Everything You Need to Know About Windows Vista

Has any operating system been so maligned and so praised during a painfully long development cycle as Windows Vista? The march to Vista's launch has sometimes seemed longer than the Hundred Years War.

Now that Windows Vista is at hand, let the debating begin. Is it a look into the future of operating systems, or the last, dying gasp of an old way of computing? Should you upgrade your system to meet its considerable hardware needs? Is it anything other than Mac OS X Lite?

Some may complain that Vista isn't as revolutionary as it should be after five years of work. But you don't judge an OS by the amount of time developers have put into it. You judge it by how useful and how pleasurable it is to work with--and in these respects, Windows Vista is a clear winner. It's beautiful, sports much-improved security, offers superb networking capabilities...and maybe most of all, it's just plain fun to use.

That's not to say it's perfect--far from it. Some may view the new interface as little more than fluff or be turned off by the intrusive User Account Control feature. Expect a long-running discourse between Vista lovers and Vista haters. On which side will you fall? There's only one way to find out--by taking a tour of the operating system.

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The Look

Windows Flip 3D stacks your windows in three dimensions and lets you flip through them like cards.
Windows Flip 3D stacks your windows in three dimensions and lets you flip through them like cards.
The moment Windows Vista starts, some of its biggest changes are in plain view: It is distinctive and eye-catching. Colors are subtler and the overall look less cartoonish than Windows XP's.

Dare I say it's Mac-like? In fact, it is. Microsoft has always stolen from the best. Key to a lot of what's new in Vista is the much-anticipated Aero interface--but to use it, you'll need adequate hardware and one of the pricier versions of the OS. (For details on these editions, see "How Much Will Your Vista Upgrade Cost?" )

Within Aero, screen windows maximize and minimize with a kind of visual "swoosh." The <Alt>-<Tab> command for switching between open windows now invokes Windows Flip, which displays thumbnails of open windows. Flip 3D (<Windows>-<Tab>) ups the ante, stacking windows so that you can flip through them like playing cards.

Some may say this is mere eye candy that won't affect your real productivity. Maybe so. But it makes life at the keyboard fun again. And for my money, that's right up there with productivity.

Two other notable new interface elements are the Sidebar and Live Thumbnails. Hover your mouse over a minimized window on the taskbar, and a thumbnail pops up with its contents, plus the program and document name or Web site.

I'm particularly fond of the Sidebar gadgets, interactive applets that display information--RSS feeds, stock tickers, clocks, weather, and so on. Vista ships with about a dozen of them; there are more online. While similar to Google Desktop Gadgets or Yahoo Widgets, they're actually more like the Mac's Gadgets in that they're built directly into the operating system and so may use its underlying architecture. For example, one gadget displays RSS news feeds you've subscribed to using Internet Explorer 7's RSS Reader.

The Start menu is more compact and useful; and Control Panel is more logically organized than in XP--it has several new "Centers," such as the Network and Sharing Center and the Sync Center (which handles functions of ActiveSync desktop software you previously had to install for Windows Mobile devices).

But for some odd reason several differently named links bring you to the exact same location. For example, in Control Panel, Network and Internet, if you click 'Network and Sharing Center' or 'View network status and tasks' or 'Set up file sharing', each of these choices will take you to...the Network and Sharing Center. This can make using Control Panel feel like getting directions from a dotty old aunt.

Security

Before you can do something potentially harmful, User Account Control asks for confirmation. This helps protect against malware, but can also be a giant pain.
Before you can do something potentially harmful, User Account Control asks for confirmation. This helps protect against malware, but can also be a giant pain.
Following years of justifiable criticism about Windows security, Microsoft had promised that Vista would be the most secure Windows ever. This goal largely appears to have been met, though at some cost to the user: The OS's nagging User Account Control feature has been roundly lambasted as the Mother of All Windows Annoyances. Other security improvements are less irritating.

XP's version of the Windows Firewall protected you only against inbound threats: If malware infected your PC and attempted an outbound connection, Windows Firewall could do nothing about it.

