Windows 7 build 6956 review: 7 at a glance


It started with a conference. This, however, was not just an ordinary “conference”. It involved all device driver makers and hardware vendors.

Yes — if you know what conference this is, then you’re probably correct: The WinHEC conference of 2008, held this year in Beijing, China.
Here, attendees received a copy of the latest and greatest windows 7 build, build 6956.

I myself have installed this release, and am running it as I write. Many believe this build to be one of the candidates for beta 1. In deed, it closely resembles something similar to a beta, and the final product.

The help system has been extensively updated. Throughout the review, I will be quoting some topics from Windows Help. At the end, I will also look at accessibility, which I’ve tested with 3 screen readers so far: JAWS, NVDA, Window-eyes, and System access.

For those who are reading this review and have not read any of my previous Windows 7 testing work, I recommend that you at least look over some of the sections — as it will assist you with understanding what this Windows release is all about.
I will be publishing review #2 in a few weeks, after I’ve had a chance to test more products with this build as well as screen readers. It will also talk about some of the minor changes which I found throughout the course of my testing.

So, without any further queries, let us begin!

Installation: Comments.

The installation of this build seemed to of taken a bit longer than my previous install of build 6801.
Also, you must stay plugged into a power source at all times. If you, for instance, unplug your laptop even after the first reboot, your installation will give you an error message and fail to continue. Great, eh?

The desktop: 7 at a Glance

The desktop of Windows 7 now features a fish theme. I do not recall seeing this in previous builds, or in deed anyone mentioning it to me.
The new taskbar is present in this build (it was locked in 6801) and features all the niceties mentioned in help.


Save time with improved performance and reliability

Nobody likes to wait. That’s why we’ve focused on fundamentals�especially where speed matters. Windows�7 is ready and responsive. It starts, shuts down,
and resumes from standby faster. You’ll have fewer interruptions and can recover more quickly from problems when they do occur because Windows�7 will help
you fix them when you want. In short, Windows�7 delivers performance, reliability, and security features�and it’s compatible with the same hardware, programs,
and drivers as Windows�Vista.

Windows 7 lives up to it’s name. The performance in this build is much better compared to Windows vista and previous versions. In fact, I can type faster now, and feel less of a key lag (if that’s even possible) than ever before. System resources and CPU power are less used as well, allowing this operating system to run on even slower processors.

The new and improved help center: Compact!

In earlier releases of Windows 7, there was not much to say about new features let alone some of the new applications included. It is with delight that I find this different in this build:
Help is now expanded with numerous topics, providing information on the latest included features. The table of topics which the user could find in previous releases of Windows is also gone, replaced with a list containing 3 items:

  • How to get started with your computer.
  • Learn about Windows Basics
  • Browse Help topics
  • The what’s new topic, which I quoted in my build 6801 review, now contains a full rundown of features and enhancements. The opening paragraph has also changed a bit:
    (Note: all quotes in this review are copyright � Microsoft. � trademarks are the property of their respective owners. )

    Great ideas are often simple and clear. Here’s ours: We’ve listened and we’re making Windows�7 for you.
    Here’s a peek at what’s coming.

    Well, let us take a more in depth peak, shall we?

    Control panel:

    Action Center: Take action, now!

    In previous Windows 7 builds, we saw the rise of “problem reports and solutions”, also known as “windows solution center”. This was essentially an integration of the Windows Security Center in a different place with different alerts.
    Well, problem reports and solutions is gone completely. It is now replaced with something simpler: the Windows Action center.

    Take control of problems with Action Center

    In Windows�7, you’ll see fewer notifications popping up because Action Center consolidates alerts from 10 Windows features, including Security Center and
    Windows Defender. When Windows�7 needs your attention, you’ll see a new icon in the notification area and can find out more by clicking it. You can choose
    to respond to the notification or go to Action Center for more details. If you don’t have time to address the issue immediately, Action Center will keep
    the information waiting for you to address later.
    Bringing it together: Action Center consolidates notifications

    Remote APP and desktop Connections: All in one place

    Here is a nice new item in Control Panel, called “Remote App and Desktop Connections”.
    Previously, I talked about a feature called Workspaces. Well, workspaces has changed it’s name into this, and is now mentioned in help. I remember the mystery I felt when reviewing build 6801, simply because I had no idea at all on what workspaces could entail. Well, here is what the famous help has to offer:

    RemoteApp and Desktop Connections is a feature that you can use to access programs and desktops (remote computers and virtual computers) made available
    to you by your workplace’s network administrator. When you’re at home, you can access all the programs and computers that you would normally need to be
    at work to use. With a connection, all of these resources are located in one easy-to-access folder on your computer. Using these resources is almost the
    same as if they were on your local network or on your computer.

