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Windows Vista: A Sneak Peek

There's a lot of confusion about Windows Vista these days. Many online discussion forums have a great number of users who express no desire to upgrade to Vista.

Sure, we've all seen the screenshots and maybe a video or two of Vista in action, but for many it only seems like new tricks for an old dog. Yeah, it's got some fancy 3D effects in the interface, but [Apple's] OS X has been doing that for years now, and it's still Windows underneath, right?

The sentiment seems to be that Vista is another Windows ME — an avoidable upgrade that isn't really going to breathe new life into your computer.

Perhaps part of the problem is that people just don't know what Vista has in store for them. Microsoft has gone big on the very high-level marketing with slogans like "Bringing Clarity to Your World" and has delivered detailed nitty-gritty explanations of the underpinnings to the enthusiast press, but it has done so in a slipshod fashion.

We're here to pull it all together and tell you why we're excited about Vista. Here's a list of what's new and improved in Microsoft's next generation OS [operating system] and why you should care about it.

Of course, Vista is far from finished with probably six months of heavy-duty development left, and a lot of things tend to come together at the end (you should have seen Windows XP six months before release).

We're not saying Windows Vista will be the greatest OS ever — it's too early for that. But we're excited about its promise, and we think once you know about all the cool stuff going into it, you will be too.

Many users view Windows XP (and Windows 2000, and previous Windows versions) as unsafe. No matter how many patches and updates Microsoft releases, the foundation of the OS itself — the kernel — is designed and built in a way that prevents it from being truly secure. The only solution, it is argued, is to redesign and rebuild the kernel with a focus on security and stability.

Well, that's exactly what Microsoft is doing with Vista. The whole kernel has been reorganized and rewritten to help prevent software from affecting the system in unsavory ways. In Vista, it should be much more difficult for unauthorized programs (like viruses and Trojans) to affect the core of the OS and secretly harm your system.

That's not all, of course. Microsoft has made it their aim to make life easier on developers by improving and simplifying the way software interfaces with the system and the underlying hardware. Naturally, performance has been a major concern, too.

Take, for example, heaps. Most Windows XP users don't know what a "heap" is (it deals with how developers allocate memory and make memory requests), but there are problems in Windows XP when developers deal with large heaps, heap fragmentation, etc. In the Vista kernel, they have cleaned that up, helping to prevent heap fragmentation and gracefully deal with large heap requests.

If that sounds like a bunch of technobabble nonsense, don't worry. You don't have to know what it means, you just have to know that it makes life easier on developers and improves performance. And it doesn't stop with heaps. Lots of relatively little, commonly-used functions have been improved, like procedure calls.

Then there's power management. System power management queries between system drivers and the OS have gotten a major overhaul, so it should be easier for hardware vendors to make their devices work in low-power environments and seamlessly work with power-saving features like Hibernation and Sleep Mode.

"What is Sleep Mode?" you ask? On desktop systems, turning off the power will, by default, put your computer in Sleep Mode, where all the data currently in use is saved to both RAM and the hard drive, and then turns everything off except for a few key components (CPU, RAM, a few chipset features).

Move the mouse or press a key and the computer "boots" in a few seconds. In reality, your computer never turned off, it just went into a super-low-power mode.

On laptops, Sleep Mode works much the same way when you hit the power button or close the lid, except it doesn't take the time to double-save everything to a hard disk. Instead, it monitors battery life in the ultra-low-power Sleep Mode and, when the battery gets low, transfers the RAM contents to the hard disk. It's like Hibernate mode, only faster.

A key improvement to the root file system and memory management of Vista is a technology called SuperFetch. SuperFetch learns which applications and bits and pieces of the OS you use most and preloads them into memory, so you don't have to wait for a bunch of hard drive paging before your apps or documents load.

Microsoft has developed a pretty sophisticated prioritization scheme that can even differentiate which applications you are most likely to use at different times (on the weekend vs. during the week, or late at night vs. in the middle of the afternoon).

The scheme is also smart enough to make sure background tasks like virus scanners don't get priority over the foreground tasks you're working on. In fact, the whole I/O [input/output] system now has a priority structure not that different from services, so your computer shouldn't bog down when some peer-to-peer file trading program has to do a hash check on a big file or something.

SuperFetch also takes advantage of external memory devices — plug in that spare 256MB USB key (any size will work, really) and Windows can cache a lot of the working set to it. It's not as fast as your system RAM, but it's much faster than randomly grabbing small bits of data from all over your hard drive.

