Windows 7 RC

Well, it’s now a week since I downloaded the Release Candidate of Windows 7, so how is it shaping up for me? For the most part, I’m very impressed.

I’ve installed it on both my Tablet PC and (gulp) my desktop PC – my main workhorse. Yes, I know that Microsoft issue dire warnings against using it on your main systems, but this is my way of living dangerously, since I have no interest in extreme sports. Anyway, I have a complete image backup of my previous Vista installation stored on my Windows Home Server, so if the worst comes to the worst, I can roll back my desktop to exactly as it was on the 4th May. New documents and mail being created in the Windows 7 installation are also being backed up onto Windows Home Server every night, so I can add these into a restored Vista installation if I ever need to go back to it. But at the moment, I don’t think I will need to go back to Vista ever again.

What do I like so far about Windows 7? Well, I suppose the main thing is how snappy it is in comparison with Vista. There’s been a noticeable increase in speed on both my systems. Applications open and close faster, and are more responsive, while the performance of the GUI is definitely better. The second thing that I am liking a lot is the redesigned Taskbar. There are lots of subtle touches that improve the usability of the system. For example, while an operation is going on, such as Copy, Move, or Download, the progress bar window is also reflected in the degree of green shading on the application icon on the Taskbar, so even if the progress bar window is obscured, you can see at a glance how far the operation has got to. See this example of a file copy operation in the Windows Explorer icon:

W7 5

The Taskbar indicates active applications by surrounding them with a highlighted window – applications with multiple active windows (e.g. Internet Explorer, Windows Explorer and Messenger in the example above) have a double window around them. Mousing over the icons of active applications instantly throws up miniature copies of the actual windows:

W7 6

Mousing over any of these miniature copies will instantly highlight that copy while simultaneously revealing that window on your desktop – all the other active windows become just outlines:

W7 7

Clicking on the copy will confirm the operation of making that the active window and bring it to the front:

W7 8

What issues have I come across? Well, none on the Tablet PC so far, but I have had some problems with the Desktop. It has two SATA disks installed, and I found that the D: drive seemed to vanish if I put the PC into sleep mode. Worse still, I got the dreaded BSOD occasionally. I had used the system BIOS to set the SATA drives into AHCI mode before doing a clean install of Windows 7. Even though Windows 7 has an AHCI driver, it seems as though this was the cause of the problems. After scouting around on the Windows 7 forums, I found advice that suggested that I should install software from Intel to replace the Microsoft AHCI driver. Since my desktop is a Dell system, I found an elderly copy of the Intel software (my Dell is equally elderly) on the Dell site and installed it. Touch wood, it seems to have done the trick. Interestingly, even though the Intel software was designed for Windows XP and earlier systems, Windows 7 was able to handle it perfectly in compatibility mode, and it installed without problem.

The issue that I discovered back in February with the “Play to” feature in Window 7’s Media Player is still there, unfortunately. I don’t know whether the blame should be laid at the door of Microsoft or whether it’s a shortcoming in the DLNA specification. Either way, the result is that I can’t use the “Play to” feature to push music from my Windows Media servers to my Denon amplifier. Negotiation of setting up the correct streaming format for the player device (the Denon) isn’t being handled correctly when there are three devices in the playing chain (the server, the player and the controller). I have got a workaround though. I’ve installed the (free) Asset UPnP media server software onto my Windows Home Server. The Asset server can be set to automatically transcode the Windows Media Audio Lossless format (which the Denon can’t handle) into PCM (which the Denon is happy with). Then, when the Asset server is instructed to push an audio stream to the Denon by the “Play to” media controller of Windows 7, it will stream PCM by default. Result: music and bliss.

I notice that the “Play to” media controller seems to have taken a step backwards from where it was in the Beta of Windows 7. Here’s screenshots of the “Play to” media controller window; on the left is a screenshot taken from the Beta, and on the right is a screenshot taken from the Release Candidate.

WMP12 - Play To 1  W7 9

Notice how the track indicator (the blue line) is operational in the Beta, but is not working in the Release Candidate? What is not obvious from the screenshots is that the track timing is also broken in the RC. In the Beta, the track timing display of the playing track counts down to zero as the track plays. In the RC, the track time remains unchanging. As usual in software development: fix a bug, introduce another one…

However, overall, I’m pretty pleased with the Windows 7 RC. I think it will remain on both of my systems, only to be replaced by the final product when it comes out at the end of this year.

Update: I have found that the track indicator and track timing work when the “Play to” control is being used against a library held as part of the main library hierarchy of Windows Media Player, but not when it it being used to control the content of a library held on a server and accessed via the “other libraries” hierarchy of Windows Media Player. Take a look at the following screenshots. The first shows albums in a library held on a separate server, but added into the main library of WMP running on my laptop:

WMP 12 1

The small window is the “Play to”media controller window – and it is showing a correctly working track indicator and track timing for the currently playing track. The track is being pulled from a remote server that is being accessed via “Library – Music – Album”.

Now, this next shot is of exactly the same audio file, held on the same server, but this time it’s being accessed via the “Other libraries” section. And this time, the track indicator and track timing are not working…

WMP 12 2

The choice of using either the main Library tree or the “Other Libraries” tree in WMP also seems to have an influence on the “Play to” negotiation of formats. I found that when I navigate in the main Library tree and push audio files to my Denon they will play, but pushing the very same audio files to the Denon via navigation of the “Other Libraries” tree will fail. I surmise that in the first case, the negotiation and selection of the audio format to be pushed to the Denon works correctly, but not in the second case.

Update: I’ve explored various “Play to” scenarios and documented the results in Fun with Technology – Part IV.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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