Despite its valiant attempts at creating a carnival atmosphere, when Microsoft launches a new operating system, it seldom feels like a world changing event in the world of design. Even the considerable hoopla surrounding the introduction of Windows XP was hardly like the introduction of the bikini or the Volkswagen Beetle, or dare we say it, the iPhone.
Instead, Windows fans tend to get their kicks from the solid virtues of better use of multithreaded processing, incremental increases in usability and a few nods towards the fun stuff. Next to the beauty of, say, a carved aluminum laptop casing packaged with matt black boxes, most PCs feel a bit utilitarian.
At least, that's how it used to be. But the latest wave of portable PCs that's due to break when Windows 7 ships this month seems to be adding a touch of style to the all business outlook that used to be the PC's stock in trade. Sure, productivity and practical considerations are there in spades, but there's a hint of glamour in the air too.
From the small and thin (the HP Mini and Toshiba Satellite T100 lines) to executive bling (Dell's Latitude Z and Sony's Vaio X), these Windows 7 portables are a far cry from the beaten metal beige boxes that we used to call IBM compatibles. Here's what to expect.
Microsoft has made faster boot up times a selling point of Windows 7, as have PC manufacturers such as Lenovo. And that's only the beginning of the overall go faster design of the next wave of notebooks.
Toshiba paid close attention to restore time when designing its new Satellite T100 line. These ultrathin notebooks weigh in at 3.5 pounds and are 1 inch thick (albeit without internal optical drives), and can wake up from hibernation to productivity in a little over two seconds. Toshiba achieved this almost instant on capability with a series of little BIOS tweaks, each of which shaves a fraction of a second off wake up tasks.
For people who want an even faster boot-up time, the HP ProBook 5310m takes things one step further. This 0.9 inch thick notebook features two applications that let you get online without even booting the system up at all: They operate outside of the notebook's operating system. Press a button and in around 20 seconds you're using a secure connection to the Internet to browse websites. Another utility, QuickLook3, handles email, calendar and contact information, also without needing to boot up Windows 7.
And to add a little glamor to the ProBook 5310m's productivity gains and 3.7 pound featherweight, this 13.5 inch ultraslim model comes in black anodised aluminum with a magnesium frame.
Adding high-touch to the high-tech
Touch computing has come a long way since the introduction of point of sale and banking touch screens. Today we think about touch computing less as pointing a finger and more as the kind of sweeping gestures we saw in science fiction movies like Minority Report.
Windows 7 supports the detection of multiple fingers and gesture based manipulation, like the pinch zooming that everyone showed you on their iPhone when they first got it. You can now pinch to shrink, move fingers apart to enlarge, twist to rotate, and flick to page through documents, as long as you pay a slight premium for touchscreen hardware.
A few major PC manufacturers are making this available on their portable lines. Lenovo is pumping up its existing ThinkPad X200 Tablet PC and slimline ThinkPad T400 by adding multitouch capabilities for around £120 over their usual prices.
These X200s and T400s will also debut a productivity tool called SimpleTap. You tap the screen with two fingers and a series of tiles pop up, front and center. These let you perform common tasks such as adjusting the screen brightness or system volume, setting the webcam and hibernating or locking the computer. You can create custom tiles to launch specific web pages or documents as well.
Toshiba is also launching two multitouch applications: ReelTime and Bulletin Board. ReelTime is a file timeline that lets you browse recent documents you've been working on with a sweep of the hand.
Bulletin Board is a more visceral and visual way of displaying documents in a project than Windows Explorer. You slap together pictures, documents, to do lists and other thumbnails onto a virtual corkboard, rearrange and resize them and work with them from there. Each image on the Bulletin Board is a shortcut to the existing documents in your document folders. In other words, you don't lose control of your filing structure by using Bulletin Board, you just gain another way of organising your work space.
Take a couple of tablets
Lenovo's ThinkPad X200 is by no means the only tablet PC to tap into Windows 7's multitouch capabilities. The Dell Latitude XT2 Tablet sports a dual digitiser to handle natural gestures like pinches and taps from even the gentlest touches, but keeps the positioning accurate enough for precision panning, rotating, zooming and so on. And it packs on the battery capacity too, with the option to add a six cell battery to give you almost 11.5 hours of work time. These extras pump the price up above the starting gate of £700, but if you've got to keep going, you'll want to pony up.
Meanwhile, Archos is so convinced that multitouch is the wave of the future that it has done away with the keyboard altogether in its £300 Archos 9 netbook sized tablet, or Internet Media Tablet, as the company prefers to call it.
Without a keyboard, the Archos 9 gets down to 0.68 of an inch thick, and allows its resistive screen to double as a keyboard. (If onscreen keyboards don't do it for you, you can connect a physical keyboard via Bluetooth.)