The driver model of Vista has been totally changed. Many of the drivers that used to sit at the system (kernel) level are now at the user level, which means that when drivers fail, your whole system shouldn't crash. You should also be able to update most drivers without rebooting your system.

Oh, and this time, we should have good 64-bit support. The 64-bit version of Vista ships at the same time as the 32-bit version and has all the same features — it may even be on the same disc. Everyone making Vista drivers who we know of are making functionally identical 32- and 64-bit drivers. With Vista, 64-bit computing might finally meet critical mass.

Why should you care?

The kernel may not be "sexy," but it's critical. It's one of those things where, if it's done right, you just take it for granted. Well the kernel and related operations (like I/O) in Vista should be far more secure by design, so hopefully we'll see almost no viruses or Trojans, or at least not any that affect a large number of users.

SuperFetch shows a lot of promise, since it can hide the slow performance with data loading and make your computer feel a lot more "snappy." The new driver model is definitely a great thing — fewer critical system failures from bad drivers and less rebooting when drivers get updated.

Networking support has been extended throughout the lifetime of Windows 2000 and Windows XP, but it was getting harder and harder for Microsoft to keep improving the old code. So for Vista, they started over from ground zero and rewrote the networking stack from scratch.

[Upcoming Internet addressing system] IPV6 was hacked onto Windows XP in a pretty basic way, but it is built directly into the Vista networking stack in a much more robust fashion. Of course, [current Internet addressing system] IPV4 is still going to be the most common IP interface for quite some time, so all the new networking improvements are visible there, too.

The new networking stack has a much bigger focus on security, working better with firewalls to allow much finer granularity of which applications can use network resources in which ways, and it's made to stand up a lot better to network attacks. The built-in firewall in Vista is much more robust than the one included in XP Service Pack 2.

Besides improved security, the most noticeable difference in Vista's networking will be its greatly improved performance. Microsoft has new algorithms in the TCP/IP stack that greatly increases network throughput when packet losses are encountered. The company says that anyone with a high-speed Internet connection will immediately notice dramatic improvements in overall download speeds.

On the server side, data-serving machines often spend a lot of CPU [central processing unit] time on mundane data transfer operations that actually don't require a lot of "smarts," just a lot of cycles. So Vista will support upcoming network interface cards (primarily for servers) that can offload some of these relatively dumb but CPU cycle-stealing mundane operations.

My Network Places is replaced by the Network Center, a one-stop shop for all your local and Internet networking configuration. It includes a visual map of your network layout, local and Internet network status, so you can visually see which link in the network is having a problem if you ever have a problem with your connection. Microsoft is aiming to make it easier and more pleasant to browse networked machines with the Network Explorer.

Wireless networking is receiving a lot of work, with the goal being to make it easier to find local wireless networks and tell which are open and which are closed, seamlessly jump from one network to another as you roam around, and create ad-hoc networks between laptops when there is no wireless router available. Security is again a prime concern, with support for all the key wireless networking protocols like [wireless networking protocol] 802.11i (often referred to as WPA2).

Why should you care?

Many of these features are still trickling into the CTP builds that are publicly released to testers, so it's hard to say what the final network experience in Vista will be like. But who wouldn't want faster downloads and local file transfers with less CPU utilization, better security, and robust built-in IPv6 support? Who doesn't want to automatically and cleanly jump across wireless networks when on the go?

Because Media Center functionality will be in all the "Home Premium" versions of Windows Vista, a lot more users will have access to it this time around. The Media Center features in current Vista builds are a bit rough, but we can already see some really nice improvements to the user interface.

What's more, Media Center will support CableCard in Vista (with appropriate certified hardware), so it's possible to get hi-def TV over cable and not just via over-the-air broadcasts, which is the current limitation with all other PVR software, including Windows XP Media Center Edition.

Why should you care?

Media Center is a great way to experience video, audio, and TV on your PC, even if you don't hook it up to a television. With Media Center features shipping in all the Home Premium and Ultimate Edition versions of Vista, the installed base should expand dramatically. This means more developers making those cool freeware apps for the Media Center interface, too.

Vista will have completely new audio plumbing, from low-level stuff to the high-level user interface stuff. One of the biggest changes is the fact that the vast majority of the audio stack runs in User Mode, not Kernel Mode.

