Yeah, I said it. The Windows 7 taskbar is the most important Windows UI change since Windows 95, and it will dramatically change the way you use Windows. And it's better than the Mac's Dock.
That's because the "superbar" -as the taskbar is known by developers- jerks taskbar functionality in a new direction. It's no longer merely a window manager.. just a place to manage open windows and by proxy, open applications. It's now a bona fide application launcher.
More than that, it blends the two in ways that will remind many of the OS X Dock-apps that are running and those that aren't can live together. True, you've been able to launch apps from the Windows taskbar's Quick Launch ghetto for ages, but that's been demolished so that Microsoft could completely and seamlessly integrate the launching of new apps and the managing of running ones.
Managing Apps and Open Windows
The OS X Dock operates from a similar standpoint, but Windows 7 takes this (not to mention the translucency gambit) a step further: The visual signification of a running application (versus one that's not and merely "pinned" to the taskbar) is exceptionally subtle- a kind of "glare" appears on the top left corner of the icon and it's faintly outlined. It borders on actively encouraging you to forget the distinction, which as computers become more powerful and applications launch more quickly, matters less and less anyhow.
The flashing colored glass effect when an app is trying to get your attention, however, is nice, and though way less ostentatious than the old blinking button, definitely obvious. Unless you have the taskbar set to auto-hide, then the notification is barely visible as a flashing line of color on the bottom of your screen. The Mac Dock's bouncing icons definitely works better there.
These aesthetic similarities aside, what actually makes the superbar superior to the Dock is window management-including, by extension, application management. I can easily find, access or close any window I want from the taskbar nearly instantly, thanks to the combination of live thumbnails and Aero Peek. Rolling over an icon in the taskbar pops up live thumbnails of every open window of that app.
If that's not enough to tell which one you want, rolling over a thumbnail brings that window to the front, full-sized, and makes every other window translucent. And it's easy to move from app to app in one motion to bring up the window you want, or close it. This is not just a neat visual trick, like Flip 3D. It's genuinely useful.
The benefit breaks down if you have more open windows of an application than the number of previews that will fit across your screen horizontally: In that case, you get a much less useful list of open windows, like old school Windows or control-clicking a Dock icon on the Mac.
The Power of the Pop-Up Menu
Right-clicking -or clicking the icon then quickly swiping upwards- brings up a pop-up menu (aka a jump list). Control-clicking on the OS X Dock does something similar, giving you a list of open windows. Some apps (like Adium) are coded for additional Dock functions, but it's not the same as the powerful visual metaphor that the superbar and Aero Peek give you.
Applications still need to be coded specially to take advantage of the superbar's pop-up menu, but it's more powerful. If an app is coded to use Windows 7 jump lists -when you right-click on an icon or click and swipe upward, you have instant access to frequently used or other functions- it will erase the slight advantage the Dock currently has.
The superbar does share one of the Dock's major shortcomings as an application launcher- it's not immediately apparent how to launch a new window of an app from the taskbar. The secret as Windows evangelist Paul Thurrot points out is that you right-click the app icon, then click the app name itself appearing in the pop-up menu. Granted, from the Mac Dock, unless opening a new window is coded into the app as a Dock function, like Safari, you can't do it at all.
The superbar's biggest shortcoming -at least when you first use it- relates to the way it handles folders and document shortcuts, which is exceptionally confusing. You can only pin one folder to the bar. After that, every subsequent folder you want to pin to the taskbar is pinned to Windows Explorer. Say you have the Libraries folder pinned for quick access to Documents, Downloads, Pictures, etc.
But I also want another folder (in this example, Games and Computer) pinned to the taskbar, so I drag it to the bar. There, it shares the same icon as my first pinned folder. When I click the icon, up pops Libraries. Where's the Games folder? I have to right-click on the folder icon (or click and swipe up).
This gives me a jump list of pinned folders and other frequent programs. You pin documents the same way, only they're hidden in the jump menu of the application that opens them. It takes some learning before you can use it fluidly.
The View From Above
The challenge of learning a totally new Windows behavior is the cost of getting this huge step forward in UI. The superbar makes Windows way more conducive to running tons of applications, since it's actually possible to find apps and precisely the window you want in a second, no matter how bad the shitstorm on your desktop is. In this sense, it's a better application manager than the Dock, from which, generally speaking, you can't do much more than jump to open applications or close them.
It's true that it's actually less necessary for the Dock to be a superpowered wunderkind- Spaces gives you multiple desktops to work on, and Expose is pretty fantastic. It's faster, though if you've got too many windows, the thumbnails are too small to be useful. Aero Peek solves this issue nicely by letting you quickly cycle through full-screen windows.
The superbar has a button in the bottom right corner that works sort of like an OS X Expose hot corner, instantly making every window transparent so you can see the desktop- clicking will actually clear everything away.
There are definitely arguments to be made against the density of the superbar, packing so many function into a single UI element- many criticisms of the Dock apply to the superbar, like the total lack of text labels, and though it sidesteps some of the Dock's issues, like the poof, it presents new flubs. It could definitely improve in some ways (especially the notification area, which I didn't even go into).
But it shows the most thought of any Windows UI element in a long time, and manages to handle the complexity and multiplicity of functions about as well as one could expect. It does more than the Dock, and for the most part, works beautifully to enable -encourage, even- serious multitasking that the default Windows UI never has before.
Why compare taskbars and say one is better than the other?
You may think that the windows 7 taskbar is great, I personally find it feels like a glued on feature that just doesn't fit in with an operating system. The mac os x dock is a simple interface into the apps that you frequently use, and with the addition of stacks the functionality is perfect.
Don't you think that apple of all people could've make the dock all singing all dancing if they wanted to? Of course, but apples aims are to make the dock useful. Would a hammer be better if it were a radio, and a telescope? well the telescope bit would be cool but you get the idea.
I can seriously imagine the guys at apple reading this, "Oh no, Microsoft finally did something that someone thinks is better than os x". "What!" says another apple guy, "Is it the stability of the os? the ease of use? the integrated features?", "no" says the first guy, "it's the freakin taskbar", lots of laughing and side holding can be heard.
I bet you're the kind of guy who'd get embroiled in the battle between xbox 360 and ps3...
I appreciate the parts of your article that talk about the windows 7 taskbar, but comparing it to something else is pointless.
The superbar does share one of the Dock's major shortcomings as an application launcher- it's not immediately apparent how to launch a new window of an app from the taskbar.
For anyone who is curious, the trick is to center-click the app on the taskbar.
And in general I rather like the new UI; it's pretty versatile in both function and appearance unless you've spent the time to try to customize it, you shouldn't complain. As examples, my control panel doesn't show up as the annoying grouped lists and all of my applications are automatically run as administrator (no annoying Vista-esque warnings for me).
I disagree with knotty that the taskbar feels "glued on" (if when he said that he meant the features of the taskbar are all bells-and-whistles and not really practical). On the contrary, the new taskbar features are actually useful (especially pinning, jump-lists, application/desktop peeking).
UI aside, my W7 x64 is a good deal faster than any XP x86 installation I've had on this computer.