New on the Windows Vista desktop is a Welcome Center which contains links to frequently asked questions such as, "How do you configure your printer?" and "How do you connect to your Internet service?" There is also room for some sales opportunities, either with manufacturer specials or online offers from Microsoft, such as the Windows Live OneCare service. Frankly, we think it is better for you to look beyond the Windows ecosystem for e-mail, Internet browsers, and security applications.
After closing the Welcome Center, you'll notice to the far right there is a shaded sidebar populated with three example Gadgets ("widgets" to everyone else), tiny desktop applets that display content, such as RSS feeds. In one Gadget, a slide show of images from the sample photo library display; in the next, the current time; finally, there's a Gadget for subscribed RSS feeds. We downloaded and installed Firefox 2, made Firefox our default browser, and quickly set up a few RSS feed subscriptions. Guess what? The Windows Vista Gadget was unresponsive to our efforts, displaying only the default MSN feeds from Microsoft. Microsoft says the default RSS Gadget feeds off a common store of RSS feeds within Windows Vista, and Firefox hasn't yet adopted the API for that store. You have to use Internet Explorer 7 or choose a Firefox-friendly Gadget instead. By clicking the + symbol atop the sidebar, you'll see a panel of available Gadgets, with a link out to the Web to find even more. The Gadgets are not fixed to the sidebar; they can be dragged across the desktop. And even the sidebar itself can be disabled to allow for a full desktop view. An icon located within the taskbar will restore the sidebar at any time.
The familiar Start menu features some cosmetic changes for Windows Vista. Aside from the distinctive rounded icon, the Start menu now includes a built-in Search function. We would have preferred to have access to Search directly from the desktop rather than digging down a level or two. The All Programs list now displays as an expandable/collapsible directory tree, something Windows should have offered years ago. The new Start menu is divided in half, with access to documents, pictures, music, games, recent items, My Computer, network, Control Panel, default programs, and Help along the right-hand side.
Also new within Start is an Instant Off button. This button caches all your open files and processes, allowing you to turn off your laptop or desktop quickly without all the "cleaning up files" messages you see in previous versions. We like the feature, but on our Acer Travelmate 8200, Instant Off and closing the lid to hibernate sometimes produced limbo states where the laptop simply wouldn't wake up again, forcing us to reboot.
In Windows Vista, files become unmoored from the traditional directory tree structure--kind of. The more ambitious plan of including a whole new file system was scrapped early on; instead, Windows Vista relies on metatags, which are keywords linked to files to make them searchable. With metatags, you can create virtual file folders based on a variety of search terms. Say you're doing a report on mountains, any file that is keyword-enabled to include "mountains" will be grouped into a virtual folder without physically dragging that file to a new location. The downside is that older files (say you upgraded your system from Windows XP or imported data from an earlier version of Windows) will have to be retroactively metataged in order to be searched. Also different is the file path displayed within Windows Explorer. Gone are the backslashes, replaced with arrows that offer drop-down menus of alternative folders. We liked this efficient feature.
Finally, there's a compatibility wizard buried deep within Windows Vista. Most Windows XP applications we loaded performed just fine. Operating under the hood, Windows Vista convinces native Windows XP applications that they're running on Windows XP. Should you need to run an older application, say from Windows 95, the compatibility wizard allows you to tweak the display resolution and emulate Windows 95 for that program. For example, we were able to run a Windows 95-optimized game demo on our Windows Vista test system.
Our gut feeling is that most of the significant bells and whistles are designed for the Enterprise-level customers, not the home user. But Windows Vista Home Basic is rock-bottom, offering the fewest features of any of the editions. Windows Vista Home Basic is designed for older systems and low-end new PCs, stripping out the Aero graphics systems and offering limited use of the other features. In our opinion, this edition is more like Windows XP SP3 than something revolutionary.
