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.
There are too many individual features within Windows Vista Ultimate Edition to call out--seriously. However, our gut feeling is that most of the significant bells and whistles are designed for the Enterprise-level customers, not the home user. Having a large number of features should not be confused with actually providing significant value to all users across the board. We would have preferred fewer features executed extremely well rather than an uneven mix of this and that, a one-size-fits-all operating system. And we disagree with Microsoft's seemingly arbitrary division of features within individual editions.
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. Included within certain editions (and thus also included within the Ultimate edition) are Windows Media Center, Windows Tablet PC, Windows Movie Maker, Windows DVD Maker, Parental Controls, Windows SideShow for remote gadgets, domain join for Windows Small Business Server, Group Policy support, Client-side file caching, Roaming User Profiles for remote server access, Windows Fax and Scan, Windows ShadowCopy to create file backups, Windows Rights Management Services to protect documents, Windows BitLocker hard drive encryption, integrated smart card management, and various Windows Ultimate Extras to be named later. Despite many feature changes within Windows Vista, Microsoft has held onto its original marketing promise of providing users with Clear, Confident, and Connected solutions.
For Clear, Microsoft cites its new Aero graphics. 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. Though video playback and, yes, even the tiny icons on Windows Vista are now crisp and colorful with Aero, 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. Also new is Microsoft's Adobe PDF-like file format called XPS (Extensible Page System); however, any Windows XP SP2 machine can view XPS-created pages with downloads of the .Net 3 Framework Foundation and the Internet Explorer 7 browser.
For Confident, Microsoft touts new security enhancements within Windows Vista. You shouldn't encounter User Account Control (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.
For Connected, Microsoft points to the new peer-to-peer possibilities, some of which are the result of its acquisition of Groove several years ago. From within Windows Explorer (which displays different toolbar options for exploring documents, photos, or music) you can move any file into a Public Folder and then mark the file or folder for sharing on a network. Within the Business and Ultimate editions you can further mark individual files for remote access.
Upon installation, Windows Vista rates each system's overall hardware performance, with the final score reflecting your system's lowest individual score. This is handy. For example, if you suspect that everything's running a little slow, you might find that your hard drive is returning the lowest score. Windows Vista will then recommend a faster hard drive or a drive with larger compatibility. Mostly, though, the video card will be the sore spot for most users. There's also an event log viewer to show, for example, after a specific software install your system performance started to degrade, and that uninstalling the software may restore your overall performance.
Under the hood, Microsoft has moved device drivers for DVD burners and printers out of the system kernel; Microsoft says that a majority of system crashes can be traced to improperly installed third-party device drivers. Thus Windows Vista hopes to vanquish the dreaded Blue Screen of Death common to earlier releases of Windows. Indeed, after testing several early builds, we found Windows Vista to be remarkably stable and robust.
Along with the 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.