The Insider's Guide to Windows Vista

Published January 24, 2007

| PCMag

Windows Vista is here at last.

One of the largest software projects ever undertaken, Vista is indisputably a milestone — despite Microsoft's having abandoned many of its most ambitious goals for the OS — and not just for Microsoft but for the entire PC industry.

Of course, Vista is not without its skeptics. PC makers say it will require more processing power, graphics capabilities, and memory than is typical of today's mainstream machines.

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Software vendors complain that Vista's vaunted security features are, in fact, locking them out.

Users may wonder if it offers enough that's truly new to be worth the bother — particularly given that a number of Vista features and bundled applications are also available for Windows XP.

We've performed extensive, hands-on analysis of Vista and sorted out the claims to help you decide whether, or more realistically when, to make the move — and to show you what you can expect when you do

The Vista Promise

Microsoft calls Vista "a breakthrough computing experience." That's marketing hyperbole, for sure, but it's not entirely unfounded.

The new OS is far more than Windows XP with a pretty new face. Many aspects of Vista are substantive improvements: stronger security, better built-in apps, networking enhancements, parental controls, ­­and DirectX 10 graphics support, to name just a few.

As a whole, Vista feels more evolutionary than revolutionary. That's not all bad; one of Micro­soft's strengths has been its commitment to backward compatibility, which continues with Vista.

Vista's real competitor, though, is Windows XP. For many users, XP is good enough. And for all the advances in Vista, it's hard to avoid seeing the things that aren't as good as they could have been.

Nor is Vista bug-free. As I assessed final code, I ran into a variety of small but annoying glitches and found plenty of features that didn't work as seamlessly as I would have liked. I can't shake the feeling that Vista's release was rushed.

So what's our verdict? Vista is good — in some respects very good — but not spectacular.

Call it a nice-to-have product, rather than a must-have.

If you're buying a new consumer PC this spring, it probably makes sense to get Vista. Soon, there won't be much of a choice; according to Microsoft's support life cycle, retail PC buyers will have only a year after Vista's release to buy Windows XP.

If you've already got a PC running Windows XP smoothly, it's harder to see a reason to upgrade right away. You can wait until you replace your machine, or at least a few months, until Vista's kinks are worked out.

(If you're curious to see how well your existing machine will support Vista, try Microsoft's Vista Upgrade Advisor, available at www.windowsvista.com/upgradeadvisor).

In the meantime, you can download some of the new software included in Vista, such as Internet Explorer 7, Windows Media Player 11 and a desktop search utility, to enjoy some of the same capabilities you'd get in Vista itself.

For business customers, it makes sense to start evaluating Vista now, particularly since improved deployment, management and security could lead to significant cost reductions in the long term.

But you'll want to be confident about compatibility and support before you make the transition en masse.

Let's dive in and take a more detailed look at what Vista has to offer

Vista Fundamentals

Some of an operating system's crucial responsibilities include managing hardware and drive storage and providing a set of APIs (application programming interfaces) that other software can rely on. And, indeed, some of Vista's most important ­enhancements lie beneath the surface. Many of these improvements are security related.

Networking is another revamped area. Vista's new TCP/IP stack ­includes native IPv6 support and auto-tuning via TCP window scaling. And it has better built-in Wi-Fi support.

Vista also has a number of performance enhancers. SuperFetch tracks frequently used programs and preloads them. ReadyBoost lets you use flash memory on a high-speed USB drive as a supplemental swap file (this can be substantially faster than a spinning hard drive).

ReadyDrive supports hybrid hard drives with built-in flash-memory caches. There's also a low-priority I/O mechanism that lets programs such as Windows Defender run scans in the background with less disruption to foreground activity; and Vista automatically schedules drive defragmentation.

On the whole, my experience has been positive — on a screamer system. Others have had worse luck, particularly those who skimped on RAM.

Vista's new sleep mode is supposed to make suspending and resuming faster and more reliable. With the machines I've been testing it on, I don't sense huge benefits from the new sleep mode. Whether that's due to Vista or to third-party hardware or drivers is hard to determine.

Microsoft also made a lot of more fundamental changes in the OS kernel, which provides low-level functions such as memory management, multi­processor synchronization and I/O scheduling. Most are intended to help improve performance, security, and reliability.

Vista also extends the Windows API by incorpo­rating the .NET 3.0 framework, giving developers capabilities that include Windows Presentation Foundation (formerly code-named Avalon), Windows Communication Framework (formerly ­Indigo), and Windows CardSpace (formerly InfoCard).