Common to all editions of Windows Vista are ad hoc backup and recovery, instant Search, Internet Explorer 7 browser, Windows Media Player 11, Windows Mail e-mail client, Windows Calendar, Windows Photo Gallery, performance tuning and self-diagnostics, Internet protocol IPv6 and IPv4 support, Windows ReadyDrive, a maximum of 4GB RAM support on 32-bit editions (up to 128GB RAM on some 64-bit editions), Windows Sync Center for mobile devices, Windows Mobility Center for presentations on the road, User Account Control security protection, Windows Security Center, Windows Defender antispyware, Windows Firewall, Windows Meeting Space for ad hoc wireless meetings, Remote Desktop for working from home, XPS document support for PDF-like files, improved peer-to-peer networking, improved VPN support, and improved power management.
Aero is part of the Windows Presentation Foundation, a subgroup of the .Net Foundation Framework, an underlying foundation for developers to build new applications. One applet is the New York Times Times Reader, the first of many products written exclusively for Windows Vista but hardly a compelling reason by itself to upgrade. Unless you watch YouTube videos all day, you won't really need Aero, nor will you miss the tiny preview windows enabled on your desktop display of the "flip-3D" effect on the desktop. Windows Vista Home Basic does support Microsoft's new, Adobe PDF-like file format called XPS (Extensible Page System).
As for the controversial User Account Control (UAC), you shouldn't encounter UAC except when changing system configurations or installing new software, and even then, wouldn't you--in this age of downloadable spyware--prefer to know when an executable file is about to run? While UAC notifies you of pending system changes, it doesn't always require a password. Microsoft's more controversial method to lock down the system kernel, PatchGuard, is only available in the 64-bit editions of Windows Vista; most home users will not run these editions. Another celebrated security feature works only within Windows Mail, which most people are unlikely to use. And finally, the jury is still out on whether Internet Explorer 7 is more secure than, say, Firefox 2. Windows Vista also includes a built-in but limited two-way firewall and free Windows Defender antispyware, which ranked poor in competitive testing done by Download.com.
Along with the diagnostic and performance monitors, Microsoft has improved the Help section considerably. There is a static FAQ, but it also links to Microsoft online and allows outreach to other users for help, either via a forum or direct PC-to-PC help. Of these, we really like a feature available on some, not all, FAQs that allows you to automate the solution by executing a script. This method doesn't teach you how to do it in the future, but it will accomplish the task at hand. For example, if you choose to update a device driver, Windows Vista will darken the desktop; highlight and open the Start menu, the Control Panel, and the Device Manager; then pause to ask you what device you want to update. It's like having a technician at your desktop, walking you though the process. There's an increasing reliance on user-generated support forums, which leads us to believe that Microsoft is shying away from its own live technical support. At press time, Microsoft's final support policy was unavailable.
Perhaps we're spoiled, but after more than five years of development, there's a definite "Is that all?" feeling about Windows Vista. Like cramming an info-dump into a book report the night before it's due, there certainly are a lot of individual features within the operating system, but the real value lies in their execution--how the user experiences (or doesn't experience) these--and like the info-dump, we came away shaking our heads, disappointed. Compared with Mac OS X 10.4, Windows Vista feels clunky and not very intuitive, almost as though it's still based on DOS (or at least the internal logic that made up DOS). Despite the addition of a system-wide, built-in Search, and various efforts to break away from staidly old directory trees, you still need to drill down one level to even access Search. And there are far too many dependencies on Microsoft products; this is not a very objective operating system, as preference is always given to Microsoft products (of which there are many), from MSN search to RSS feeds only from Internet Explorer. But is Windows Vista a bad operating system? No. It's just a disappointment for PC users who hoped that Microsoft would deliver something truly exciting to finally leapfrog ahead of Apple. They failed. But stick around; this is just Windows Vista 1.0. Windows Vista Service Pack 1 is due out sometime before the end of the year. Windows Vista SP1 promises to fix what's known to be wrong within Windows Vista and should offer a few concrete reasons to switch.