Vista's firewall includes outbound filtering, though that's not readily apparent by looking at the Windows Firewall Settings tab. To configure outbound connections, you must launch the Windows Firewall with Advanced Security screen by typing wf.msc at a command prompt. We didn't test the firewall's effectiveness in our near-final prerelease copy of Vista, but the presence of outbound filtering could eliminate the need for a third-party firewall for at least some users.

Vista's Security Center is not much different from XP's, with a similar confused interface. Clicking the green button next to the firewall, the automatic updating, and so on does absolutely nothing--just as in XP. But links on the screen's upper left side let you configure security settings.

Windows Defender, Vista's bundled antispyware software, was impressive when PC World tested it under its former name, Windows Anti-Spyware. Its Software Explorer, for example, shows you programs that run at startup and ones currently running, plus details including whether an app is classified as malware. If so, you can take actions such as disabling or removing it. Like other antispyware apps, it provides real-time protection and performs daily system scans at a time you choose.

New, less visible features include Network Access Protection, which lets network administrators set requirements a PC must meet to connect to the network (current antivirus signatures, for example). BitLocker Drive Encryption, available only in Vista Enterprise and Ultimate, enables hardware-based lockdowns of a PC and its data.

Because so many attacks on Windows exploited security holes in Internet Explorer, Microsoft has beefed up Internet Explorer 7's defenses. Like other IE 7 features in Vista, most of these security improvements--including phishing site filters and address bars in pop-ups--duplicate those in the Windows XP version of the updated browser (see our review, "Radically New IE 7 or Updated Mozilla Firefox 2--Which Browser Is Better?"). One big difference: In Vista, IE 7 runs by default in the new Protected Mode, which keeps it from changing system files or settings.

New, Annoying Virtual Nanny

But User Account Control (UAC) has riled more Windows Vista testers than all other features combined. UAC prompts you to type in a password or click OK before taking certain actions--for example, turning the Windows Firewall on or off, adding or removing user accounts, or even running some applications. You sometimes get a warning: A small shield appears next to links or options that will summon the UAC prompt if clicked.

What's the point of this annoying virtual nanny? First, it protects against malware running unchecked. If your PC gets infected and the malware attempts to perform a dangerous action such as turning off your antivirus program or the firewall, UAC will stop it cold. Second, UAC can protect you against yourself, keeping you from making changes that could harm your computer.

That's all well and good, but Microsoft has gone overboard with this protection. Why should you get a UAC prompt when you try to change Windows' font size, or your PC's name? Because of UAC, using Vista can at times become a herky-jerky kind of experience, with so many annoying pop-ups coming at you that you want to scream "Stop!"

In fact, you can stop the prompts by turning off UAC entirely. Go to Control Panel, User Accounts and Family Safety, User Accounts, click the Turn User Account Control on or off link, and you'll send that nanny into the virtual ether.

Of course, if you do turn off UAC, then you have no one but yourself to blame if a piece of malware does get in and take over your system.

Finding Files

Windows explorer has a new thumbnail preview pane, as well as a details pane that shows a file's name, size, user-defined tags, and other info.

Like Internet Explorer 7, Windows Explorer has a toolbar instead of a menu (though you can get the menu back by pressing the Alt button). That toolbar can be disconcerting, however, because its contents vary depending on the folder. Image editing tools appear in a folder full of photos, and document-sharing tools appear in a folder with Word documents. If a folder contains multiple file types, Vista takes its best guess, and it's not always on target. To change the folder type and toolbar, right-click the folder, choose Properties, click the Customize tab, and then choose a type.

Search is built into every level of Vista. It's on the Start menu and the upper right-hand side of Windows Explorer. Vista uses indexing: It begins searching the index as you type keywords, so results appear instantly and narrow as you type.

Vista's Search finds documents, e-mail, applications, and even Web sites you've visited. An advanced search tool lets you filter results by date, file size, author, tags, and location. Vista accepts Boolean searching. You can even search other PCs on your network, if you have read permission. And you can save your searches so that you can perform them again with a single mouse click.

But Search works differently in different places: You get different results with the Start search box than with the Windows Explorer search box. Worse yet, by default Search will index and search only a small portion of your hard disk--mainly your \Users\username folder. If you want Search to look for files elsewhere, you must click the 'Include non-indexed, hidden and system files (might be slow)' box in the advanced search options. As advertised, this can be painfully slow.