But there's no WinFS (Windows Future Storage), the database-backed file system that was to be one of Vista's core innovations. As a result, Vista's support for tagging and relating files is less extensive than Microsoft promised back when the OS was still known by its code name, Longhorn.

Other additions are APIs to support RSS ­natively and a central RSS store.

For example, if you subscribe to an RSS feed in Internet Explorer 7, the RSS reader Sidebar gadget automatically detects it.

Vista Hardware Support

To help buyers identify hardware suitable for running Vista, Microsoft has a two-tier certification and logo program. The "Works with Windows Vista" logo provides assurance of basic Vista compatibility, and "Certified for Windows Vista" indicates that products specifically enable, or take advantage of, Vista features (such as Windows Aero).

Vista supports new hardware in a variety of ways. The OS includes DirectX 10, supporting geometry shaders, graphics memory paging, graphics hardware virtualization and other features that should enable ever-more-photorealistic games and simulations.

Audio and printer driver architecture has changed as well, again with the goal of enhancing performance and stability. ­Vista also offers improved support for new varieties of peripherals and components, including Blu-ray and HD DVD devices.

Laptop and Tablet PC users get new goodies, too, without having to buy separate versions. New Tablet features include touch-screen support, improved pen navigation, gestures, and personalized handwriting recognition. And Media Center is now integral rather than packaged as a separate OS edition.

Vista's intriguing technology called SideShow lets devices with "auxiliary screens" show snippets of pertinent information even when the system isn't powered on.

Imagine the Caller ID display on the outside of a clamshell cell phone, only more powerful and flexible. We're waiting for hardware that will let us test SideShow firsthand.

Sixty-Four-Bit Computing

Though versions of Windows XP that support 64-bit hardware are available, Microsoft actually developed and shipped 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Vista simultaneously.

In principle, that ought to help move 64-bit computing more into the mainstream — and the 64-bit versions of Vista offer many ­potential advantages, including better security and the ability to access up to 128GB of memory in some editions.

But in practice, using 64-bit Vista will entail some compromises, especially in the short term. Hardware device ­drivers are a potential sticking point; you can't use 32-bit drivers on 64-bit Vista.

What's more, all kernel-mode hardware drivers must be manufacturer-signed, a step hardware developers have traditionally resisted. And 64-bit Vista lacks support for legacy 16-bit DOS and Windows apps, which means problems for companies with older, custom apps (or just older installers).

And even for more modern applications, some app-specific compatibility "shims" that Microsoft builds into the OS aren't available on the 64-bit version.

So for now, we expect 64-bit Vista to be adopted mostly in environments that can get by supporting a ­restricted selection of hardware and software.

Vista's New Look

There's no question that the Vista shell is a massive change from Windows XP. Vista's Aero interface takes advantage of modern 3D graphics accelerators to provide features such as translucent "glass" window frames, subtle animations, scalable icons and live previews of documents and windows.

The Alt-Tab interface for switching between ­applications is much more informative than in Windows XP, and pressing Windows-Tab triggers the new "Flip 3-D" view.

Personally, I find Aero effects subtle and compelling. But for those who disagree, ­Vista allows plenty of control; you can even switch to a classic theme that eliminates the effects entirely.

Although there are UI changes throughout the Windows shell, they're most evident in three places: the Start menu, Windows Explorer and pervasive search functionality.

Inside the Start menu, XP's menus of cascading programs are replaced by tree-view-like menus that expand in place, a navigation mechanism I find much more natural.

But the real beauty of the Vista Start menu is its built-in search box. Start typing and Vista will use its full-text search capabilities to show you all the applications, documents, ­favorite links and e-mails that match. Y

ou can even type in the name of a directory and press Enter to launch Windows Explorer in that folder. Whenever I switch back to an XP machine, I miss Vista's new Start menu more than any other feature.

You can find these new search capabilities throughout Vista; they are part of Microsoft's strategy to help users cope with file bloat and information overload. Incremental search appears in places such as Windows Media Player, Windows Explorer, Windows Mail and even the Control Panel.

Vista also offers a more sophisticated advanced search, which lets you specify parameters such as file types and modification dates, but it no longer supports the complex Boolean (AND/OR) queries that were available in some beta releases.

In Windows Explorer, "live icons" show scalable thumbnails of document contents, making it much easier to differentiate between files by sight. Expand a folder icon and you'll see thumbnails of actual files inside the folder.

