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The new interface and technical underpinnings (or at least the improved performance and compatibility they enable) are the most obvious improvements in Windows 7.
But the new release is also crammed with tools and features, including better search, full image backup on every edition, internet media streaming, multitouch, a new font management control panel, burning ISO files, virtualised Wi-Fi hardware, a PowerShell IDE, support for mounting and booting from VHD files, and the ability to encrypt removable drives (both in Enterprise and Ultimate).
FONT: Show and hide fonts in the Font Control Panel to choose which fonts are used in menus and apps
If you set up both work and home networks, your default printer changes when you connect to one or the other. You can find a way to do some of these things in Vista or XP by installing third-party tools, but Windows 7 has it all built in, ready to use and coherently organised.
More than utilities
The Devices and Printers window gives you the option of automatically downloading photo-realistic icons for devices and drives; there are only a few so far, but it does make it far clearer what a random product number actually represents.
More usefully, you can right-click on any icon with a warning to run a troubleshooter. Windows 7 already has a wide range of these – and it will be updated automatically with new troubleshooters as they're released.
RESTORE: System Restore is more reliable in Windows 7...
RESTORE:...and you can see which apps and drivers will be affected by rolling back before you do it
So far, there's a trickle of Device Stage support for devices like Sansa media players, Lenovo PCs and Epson printers; this is definitely a useful way of getting at all the features of a multi-function device, from storage cards to software updates, and we're hopeful that manufacturers will find it useful enough to build for the full range of devices.
Windows 7 is much more insistent about asking you to back up your data, and it lets you create a full system image backup in all editions now. Crucially, it's also easy to restore from an image backup on an external drive. System Restore is more reliable than in XP or Vista, and it warns you about programs and drivers that will be affected by a rollback
BACKUP: You can easily back up files and create a system image that you can easily restore from
You can use Windows Firewall in the simpler control panel mode, or as a full management console with advanced options; you can work with port and IP number ranges, create security rules and set a security profile for different network adaptors (and use them at the same time) – refinements that add up to much more powerful security, but still with a friendly front end.
FIREWALL: Two views of the Windows Firewall give you the choice of simplicity or advanced control
Parental Controls actually loses some features; you can still use it to control what apps children can use, what the age-rating on games has to be and how long they can use the PC for. However, web filtering is now provided by Windows Live or other third-party security software which can now plug in to Parental Controls to add a much wider range of features.
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Mary (Twitter, Google+, website) started her career at Future Publishing, saw the AOL meltdown first hand the first time around when she ran the AOL UK computing channel, and she's been a freelance tech writer for over a decade. She's used every version of Windows and Office released, and every smartphone too, but she's still looking for the perfect tablet. Yes, she really does have USB earrings.