What I've seen of Windows 7 Beta 1 suggests to me that Microsoft has gotten its client OS mojo back again. This release is already at roughly the quality point that Vista was when it launched publicly over two years ago. And that's quite an accomplishment. Here's what you need to know about Windows 7 Beta 1. 

Related: Microsoft: No More Windows 7 Betas (February 2, 2009)

Changes for the Better
Windows 7 seems to consist largely of changes for end users, improving the performance, stability, and reliability of the system. Wholesale changes to the Windows UI aim to make the OS simpler.

Overall, Windows 7 is dramatically faster than Vista and requires fewer hardware resources; it can run quite acceptably on small, low-end netbook computers with just 1GB of RAM, an impossibility for Vista. Boot and shutdown times have been cut considerably, as has the time it takes to resume from sleep mode. Battery life is better, and network devices are shut down automatically when not in use, further improving battery life.

Search and indexing is also improved, with search federation across the network now a possibility as well. Even ReadyBoost, which improves system performance via caching on a USB thumb drive, has been improved: The technology now supports multiple memory devices and works with virtually any kind of removable storage, including Secure Digital (SD) cards.

Close to the kernel, Microsoft has implemented its so-called MinWin componentization scheme in which all low-level components of the system are isolated from one another. This scheme won't directly affect end users per se, but it does affect the reliability and stability of the system and gives Microsoft a level of process isolation that was previously impossible.

Windows 7 for End Users
The most visible new features in Windows 7 are targeted at consumers. User Account Control (UAC) has been significantly detuned, appearing rarely and never flashing the annoying Secure Desktop anymore. A new UI called Action Center replaces the old Security Center and adds PC–maintenance monitoring with centralized notifications.

The Windows taskbar has been significantly overhauled for the first time since 1995. Now, it works much like the Mac OS X Dock, mixing saved shortcuts with buttons for running applications and open windows. Also new to Windows 7 is a system of pop-up Jump Lists, which are specific to buttons on the taskbar; Microsoft supplies default options for each button, but developers are free to add their own application-specific options as well.

The Windows desktop has also been overhauled to sport new Aero glass effects, including a nice new Aero Peek feature that replaces Show Desktop, providing a quick glance at gadgets and other desktop items. A feature called Aero Snaps docks dragged windows in logical places when you drag them to the edges of the screen. For example, when you drag a window to the top of the screen, it becomes maximized. Drag it to a side of the screen and it will dock to the side and occupy 50 percent of the width of the screen.

Windows Explorer has evolved yet again, and the big news in Windows 7 is the return of the virtual folder scheme that Microsoft briefly tried to implement in Vista. Now, special shell folders such as Documents, Music, and Pictures are implemented as virtual folders called Libraries that aggregate content from one or more physical folder locations. So, for example, the Documents Library aggregates content from Personal Documents (what was called Documents in Vista and My Documents in earlier versions) with content from Public Documents, and you can add and remove aggregated folder locations.

Microsoft has also overhauled several Windows applications. Paint and WordPad adopt the Ribbon UI from Microsoft Office 2007. Calculator supports multiple modes besides Standard and Scientific, and Sticky Notes and Windows Gadgets now integrate more directly with the Windows desktop. The XML Paper Specification (XPS) Viewer is improved, and a new PowerShell IDE is included.

Most notable on the application front is that many bundled applications from the past—Windows Contacts, Windows Calendar, Windows Photo Gallery, Windows Mail, Windows Messenger, and Windows Movie Maker—are no longer included in Windows 7. Instead, users can download free and more frequently updated versions of these applications as part of the Windows Live family of online services. (Many are made available via a single installer called Windows Live Essentials.)

Finally, Microsoft has implemented a new sharing scheme for home networks only called HomeGroup. HomeGroup makes it relatively easy to share documents, music, movies, and pictures with other PCs on your home network, though all of them need to be running Windows 7. New versions of Windows Media Player, Windows Media Center, and Windows DVD Maker round out the digital media improvements in this release.

Windows 7 for the Enterprise
Many of the security improvements in Windows 7 will directly affect IT pros and administrators in businesses of various sizes. For example, BitLocker has been improved with a new feature called BitLocker To Go that extends this encryption technology to portable storage. And UAC, as mentioned previously, is now less annoying.

But the enterprise improvements to Windows 7 aren't relegated to such minor conveniences. For the first time since Windows 2000, Microsoft is developing and shipping new client and server versions of Windows simultaneously (the server counterpart is Windows Server 2008 R2), and Microsoft is planning features that, yes, allow the two systems to work better together.

Granted, none of these features are as dramatic as the Active Directory (AD) and Group Policy technologies that debuted in Win2K. This time around, we get search federation, where network-based searches are returned nearly instantaneously. A feature called DirectAccess should finally make obsolete difficult-to-configure and expensive-to-obtain VPN connections. (And for those who do stick with VPN, Windows 7 also includes a VPN Reconnect feature that will automatically reconnect disconnected VPN connections.)

Another new feature, BranchCache, should improve network traffic and thus performance between Windows 7 PCs in remote offices and R2-based servers back in the home office. Roaming user profiles, Terminal Services (renamed RemoteApp), and folder redirection and offline files have all been improved as well.

Windows 7 will be the first client version of Windows to ship with Windows PowerShell. It gets PowerShell 2.0, as well as a powerful IDE. Windows 7 also supports various virtualization technologies, including Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) mount—which lets you mount Hyper-V–compatible virtual machines (VMs) as standard hard drives—and VHD boot, which lets you boot the PC from a virtualized environment. Windows 7 for Developers

To support developers, Microsoft is ensuring that the device driver and application models aren't changing between Vista and Windows 7, ensuring compatibility. But the company is also working to expose new Windows 7 technologies for developers so that they can take advantage of new capabilities in their own solutions. This includes such things as Jump Lists, PowerShell, the Scenic Ribbon control from Paint and WordPad, and other features.

Adopt or Not?
Microsoft argues that Windows 7 is indeed a major Windows version because of its many end-user–related enhancements. However, I'd argue that Windows 7's improvements, though many, are minor. That said, its improvements are quite impressive overall—like a finely-tuned version of Vista.

So should you wait? As of press time, Windows 7 should ship by early 2010, but my impressions of this beta release suggest that Microsoft could ship Windows 7 by the third quarter of 2009 at the latest. Given that schedule, if you're not already migrating to Vista, yes, it does make sense to wait. And that's especially true if you're going to install the system on older hardware: Windows 7 runs much better than does Vista on older PCs.

See also: "Windows 7 Keyboard Shortcuts" and "Windows 7 Tips"