What to do? Go to Control Panel, System and Maintenance, Indexing Options and hand-pick folders to put into the index.

Other problems include a Search pane in Windows Explorer that seems to vanish and appear again for no apparent reason. There is, in fact, some logic involved, but it's as convoluted as the DaVinci Code. Suffice it to say that you won't be using this Search pane anytime soon.

Networking

Vista's Network Map displays all of your devices and provides information about them, such as the MAC (a unique hardware ID) and IP addresses for gateways.
Vista's Network Map displays all of your devices and provides information about them, such as the MAC (a unique hardware ID) and IP addresses for gateways.
Up to now, Microsoft had never done a stellar job of integrating networking capabilities into Windows. Just try synchronizing Offline Folders in Windows XP, for example--I dare you.

Windows Vista, however, presents your network as a natural extension of your PC. The OS helps you configure a network, share files, manage multiple networks, and more--all with a minimum of fuss. Vista supports all the usual network technologies, including ethernet, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.

The new Network and Sharing Center puts network tools and information right at hand. Click View Full Map, for example, and you'll see a diagram showing all PCs and devices on your network, including printers, switches, and gateways. Click or hover over a device icon to get more details, such as IP and MAC addresses.

Vista handles wireless network connections deftly: Simply click the network icon in the system tray, click Connect or disconnect, and you'll see a list of nearby wireless networks. Hover your cursor over any one to see details such as Wi-Fi type (802.11b or g, say) and security protocol, if any.

Vista saves settings for networks you use frequently so you can automatically connect to them when you're in range. You can even specify which take precedence if more than one is available.

Not all networking features are hunky-dory. Windows Meeting Space is supposed to let you hold virtual meetings over an ad-hoc network--but has a well-nigh worthless chat module, no voice capabilities, and no whiteboard tools. Doesn't sound like any virtual meeting I want to attend.

The Sync Center, designed to help you sync files and folders between networked PCs and devices, is a bit of a mess as well. If you want to do anything other than perform basic syncs, you may throw up your hands and walk away.

Multimedia

Windows DVD Maker, new to Windows Vista, makes it easy for anyone to create self-playing DVDs, but don't expect many fancy features--they're not there.
Windows DVD Maker, new to Windows Vista, makes it easy for anyone to create self-playing DVDs, but don't expect many fancy features--they're not there.
Windows Vista's multimedia capabilities are only moderately more advanced than Windows XP's. Windows Media Center is no longer a separate edition; its features are built into Vista Home Premium and Ultimate. Windows Movie Maker sports a much-improved interface.

The new Windows DVD Maker makes creating self-playing DVDs with movies and pictures exceedingly easy. But if you're serious about burning DVDs, you'll still want a third-party program. For example, DVD Maker can't import QuickTime files, something most third-party apps do.

Similarly, the new Windows Photo Gallery offers easy-to-use tools for organizing, printing, e-mailing, burning, or making a movie from pictures and photos. Simple tools for adjusting color and exposure, fixing red-eye, and the like won't replace your favorite photo editing program; but as a free add-in, the Photo Gallery is good enough.

Built-In Tools

Windows Vista includes a decidedly mixed bag of built-in apps and utilities. The new Backup tool, for example, may be one of the worst applications ever packed into an operating system. It doesn't let you choose to back up individual files or file types--you have to back up every file in a generic group of files, such as "Documents" or "Pictures." This can make for much larger backups than you might have intended. In contrast, the Time Machine backup feature in the coming Mac OS 10.5 (Leopard) will do incremental backups.

Not all built-in applications and system tools are this disappointing. Windows Calendar, for example, goes well beyond the basics: You can create group calendars for family members who use your PC, and publish your calendar on the Web. The utility is compatible with the iCalendar standard for syncing appointments with Outlook and other iCalendar-compliant calendars.

Windows Mail, the e-mail program previously known as Outlook Express, has received a face-lift that makes it easier to use. Windows Contacts--the new Address Book--integrates well with Windows Mail and the Windows Calendar.