You should be able to update audio drivers without rebooting your machine, and failed audio won't cause a BSOD [blue screen of death] — it probably won't even crash your applications. The worst that should happen, in theory, is that the audio stack has to be restarted, which can happen in real-time without a reboot.

How about some built-in speech recognition? That's right, Vista will include a built-in speech recognition engine, and new and improved speech synthesis. Assuming it works as well as it should, you'll be able to dictate e-mails or give voice commands for web navigations without buying additional speech recognition software.

Better audio fidelity? Check. Moving primarily to User Mode actually resulted in an increase in performance over the existing Kernel Mode audio stack, because there were far fewer transitions between User Mode applications and processes and Kernel Mode drivers.

Microsoft spent some of that gained performance to improve audio fidelity, primarily by transitioning the audio stack from being based on 16-bit integer operations to 32-bit floating point.

Tired of listening to some music or playing a game, and having that instant-messaging sound blast out your ears because it's five times louder than your other sounds? Vista will have per-application volume control. Problem solved.

The new audio control panel includes volume level meters, greatly improves usability, and gets rid of the old paradigm of users adjusting individual audio drivers and devices (like sound cards) and instead gives you control of intuitive audio "end points" like microphones, speakers, or headphones. The idea is to hide all those sliders that normal users can't relate to their actual sound, and give them direct control over what they hear or what they're recording.

It's a bit unfortunate, but Vista's audio stack is not hardware accelerated. Of course, neither is Windows XP's by default, but when you add hardware like an Audigy 2 or X-Fi sound card (that has a DSP, or digital signal processor) and the requisite drivers, you basically hardware-accelerate Windows XP's audio.

Vista doesn't really work this way, and though the software audio is dramatically improved, you can't just accelerate it by adding a sound card with hardware acceleration. Truthfully, this is primarily a concern of games, which we hope won't be affected much.

The only company making mass-market audio cards with hardware acceleration is Creative, and it's doing a good job of promoting OpenAL as the audio standard for games. OpenAL drivers under Vista should allow for hardware acceleration of 3D audio every bit as good as the latest DirectX + EAX.

Why should you care?

Per-application volume control is enough to put a smile on our faces. But if you've ever sat there for an hour trying to figure out why your microphone isn't working, the streamlined audio interface (both for users and developers) should help alleviate your problems. Audiophiles will be happy with the move to 32-bit floating point in the core of the audio system, too.

If you play games (and maybe even if you don't), you care about the next big version of DirectX [Microsoft's graphics application layer]. DX10 is going to be Vista-only. It relies on the new driver model, so don't expect some sort of eventual back-port to Windows XP.

So what's new in DX10? A lot. In fact, DX10 changes so much that it's well beyond the scope of this article. Here are a few of the big-ticket items.

DX10 will use much faster dynamic link libraries (DLLs), and won't incorporate older versions of DirectX, as is done today. DirectX 9 will be supported side-by-side, through DirectX 9.L (basically, that's DX9 for the Vista driver model). So right there, without using any new features, DX10 should be more efficient and faster.

The DX10 graphics API [application program interface] will usher in unified vertex and pixel shaders, and introduce the concept of "geometry shaders" that can act on not just single vertices, but whole triangles and their adjacent vertices.

Developers will be able to stream out data from the GPU [graphics processing unit] and reuse it without needing the CPU to do a single thing, so a lot of the CPU load seen in current graphics drivers and games should be reduced.

DX10 should allow for more flexible and granular graphics memory access, and in general allow GPUs to be far more flexible and powerful than before.

Perhaps one of the best features of DX10 is the removal of capability bits, or "cap bits." Today, graphics cards don't have to support everything in DirectX 9 to be a "DX9 graphics card." There are lots of optional features, and the drivers have to report to the OS exactly what it can and can't do with a set of cap bits.

This has been a huge headache for developers, as different cards all support different features, or perform the same operations in different ways. In DX10, either you meet the spec or you don't — no more supporting only these or those texture formats, and this or that shader model but only with this level of precision.

Graphics cards will have to produce results within a very small margin of error to be considered DX10 compliant, so developers shouldn't have to worry about the same operation producing different visuals on different cards.

As far as developers are concerned, they should finally be able to simply write to the API and know that any DX10 compliant card will produce the correct result. Naturally, there will still be differences in performance between different graphics cards to consider.

Why should you care?

DirectX 9 should, when the drivers are well optimized, run faster under the Vista driver model than Windows XP. But DX10 will do more to reduce CPU utilization, increase graphics card power and flexibility, and enforce hardware standards that should make life a lot easier on developers.