    (from What is RemoteApp and Desktop Connections?)

    Homegroup: Easier to share, easier to manage.

    We again see a new item rise to power within control panel. Remember that Windows 7’s goal is to allow users to get to somewhere faster and in a more efficient manner. Through this control panel option, users can setup workgroups, or connect to already active home networks.

    Windows HomeGroup makes it easy to connect to other computers running Windows�7 and devices on an existing wireless home network, so you can share files,
    photos, music, and printers throughout your home. Use Network and Sharing Center to choose what you share with other members of your homegroup. Set one
    default printer for your homegroup and another for your network at work. When you join a homegroup, you’ll immediately see other computers in the group,
    just like the items on your hard drive.

    Microsoft seems to be taking aim towards the home users with this build. Again, I remind you here that the goal of 7 is to improve upon the core foundations of Vista. With 7, integration between the business and home users is even tighter: You could use your 7 PC to, for example, use remote apps. On the other hand, if you are the average home network enthusiast, setting workgroups is a nice feature.

    Getting started: Ah, it’s back!

    There was one feature which I noticed missing from the build 6801 release of this product. In Vista, I painfully recalled the “welcome center”, which would start every single time you restarted your machine, unless of course you unchecked this option from the application.
    Well, in Windows 7, it’s back: Though less annoying, “Getting Started” no longer pops up after install. Microsoft is taking a marketing method on promoting a particular website,

    The new
    Windows website
    will have more how-to articles, videos, free downloads, and inspiring ideas for getting the most out of your Windows�7 PC.”

    We’ll just have to see that…

    The taskbar: Let’s get in depth!

    Here I wish to discuss this “new taskbar” more in depth. Although I have mentioned it a bit, I feel that it is now time to also go into what is really new about it and how it might impact various users.

    By default, several icons are “pinned” to the taskbar. These include Windows Media player and Internet explorer. For those who are lazy and like to use their computers with ease, the taskbar might be a nice option: you can pin programs to it and open them with one click.
    For our blind readers, hitting the applications key can bring up a context menu, allowing you to “unpin this item from the taskbar” as well as to open it.
    But the big question and confusion is with one obvious concept: There is no way to tell which item is actually running, and which is something you pinned to the taskbar. I might see Windows Media player as I cycle through my taskbar and wonder how it got there, as I have not opened it at all. Clicking on it would only yield me actually opening it and slamming my fist down at the keyboard because I did not want to use WMP at the time, perhaps.
    Here is what help has to say about the taskbar. Notice that Microsoft does not mention this “issue”.

    The taskbar in Windows�7 is larger and taskbar icons are easier to see and select. Full-screen previews from the taskbar help you keep track of the files
    and programs you’re using by showing each open window as a thumbnail. Hover over a file’s taskbar icon and you’ll see what the file looks like when it’s

    Get the picture: See what’s open with full-screen previews from the taskbar

    Windows�7 is smart about how you work with windows. Dragging a window to the top of your computer screen maximizes it automatically. Dragging a window to
    the side of the screen resizes it for easy side-by-side comparisons to other windows. And dragging the mouse to the lower-right corner of the screen makes
    all of your open windows transparent.

    Invisible windows: Seeing through to the desktop

    All this is nice, but again I feel that it might lead to more confusion. I get the “ease of use” perspective here. And again, not everyone will benefit from this change. I’m visually impaired, for example. So, how will I be able to hear the contents of a window quickly without jumping to the actual application? hmm. Yeah. About that.

    Accessibility and compatibility

    It is key to mention a few more important items when it comes to windows 7 prereleased builds. I have done some testing over the last few days, and have compiled a report which could interest some people.