You can augment many types of files with metadata, such as author name, ratings, or tags, and then sort or filter on this information when you're browsing.

Explorer also lets you navigate using address-bar breadcrumbs — those clickable folder-hierarchy indicators in the address bar. This takes some getting used to, but with experience I found it a more flexible navigation tool than XP's traditional directory-tree control.

These Explorer changes also appear in standard Windows file dialogs, even in apps that aren't designed specifically for Vista. The common file dialog shell adds many other nifty improvements.

For example, before overwriting a file, it doesn't simply ask you to confirm the operation; it shows you details, including a thumbnail preview, for both the original and new file. Sharing files with other users is easier and safer in Vista than in XP, too.

There's been a lot of buzz about Vista's Sidebar, a transparent pane that docks at the side of the screen and lets you drop in various "gadgets" such as a clock, calendar, and notepad. (You can also tear these objects off the Sidebar and drop them onto the desktop.)

Although it works well, I find I, myself, rarely use the Sidebar. It's a personal preference — even on a dual-display system, I prefer to save the pixels for the task I'm actively working on.

The new Help system is also an improvement over XP's. It integrates the latest ­online help information automatically, contains more links that actually perform tasks (rather than just telling you how to), and includes a demo capability that plays videos to walk you through various tasks visually.

But I did encounter one problem: If Windows Media Player is busy doing something else (importing music, for instance), the demos will silently fail to launch.

Vista Apps and Utilities

On top of the revamped shell, Vista includes new and enhanced applications. Some, such as Windows Media Player 11, are quite good. Others are less so: Windows Calendar, Windows Defender, and Windows Mail. Power users will want more-­sophisticated equivalents.

Vista ships with Internet Explorer 7, which is a major improvement over IE6. To my mind, though, IE7 still falls short of Firefox 2.

IE7 finally supports tabbed browsing, and has a convenient Quick Tabs view that shows thumbnails of open Web pages. But it lacks incremental in-page search.

IE7 scales printed output better, can zoom entire pages and includes a number of security improvements, among them antiphishing warnings.

In my testing, IE sometimes forgot my preferences for hiding add-on toolbars, and it consistently ate my first few keystrokes after I pressed Ctrl-T to open a new tab.

Still, if IE7 sounds appealing, you don't need Vista to get it: There's an XP version at Micro­soft.com.

Two of the more compelling ­applications in Vista are Windows Photo Gallery and Windows Media Player 11. Photo Gallery manages large numbers of digital photos with tags, ­incremental search, and basic editing such as cropping and red-eye reduction.

We reviewed WMP 11 (go.pcmag.com/wmp11), awarding it an Editors' Choice for its improved browsing, search, and interface. A Window XP version is available as well.

Vista makes incremental improvements to the little-known Windows Movie Maker app for authoring videos, and also includes a convenient Windows DVD Maker that lets you package up videos and title screens to create and burn movie DVDs.

Of course, you'll also find a variety of diversions, from the usual collection of classic games such as Solitaire and others to new titles such as Chess Titans that showcase Vista's 3D capabilities.

In addition to full applications, you'll find a ­variety of enhanced tools and utilities. Parental controls let parents restrict access to applications and Web sites, or limit the hours kids can log in.

New Activity Centers organize related tasks. Vista's Network Center, for example, makes it easy to monitor network status and open file shares and its Mobility Center lets you perform portable PC tasks such as altering power settings or entering presentation mode. (Presentation-aware apps can then, say, prevent IM windows from popping up during your sales pitch.) And the Performance and Reliability Monitor is a central location for monitoring system health.

Vista's Backup and Restore Center includes Complete PC Backup, which uses full-disk imaging similar to Norton Ghost or Acronis's TrueImage. Some editions of Vista include version control that lets you roll back to previous versions of documents.

For corporate IT and power ­users, Vista also includes an improved event log with filtering and notification ­options, more sophisticated task scheduling, and diagnostic tools such as a memory tester.

New accessibility features round out the OS and include built-in text-to-speech and speech-recognition capabilities that look fairly sophisticated, though we were still testing these features at press time. Look for a full report at go.pcmag.com/vista.

Vista: The Experience

When it comes to using Vista on a daily basis, how does it all work out?

Installation was quite smooth, but some early problems followed. Adding and configuring applications and security was frustrating, and adapting to certain interface changes took time.