Upon release, there will probably be some Windows XP games that will have enhanced DX10 modes when run under Vista (like Crysis and Flight Simulator X), and maybe even a few "gotta have it" Vista-only games that require DX10. Microsoft has already announced Halo 2, but others should follow (and hopefully, they won't be ports of two year old Xbox games).

Many of us have used System Restore at one time or another, and it can be a real life-saver. This feature still exists in Vista, but it's refined a bit (files aren't copied over, but rather, "shadow copies" of files are made as versions change, and these shadow copies are more secure and harder to corrupt or lose than the system restore copies in XP).

Now a new feature called SafeDoc will let you automatically create shadow copies of files as you work on them, so if you accidentally delete a file or need to go back to a previous revision, you can restore the shadow copy of just the file you need.

There are lots of backup utilities for Windows XP, and most of the good ones cost money. Vista will offer a built-in backup utility, where you can perform manual backups or restoration of folders or entire drives, or automate backup scheduling. You should be able to backup your files to CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, internal or external hard drives, or even other computers on your local network.

Outlook Express has been the basic mail and newsgroup reader built into Windows for a long time, and it really hasn't been improved in ages. Vista will include Windows Mail, a totally overhauled mail client that might just be good enough to prevent you from having to buy or download something else.

The new Mail client will include the same spam filter (on POP and IMAP accounts) that is used on the latest version of Outlook, and this spam filter will be updated on a regular basis. Mail will include a phishing filter similar to IE7, too. There's an instant-search feature that works just like the one across windows — you can world-wheel your way through all your mail.

As you type, searches update and instantly filter out things that don't match your search (it searches the names, addresses, subjects, and bodies of e-mails).

The mail database has been changed and is fully transactional, so if you lose power or something while updating the database, you won't corrupt the whole mail database — you'll only lose the one entry that it was working on at the time.

Just because it's called "Windows Mail" doesn't mean they've dropped newsgroup access, though. Not only is it still there, it's been enhanced quite a bit.

Calendars aren't just for business users — virtually everyone has a calendar on their wall or desk at home. So why make people buy Outlook to get a calendar application? Vista will include a calendar app that includes scheduling, prioritized task lists, shared calendars for PCs that are used my multiple people (like a shared family calendar), and appointment invitations via e-mail. It even supports the iCalendar format, so it should be pretty easy to make it interoperate with calendar apps on other operating systems (like Apple iCal) or publish your calendar on a Web site.

Photo Gallery is an app used to organize and search through all your digital images. It now includes some basic photo editing features that lets you crop, resize, rotate, or remove red-eye. It's not meant to be competition for Photoshop, but it should be good enough for mom and dad. You can undo all those crops, red-eye fixes, and exposure adjustments at any time, all the way back to the original image. Photo Gallery will let you make slideshows on CD or DVD that play on PCs, or a photo slideshow DVD that plays on DVD players. You can incorporate backgrounds, animations, transitions, and even music and video into your slideshows.

Movie Maker has been around for quite some time, and the latest version, Movie Maker 2.1, isn't half bad. Vista will expand Movie Maker by offering easier DVD creation, faster and smoother performance, and greater control over the quality and size of your videos. We'll have to wait until Vista nears release to see how it stacks up against Apple's excellent iMovie, though.

Media Player 11 is coming to both Vista and Windows XP systems, though we're told the Vista version should be slightly enhanced (we're not sure exactly how just yet, since it's still under heavy development for both platforms). Media Player 11 sports an all-new interface, fast search of huge media databases, and better support for portable devices. It will integrate Urge as its default online music and video store.

Urge is a project from MTV Networks, and looks promising with over two million tracks promised at launch, available a la carte or via subscription. Microsoft hasn't yet revealed all the features of MP11, and is still working heavily on it, so the jury's still out. The improved interface alone will make it a great upgrade over Media Player 10, but competing with iTunes on the music/podcast/store front is going to be tough.

Why Should You Care?

The truth is, a whole ton of people just use Windows' built-in applications. They don't bother to download a new music player or web browser or mail client. Making big improvements to those features, and adding some new ones, will make a big difference to millions of people. If you're reading ExtremeTech, you're probably pretty hardcore, and you've got your own apps you like to use. For you, an update to the built-in apps just gives you another free option to choose from or ignore as you see fit.