    While in the previous builds we did not see “issues” with assistive technologies popping up, build 6956 presents a few more challenges which serve to make life just a tad difficult.
    I have tested this build with several screen readers and rated their usage with the system, almost as a rank-base. Again, the ratings are nothing to do with the screen reader and it’s use, but rather, it’s compatibility. I will therefore list it in order of (most compatible) to (least compatible)

    System access:

    Developed by Serotek, System Access seems ready to go. If anything, the release of this build only makes this one of the most stable screen readers to use so far with windows 7. The calculator works right out of the box — something which some of our more widely known screen readers do not do.
    While testing System access, Ionly found one problem: User control prompts. When one pops up, System access prompts the user to hit Windows key + y (in the case of 7, this does not matter) and then it should be read by the screen reader. However, none of the UAC prompts I received were read outloud and the keyboard did not respond when navigating the UAC dialog.
    I quickly switched back to my primary screen reader (JAWS) since Dectalk is not my preferred synthesizer voice. Performance is highly faster from other tested screen readers as well.

    Window-eyes: Even the ribbons?

    Window-eyes is another powerful screen reader which seems to Handel the 7 challenge well. It is worthy to note that several crashes and memory dumps occurred while installing Window-eyes on this system, but these were resolved after a few restarts.
    I also had a difficulty getting rid of Window-eyes from starting when the computer restarted.
    As a child, I began using Window Eyes first. It was my primary screen reader until the age of around 13, when popular demand forced me to switch to JAWS. All commands seem to work well with 7.
    The ribbon is also accessible, though the custom “help messages” which are provided by windows as default are not “read” to the user.
    The calculator functions well with Wineyes, and results are read without crashes or problems.

    NVDA: No beeping, please.

    I reported in my last testing that NVDA (Non-visual-desktop-access) would constantly beep when trying to access menus and dialogs. This is not a problem in at least this build, and this is why I would equate NVDA as the free choice if someone wishes to test and use 7 without purchasing a screen reader.
    However, NVDA does not support the calculator. The ribbon controls work with ease, and the help tutor messages which Windows provides through APIs is told to the user. NVDA has not yet crashed during it’s use and Internet explorer 8 also works right out of the box. See the advantages when it comes to only using Microsoft and system APIs for information?

    JAWS: The shark ate it, not me!

    JAWS seems to have received a turnaround with 7. Although the installation process went well, nothing afterwards succeeded. Activating JAWS resulted in error reports, and until the activation license was removed, JAWS would not start up again without crashing in one way or another. Therefore, I am running a 40 minute demo at this point.
    The calculator still does not function with JFW. Same goes with ribbons (JAWS thinks it’s a tab control ha ha ha! ).
    I’ve lost work several times after shutting down JAWS (40 minutes expired). It seems that in some rare cases, JAWS will lock up the system after it shut down. Let me tell you, it is not pleasant to find my Spanish test lost simply because I shut down JAWS.
    These few issues are what really put JAWS down. Not only that ; UAC again does not function with the screen reader properly, and whenever such a dialog is opened, JAWS actually can lock up and crash. Great, eh?
    On the bright side though, the Insert+f11 problem (where JAWS would say “failed to obtain the list of task tray icons”), is now fixed and you can now look at your system tray again. The taskbar functions OK with JAWS, though many a times you will here “task switch window. unavailable” announced, as JAWS cannot properly render this strange phenomenon. Huh, aliens in Windows now?

    Universal changes across the platform:

    Some changes were made universally across 7 by the accessibility team at Microsoft. Here are a few of them:

    • The search box of the start menu now allows all screen readers (accept for window-eyes) to announce the contents of your results.
    • The taskbar no longer contains “split buttons” . They are gone, and you can hit the applications button to access the underlying menu of the application you are over.
    • Conclusions:

      Fhew. I’m exhausted! Windows 7 is going well, though there downside’s to this build, as there were to all previous builds. Test if you wish, but beware of the issues which exist. They can be serious and cause many frustrations. As time will pass, some of them will be resolved ; and I will continue to review and test any build of Windows 7 which might arise.

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