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8 Hidden Gems in Windows 7

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Has Microsoft learned a lesson from Windows Vista?

The Vista operating system, which shipped in early 2007, sold reasonably well but ran slowly and was plagued by hardware problems. The successor is called Windows 7. It comes out Thursday, and it should make your PC quicker, smarter, and more fun.

Windows 7 is an attempt to fix Vista's problems — meaning technical issues as well as the public's perception —and give Microsoft Windows a much need PR boost. Just one example: Vista has something called "User Account Control," a term that sounds a bit ominous and translates as a barrage of security warnings for common tasks, even installing well-known software like Apple iTunes. In Windows 7, these prompts are nearly absent, and Microsoft argues that security is even tighter.

Full Coverage of Windows 7 — Click here

SLIDESHOW: A Visual Review of Windows 7

"The biggest problem with Vista is that it had been delayed many times, so drivers were a mess, which made it very unreliable — although eventually this got fixed," says Rob Enderle, a consumer analyst with Enderle Group. "Drivers" are bits of code that tell an operating system how a piece of hardware works, and they're notoriously unreliable.

"Vista was relatively slow, particularly for gaming, and required a lot of extra hardware to feel acceptably quick and many games wouldn’t even run on it initially," Enderle continues. "Combined, this made the OS painful to use for many. Most of this, particularly the drivers, was eventually fixed, but the impression had already been made that Vista was unreliable."

But Windows 7 is more than just a Band-Aid for your struggling computer. In fact, there are quite a few hidden gems that will appeal to business users, mobile mavens, accountants, gamers, and Web surfers alike. Here’s a rundown of the eight best.

1. Smarter windows
One cool Microsoft feature borrows some DNA from the Apple iPhone. In Windows 7, when you click on any window's title bar and shake it, every other open window goes away. This reduces the clutter on your screen, letting you focus on the one window you care about. Shake it again and the other windows reappear. Microsoft calls it Aero Shake, and it also lets you clear off the desktop completely. Just move the mouse to the lower right of the screen to hide all the open windows and get your bearings back.

2. More-detailed graphics
Next year, developers will start releasing games built on DirectX 11, a game engine that provides more detailed graphics. DX11 is an integral part of Windows 7. It supports a technique called tessellation borrowed from CGI movies to add tons of detail without slowing gameplay. Games that will support DX11’s improved graphics include "S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat" and Dirt 2 – and they'll ship this year, not some distant point in the future.

3. A TV Guide for Internet videos
The Windows Media Center program lets you connect your cable or satellite television feed to your computer and record shows, and in Windows 7, it's vastly improved. One impressive improvement is Web TV Channels, a way to find streaming Internet video sites and view popular clips without any fuss. Microsoft includes Media Center in all versions of Windows 7 except the starter version.

4. A hundredfold speed boost
Some technology fans think "DirectCompute" is the most revolutionary part of Windows 7. It's a technology that controls where computers do their calculations, moving some math-heavy processing onto the graphics card. This could result in as much as a hundredfold speed increase in, say, photo and video editing, and could lead to faster computing overall.

5. Massive monitors
Ever considered linking up to three monitors together to make one colossal screen? It's useful for tradeshows — or anyone who absolutely must have the largest screen possible — and Eyefinity in Windows 7 makes it possible. A first for Windows 7, Eyefinity requires the ATI 5870 graphics card, which costs $379, but the tech will probably trickle down to other hardware shortly.

6. 64-bit computing
Microsoft sold a separate version of Vista for computers that used 64-bit processors, meaning they can access massive amounts of memory and perform certain calcuations substantially faster. Want tons of memory? You've had to go out of your way to track down that 64-bit version. The latest laptop and desktops now ship with 64-bit processors, however. So nearly every version of Windows 7 includes both the 32-bit and 64-bit version — and can support all the memory you want.

7. Faster startups
Windows 7 boots much faster than Windows Vista. In my tests using a Lenovo S20 Workstation PC, Windows 7 booted about twice as fast as Windows Vista. Windows 7 is also snappier when resuming from a sleep state after the screen has dimmed; in fact, it's almost instantaneous.

8. Touch computing
With a touchscreen PC, you can swipe your fingers across your computer screen to browse through images, click buttons, and scroll through lists. You'll need a touch-screen monitor, of course, but Microsoft argues that using your hands to sort through data is much more intuitive than pointing and clicking.

Do these features warrant an upgrade? Absolutely – especially since Windows 7 not only provides the latest OS bells and whistles, but fixes most of the problems with Windows Vista.