Have you ever had a window on your Windows XP desktop (or any other version of Windows) that was busy, so you move it out of the way to see the window beneath it, and you end up with a big empty rectangle where the busy window used to be? That's the unfortunate artifact of a desktop drawing system that is simply years out of date. Vista gets rid of that, and does so much more, by totally changing the entire way the screen is drawn.

If you've got a DirectX 9 graphics card with 128MB of RAM or more, you'll be able to enable the "Aero Glass" desktop in Vista. This is the real Vista desktop, and an old version that works like the current Windows XP GDI+ desktop drawing system exists in Vista only for backwards compatibility with systems that don't have the graphics hardware required for Aero Glass.

Why the need for a reasonable DX9 graphics card? Vista includes a new desktop compositing and drawing system that uses DirectX 9 to draw the screen. Every window, icon, toolbar, or other desktop element is actually a 3D surface, made of polygons and manipulated by your graphics card.

It's possible to smoothly stretch, rotate, skew, light or shadow, and otherwise manipulate everything on the desktop using all the flexibility of DX9. Everything gets rendered to an off-screen buffer, and then swapped to the live desktop view. This enables all kinds of cool effects, like windows that can warp and stretch, but that's just eye candy.

There's some real meat to the new compositing and drawing engine; it's not all for visual fluff. For starters, you don't have to worry about that whole "moving a busy window blanks out part of the screen" thing.

Don't you hate it how, when you increase the resolution of your desktop, everything gets smaller? With widescreen LCD monitors sporting resolutions of 1920x1200, and even laptops with screens that high-res, the icons and text on your PC can become absolutely tiny when you run at the native resolution. Enabling large fonts and trying to scale your desktop icons in WinXP only sort-of works, and it breaks as many things as it fixes.

With Vista, your plug-and-play monitor can tell your PC what size and resolution it is, and then Vista can scale everything appropriately. 12-point fonts will actually be 12 points, regardless of whether you're using a 1280x1024 19" LCD or an ultra-high-res laptop.

Let's take the example of exchanging documents. Our senior analyst Loyd Case has a really hi-res widescreen LCD at home, and in Windows XP he has to work with Large Fonts turned on to make everything visible.

But when he sends me an Excel file full of graphics benchmarks, the fact that I don't have Large Fonts turned on makes the formatting a mess. Not to mention that every word doc from him is zoomed in to 150 percent or so, which is readable on his screen but too large on mine. With Vista, these headaches should hopefully go away.

Because everything is a 3D surface, the graphics card is now a shared resource, which requires a new driver model. The good news is that games don't always have to be full-screen anymore to incorporate rich 3D. It will be much easier for games (and any other application) to span multiple monitors and mix the windows desktop and elements with 3D game view windows.

The UI is still undergoing many changes, but so far there's a lot to like. It takes some getting used to, and you may need to adjust some of your Windows using habits. Icons can be much larger and full color, with alpha blending effects, but that's just the start. Folder icons actually show the items that are within those folders. Icons for documents are little live views into those documents.

There's a system-wide unified search that immediately shows results as you type, much like what they have in OS X on the Mac. Only the Windows version searches a much greater variety of files, more metadata, and searches within more types of files. This search works within the streamlined, redesigned Start menu as well.

There's a Sidebar, off by default in the latest build, which houses little "gadgets." This is functionally similar to OS X's Widgets, which [Apple] stole directly from Konfabulator.

Gadgets can be stored in the sidebar or pulled out onto the desktop. Right now there are only basic ones — an RSS headline viewer, quick-launch area, world clock. They're pretty easy to make, though, so we expect to see loads of them by the time Vista is released.

There are too many changes in the new interface to mention here. It would be a (rather long) article unto itself. Suffice it to say that Microsoft has already made some real leaps forward in navigating your PC and finding what you're looking for.

Our favorite feature so far? The "trail of breadcrumbs" bar at the top of each explorer window that shows you the path of subfolders you're looking at, and gives you instant access to any folder along the path.

Why Should You Care?

Vista's UI improvements will leverage the power of your graphics card (which are often as powerful as the CPU or more) to make the screen more attractive, more customizable, and make the whole computer easier to use.

Windows Security is another topic that could easily be an entire, lengthy, article unto itself. I'll just briefly touch on some of the significant changes in Vista that Microsoft (and the rest of the world) hopes will make it a far more secure and stable operating system. They've put a whole lot of effort into it, and for all our sakes, we hope it pays off.

