Windows Vista is Microsoft's first new operating system in more than five years and the successor to Windows XP. However, it is not worth rushing out to purchase. If you desperately need to buy a new PC (if your old one died or you've been waiting and waiting for Vista to be released), then by all means do so; there's nothing wrong with Windows Vista. But there's no one compelling feature within Windows Vista that cries out to switch over, neither the enhanced graphic capabilities (Aero) nor the improved system performance features (truthfully, our Windows XP doesn't crash). As for security, Microsoft's biggest improvements in Windows Vista are within the Enterprise or 64-bit editions, editions most home users will not be running. Windows Vista is not the Apple Mac OS X 10.4 killer one hoped for (or feared). Nor are there specific big-name software packages written exclusively for Windows Vista--most software available today is compatible with both Windows XP and Windows Vista. But the extensive tie-ins to Microsoft.com and Live.com, and the many, many interdependences upon Internet Explorer 7 left us desperately wanting more (and often best-of-breed) alternatives. Hard core Microsofties who live and breathe within the MSN, Live.com, and Microsoft desktop software ecosystem will rejoice with the release of Windows Vista, but for the rest of us who are product agnostic, who use Firefox, Google Desktop, ZoneAlarm, GMail, and Corel WordPerfect, Windows XP SP2 will suffice nicely until some killer program necessitates that we all upgrade to Windows Vista.
There are six major editions of Windows Vista; we're reviewing four. We chose not to review Windows Vista Enterprise (available only to volume license customers) and Windows Vista Starter (available only outside the United States). Windows Vista Ultimate includes everything, and this is the edition getting the most promotion from Microsoft. It is not the edition most people will find packaged on their shiny new PCs or will end up with after an upgrade of existing hardware. See our feature comparison chart to know which edition is right for your specific needs, and check the following individual reviews for more details:
Setup and installation
The Windows Vista DVD disc includes a Windows Imaging (WIM) format of the code, so whether you buy the Home Basic edition or the Ultimate edition, the code remains the same; only the product key unlocks your specific set of features. This means users who opt for the lesser editions can always upgrade (assuming they have the proper hardware) by downloading some additional code and securing a new product key online. However, all features--even if you paid for them--are dependent on specific hardware configurations being present; if you don't have the proper graphics hardware, for example, you'll simply never see the Aero graphic effects on that old Dell computer in your basement.
Hardware requirements for Windows Vista should not be taken lightly. In a controversial move to garner positive reviews, Microsoft sent hundreds of bloggers (not including CNET) free copies of Windows Vista Ultimate; Microsoft did not send boxed copies, rather the software giant sent top-of-the-line Acer Ferrari laptops with the operating system preinstalled. So even Microsoft seems to admit that the best performance is only available on top-of-the-line machines manufactured within the last year or so.
That said, many people will still want to upgrade their current Windows XP SP2. This will keep all your current data and applications, importing them directly into the new operating system. Most people will find either Windows Vista Home Basic or Windows Vista Home Premium to be their best choice. While Windows Vista does make a backup of your previous operating system before installing, it is always recommended that you backup your current Windows XP system yourself, just in case.
Rather than upgrade, we recommend you perform a clean installation. With a clean installation, you keep all your current on the Windows XP drive and install only the data and applications you want to run on Windows Vista. A clean install can be accomplished by buying a new PC with Windows Vista already installed, partitioning an existing Windows XP machine to dual-boot into Windows Vista, or adding a new hard drive to an existing Windows XP machine.
Our clean installations took anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the hardware in the system. It's pretty much an automated process, with the installer first copying the WIM image onto the new hard drive or partition then expanding that image. Once again, we experienced an uncomfortably long plateau at "Expanding: 27 percent"; as with previous builds, we waited between two and five minutes before the expansion continued. About halfway through, the installer reboots and continues the installation in Windows Vista.
During the installation, Windows Vista will load the drivers included within the installation image, but it will also download additional drivers from a much larger database at Microsoft. This assumes, however, that one has an always-on Internet connection; dial-up users may find that upon completion of the installation process some drivers are missing.
Once fully installed, Windows Vista first asks for your country or region, then time and currency, and, finally, the desired keyboard layout. Next, you'll choose a username, a user icon, and a password. Then select your desktop wallpaper and security settings: Automatic, Install Important Updates Only, or Ask Me Later. After reviewing the computer's time and date settings, there's one more message: "Please wait while Windows checks your computer's performance." Here, Microsoft grades your computer on a five-point scale, with the overall rating based on your system's lowest score (in our case, that was for the video card).
Windows Vista includes new musical tones written by veteran musician Robert Fripp. Compared to the familiar start-up tones of Windows XP, Windows Vista's are lighter, almost spritely. The sounds for User Account Control and Log Off are also perkier than those found in similar security warnings within Windows XP.
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
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.