Additionally, Vista offers support for several new hardware technologies, including some that depend on Vista-aware devices. Windows Rally, for example, is a set of technologies designed to make networkable devices easier to set up and connect. Windows SideShow will allow manufacturers to include a secondary display--an LCD in the lid of a laptop, say, that can display information such as recent e-mail, phone numbers, and so on--even if the laptop is off or in sleep mode. These auxiliary displays can also be built into keyboards, remote controls, PDAs, and cell phones.

Vista also includes technologies intended to enhance performance. The two that sound most intriguing are SuperFetch and ReadyBoost.

SuperFetch builds on the prefetch capability in Windows XP, which preloads frequently used apps into memory to speed up launch times. Microsoft says SuperFetch not only knows which applications you use most frequently, but which ones you're most likely to use on different days of the week and at different times of day.

ReadyBoost lets you use a USB 2.0 flash drive to augment system RAM; it improves performance by working in concert with SuperFetch. Instead of having to search your relatively slow hard drive for programs and files, Vista can keep them close at hand on your speedy flash drive. This also frees up RAM that Vista would otherwise use to prefetch data.

ReadyBoost works only with USB 2.0 flash drives that support certain data read and write speeds; we'll be testing this feature with shipping code.

The Bottom Line

All in all, Windows Vista is a great leap forward for the operating system, with a much-improved, far more useful (and pleasurable) interface; faster, better search; beefed-up security that's a big improvement over Windows XP with SP2; and far, far better networking. There are some clunkers in there, though, such as the annoying UAC feature.

But the pluses make you forget the minuses. I've been using Windows Vista alongside Windows XP for months, and every time I have to switch back to a Windows XP-based PC, I feel like I've moved from a modern automobile back to a Model T. Sure, the old model will eventually get you where you're going--but the ride won't be as much fun.

Pluses and Minuses, Versions and Costs

Here's a summary of the pros and cons, and a table of the versions and their costs.

Five Things We Love

  1. AERO: Transparent windows, tasteful animation, elegant design: Sure, it looks like a Mac, but why not steal from the best?
  2. SEARCH: Fast, smart, and you can create virtual search folders to revisit your searches with a single click.
  3. NETWORK MAP: Finally, Microsoft gets networking right; it's a great way to get an overview of your network and its devices.
  4. WIRELESS NETWORKING: Connecting to multiple wireless networks and hotspots is a simple affair.
  5. SECURITY: You get a firewall with outbound filtering, a better browser, and a lot under the hood offering better protection.

Five Things We Hate

  1. USER ACCOUNT CONTROL: Who needs a virtual nagging nanny?
  2. BACKUP: How could Microsoft have built such a brain-dead application?
  3. WINDOWS MEETING SPACE: With worthless chat and no telephony, this isn't a virtual meeting I'd want to attend.
  4. HARDWARE REQUIREMENTS: Be prepared to spend a bundle for hardware upgrades--or a new computer.
  5. PRICE: $399 new, or $299 for the upgrade to Windows Ultimate? No operating system should cost that much. And the cheapest version, Basic ($199 full, $100 upgrade), isn't worth the trouble.

How Much Will Your Vista Upgrade Cost?

For the lowdown on the unprecedented array of flavors that Microsoft's new OS comes in, click on the chart icon below.

Windows Vista EditionHome Basic1Home Premium2Business3Ultimate4
Features
Windows Defender and Firewall YYYY
Aero and Windows Flip 3D YYY
Windows Mobility and Tablet PC support YYY
Windows Meeting Space YYY
Windows Media Center YY
Business Backup and Networking, Remote Desktop YY
BitLocker Drive Encryption Y
Price
Suggested full price:$199$239$299$399
Suggested upgrade price:$100$159$199$259
Footnotes: 1 Allows in-place upgrades from XP Home. 2 Allows in-place upgrades from XP Home Media Center. 3 Allows in-place upgrades from XP Home, Media Center, and Professional. 4 Allows in-place upgrades from XP Home, Media Center, Pro, and Tablet PC.

There's much more to say on Vista. Here are links to other informative PC World Windows Vista stories and video.

Preston Gralla is the author of more than 35 books, including Windows Vista in a Nutshell and Windows Vista Pocket Reference (O'Reilly Media).

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