For starters, there's the low-level stuff. The kernel, networking stack, and the way that most other OS features (audio, video, input devices) interact with the kernel have been completely rewritten with security and stability as the primary concern.

Fewer parts of the OS operate at the kernel level, and the kernel can't be changed or updated willy-nilly by whatever applications and drivers some virus writer wants to make.

To make the kind of changes to the OS that can really foul things up, you need a signed application or driver. Some changes, in fact, can only be made by Microsoft itself.

Beyond the low-level stuff, there are high level security changes. Users, by default, operate in a mode with fewer privileges than before, which means that "noobs" who don't know any better can't accidentally install software full of spyware.

BitLocker is the name for full drive and user account level encryption, so if your laptop gets stolen or your kid tries to access your computer, they can't get at any of your sensitive material.

The built-in firewall is improved, with greater control and granularity over network access and full support for blocking both incoming and outgoing traffic (the WinXP firewall is one-way).

Windows Defender is the name for what used to be Windows Antispyware, and while it's still undergoing some development and has a little ways to go, it's refreshing to have a spyware scanner and blocker application built into the foundation of the OS itself.

Internet Explorer 7 under Windows Vista runs in a special super-low user access mode that gives the browser very little access to the underlying OS, and ActiveX security has been tightened up significantly as well, with most ActiveX controls off by default and set to opt-in rather than opt-out. Hopefully other browsers will follow suit and operate in this least-privileged mode, too.

Unfortunately, there is no built-in virus protection software. Microsoft is providing a plug-in interface for it, similar to what you see in Windows XP SP2, and they'll offer their own subscription-based antivirus software in Windows OneCare. The rumor we hear is that Microsoft would have liked to build in antivirus software, but would have gotten in legal trouble.

Just in case things go sour — and even the most secure system can have a device failure or power surge or something — Vista includes a built-in automated backup utility that can even image your whole system to CD or DVD, another drive in your computer, or another computer on the network.

To be honest, we don't know how the security features of Vista will shake out. It's still very much a beta product. The real test of the OS will be when it is delivered into the wild, and every virus, worm, and Trojan writer in the world strives to live in infamy by releasing the nastiest malware for Microsoft's shiny new OS.

The real test will not be how fast or often Microsoft releases security updates. Even the products we consider most secure do this often.

The test will be how many Vista computers are actually affected by malware. We're hopeful that the number will be extremely small. After all, the cries that current versions of Windows are "insecure at the core" are in some ways true, and Vista is the OS that goes back to that core and radically alters it.

Why Should You Care?

Ever get a virus, Trojan, spyware, or other malware? Yeah, we have too. We'd all like that to end, and Vista goes a long way toward making that happen. Plus, with an integrated backup utility, maybe people will actually back up their systems as often as they should.

We know we titled this piece "Why Windows Vista Won't Suck" and that's a big statement to make. To be honest, we don't know that it's going to be great just yet. The OS is still very much in beta, and if previous Microsoft operating systems are any indication, a whole lot of things come together in the last few months. As such, we certainly can't recommend you set aside some upgrade money right now.

There are lots of great features in Vista that get us excited. We love the way the new search features work, the new UI and navigation, and the changes that remove a lot of the little annoyances we've lived with in Windows for ages. Not every new feature is a slam dunk, but taken as a whole, it's a giant improvement to the way we use our PCs.

Despite the fact that this article is long, there are loads of things we haven't even touched on. Parental controls that let you restrict application use based on time, day of the week, and rating, for instance. Vista is big. Very big.

It's the unknowns that keep us from giving an early wholehearted recommendation. Will there be compatibility problems? Will all the changes — high-level and low-level — to improve security and stability be successful? Will the sidebar evolve into useful use screen real estate? Will Media Player 11 add the necessary features to compete with the more robust software on the market (like iTunes) by adding podcasting support and the like? Performance isn't bad in the February CTP build, but how much will it improve? There are simply too many questions that won't be answered for months yet.

Still, it's hard to take a real look at Vista, both on the surface and under the hood, and consider it just another Windows rehash. This is a dramatic, whole-hog upgrade of the Windows platform.

If you got anything out of this article, we hope it's the realization that Vista is not simply the Windows XP/2000 code base that has been slowly evolving over the years with some fancy graphics and icons slapped onto it.

It should be clear that Vista is really the next generation of operating system from Microsoft, every bit as significant as the leap from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 or the jump from Mac OS 9 to OS X.

Read more Vista or Windows articles in our Windows section.

Copyright © 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.