I've become more comfortable using the OS, but I'm still plagued by some (mostly minor) bugs and glitches, and haunted by some missing features.

The best part of the installation process — if you install Vista from scratch — is that it's fast and easy, requiring only about 30 minutes, thanks to Vista's image-based setup, which replaces the old method of copying files one by one.

Vista images are also language-independent — English is a language pack like any other; it will even be possible for users to configure different interface languages for different users on a single PC.

Vista didn't always find drivers for all my ­devices during the installation process, but right after booting it connected to Windows Update to download additional drivers.

Microsoft emphasizes that software and hardware compatibility work is still ongoing, though by the date of Vista's general availability, January 30, the story should be better.

Vista's User Account Control security feature — which requires even administrators to confirm attempts to "escalate" privileges to perform administrative tasks — can be intrusive at first. But in the long term, running Vista without administrator rights most of the time should reduce security risks.

With the exception of security tools and low-level utilities, virtually all of the applications I've run on the shipping version of Vista work fine. The notable exception is MindJet's MindManager, which crashes whenever I use keyboard shortcuts.

One concern worth noting relates to license and activation features. The licenses for the Home Basic and Home Premium editions don't let you run Vista inside a virtual machine, and stricter product activation features will actually disable Vista installations that Microsoft deems not genuine.

Of course, the real test for Vista will come as users adopt it in the coming months and years. Regardless of whether you upgrade to Vista today, this is the OS that most of the world will find itself using sooner or later.

As a result, our coverage of Vista isn't finished; it's only beginning.

Top 5 Vista Wish List

1. No need to reboot. Vista is supposed to be better than Win XP when it comes to rebooting (or, rather, not rebooting) after running Windows Update, but time will tell.

2. Legal VM. That is, the ability to run all Vista editions in virtual machines legally.

3. Incremental in-page IE search. It's everywhere in the OS, so why not in one of the core apps?

4. More tools for power users.

5. Antispyware. Windows Defender, though better than nothing, is hardly best-of-breed.

Top 5 Features Cut from Vista

1. WinFS. The database-backed file system was originally considered a "pillar" of Vista.

2. Windows PowerShell. A supercharged command-line interface (formerly called Monad).

3. NGSCB. Next-Generation Secure Computing Base (formerly Palladium) promised a snoop- and ­tamper-free path from keyboard to output devices.

4. Complex Boolean queries. Microsoft originally planned to let you use AND and OR when searching for files.

5. PC-to-PC. A peer-to-peer synchronization technology.

Top 5 Rejected Names for Vista

Culminating in our favorite, these picks were drawn from Top Five (www.topfive.com). See the full list of 20 ­rejected names for Vista at go.pcmag.com.

5. MS-DOS v9.0

4. Windows Vista Cruiser

3. Microsoft Bob X-Treme

2. Winux

1. W1nd0wZ l33t pWns U, sUx0r J0bz!

Top 5 Peeves

1. Product activation. Now Windows will take away functionality if it decides your copy of the OS isn't genuine.

2. Display jumpiness. When user account control kicks in, the display gets jumpy — reminiscent of pressing the "degauss" button on old CRTs.

3. File dialog layouts. These look cramped.

4. Demands on hardware. Requirements mean mainstream PCs will struggle.

5. Inconsistent "glass" effects. Windows lose transparency in MDI applications.

Top 5 Vista Resources

1. Paul Thurrott's SuperSite for Windows. Extensive coverage of Vista's ups and downs. www.winsupersite.com

2. Windows Vista Team Blog. When you want to drink the Microsoft Kool-Aid, too. windowsvistablog.com/blogs/windowsvista

3. Annoyances.org. All kinds of Windows gripes — and solutions. Still thin on the Vista front, but expect more after the new OS ships.

4. The Unofficial Blog of the Unofficial Guide to Windows Vista. An informative, up-to-date blog by the authors of a forthcoming Vista book. www.unofficialvista.com.

5. Windows Now. Formerly Longhornblogs.com, Windows Now aggregates Vista blog coverage. www.windows-now.com/blogs

Vista at a Glance

PROS: Improved security. Slick Aero interface. Pervasive search. New APIs and hardware support. Better built-in apps.

CONS: Hefty hardware requirements. Minor bugs and rough edges in UI. Lack of a killer app to compel adoption. Many features also available for Windows XP users.

BOTTOM LINE: Vista offers a lot of improvements over Win­dows XP, but most of them are conveniences rather than essentials.

Three and a half out of five stars.

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.

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