able to link a Windows account with a Live ID (formerly Passport), which gives you instant sign-in to Windows Live properties. However, the language here is different, suggesting a variety of ID providers rather than just Microsoft.

Here is another snippet of documentation:

To add an online ID provider

1. Click to open User Accounts.

2. Click Link online ID.

3. Click Add an online ID provider.

4. Select your online ID provider from the list and follow the instructions.

To link your online ID with your Windows user account

1. Click to open User Accounts.

2. Click Link online IDs.

3. Next to the online ID that you want to link your user account with, click Add linked ID.

4. Type your user name and password for the online ID and then click OK.


Unfortunately if you attempt to do this in the beta the list of providers redirects to the Windows home page. I was intrigued though – what technology is this, and who can be an online ID provider for Windows 7?

I asked Microsoft and got this answer:

Any service can choose to be an OpenID provider or a relying party. Customers of web sites that support OpenID can sign in with any OpenID provider.

Note that I did not ask about OpenID, only about online ID providers for Windows 7. Is Microsoft really hooking Windows 7 user identities to OpenID?

I was sceptical so I asked again. Here’s what I was told:

Regarding your Windows 7 question around Online ID in the beta, the online providers are an ISV opportunity and are not currently enabled in the beta. With regard to Windows Live, please find the link here <> that discusses Windows Live becoming an OpenID provider with its recent release.

Something less than a clear-cut answer; but again directing me to OpenID and to last year’s announcement that Windows Live will be an OpenID provider.

Still a few unanswered questions then; but I like the idea of linking local network sharing and online directories, which makes a lot of sense for home users that have no Active Directory. Actually it makes sense beyond that as well. I also like the idea of being able to select an OpenID provider as my preferred online identity provider, rather than having to choose Windows Live. It opens up the possibility of smooth integration across the local network and across a number of internet properties.

Do note though the lack of clarity in the answers I received, and that all the documentation is headed:

This content is preliminary and subject to change.

Performance: Windows 7 fast than Vista, Vista faster than XP

The second part of that statement interests me as much as the first. ZDNet’s Adrian Kingsley-Hughes ran some informal tests on XP vs Vista vs Windows 7 beta 1 (as leaked, I presume), ranking them in order for a number of tasks. The results show that in general XP is slower than either Vista or XP on an AMD Phenom system with 4GB. Even on a Pentium dual core with just 1GB, which should favour XP, Vista was neck-and-neck with XP for speed (score of 57 vs 56, where less is better). Windows 7 came top in most of the tests.

I’ve done enough of these kinds of tests myself to know some of the pitfalls. Kingsley doesn’t mention whether UAC was on or off in Vista, or whether Aero is enabled, or how many background processes were running on each machine, or how many times the tests were repeated and whether there was much variation. It would also be interesting to know timings, rather than simple ranking. Finally, Kingsley’s tests seem overly weighted towards file I/O.

I’d also be intrigued to see a comparison of Vista as on first release vs a fully patched system.

Still, this does suggest (as I’ve argued before) that Vista is better than its reputation; and it is wrong to assume that XP will generally out-perform it.

That said, let’s not forget the dire performance of those early Vista laptops with 1GB RAM, a full helping of third-party foistware, and Outlook 2007. Even today, Outlook 2007 can kill the performance of a high-end system, as this recent comment shows:

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