Windows Vista Hands-On Pictorial

Windows Vista offers a number of new features that might make it a worthwhile upgrade even if the games aren't here yet.

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Overview

Most of us are waiting for the DirectX 10 games to arrive before upgrading to Windows Vista, but the new operating system does offer a number of new features that might make it a worthwhile upgrade even if the games aren't here yet. Not all versions of Windows Vista share the same feature set. Let's take a look at the different editions.

Windows Vista Home Basic
Think of Windows Vista Home Basic as Vista "Lite." You'll get the DX10 support, instant search, Windows Sidebar, and all the security updates; you won't get the Aero 3D desktop theme, Windows Media Center support, or several other new features and applications that make Vista, well, Vista. The Home Basic version retails for $199 as a stand-alone installation or $99 as an XP upgrade.

Windows Vista Home Premium
Microsoft is positioning Windows Vista Home Premium as the upgrade of choice for most users. The Premium version has the complete user-interface upgrade, including Aero, Flip3D, and live thumbnail icons. The Premium version also has new media applications, including Windows DVD Maker and Windows Movie Maker. Microsoft has rolled Windows Media Center functionality into Vista Home Premium, which will let people use their Xbox 360 systems as media extenders. You should expect to pay $239 for the retail box or $159 for the upgrade version.

Windows Vista Ultimate
The Windows Vista Ultimate edition is for big spenders who want the entire Vista experience. The Ultimate version has all the Home Premium features with a few data and network management features from the Business and Enterprise editions. The main reason to opt for the big package will be to get special access to Windows Ultimate Extras, which are downloadable upgrades that are available only to Ultimate users. Do you remember that full-motion desktop background from the Bill Gates CES 2007 keynote address? That will be an Ultimate Extra. Windows Vista Ultimate will cost $399 for the full installation or $259 for the upgrade.

Windows Vista Business
The Business edition has a lot of the same features as Home Premium. However, the Windows Media Center, DVD Maker, and Movie Maker media applications have been swapped out for extra data backup, remote desktop, and security features. The stand-alone installation costs $299, and upgrades run for $199. Microsoft also offers an Enterprise edition for large-scale IT rollouts that is similar to the Business edition.

Aero

Aero is the 3D desktop theme available in the Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate editions. The Vista desktop now uses the video card's 3D processing power to create translucent windows. You will need a DirectX 9-level GPU to run Aero. For those who are wondering, the Aero desktop won't hurt game performance.

Flip3D

Remember that Windows start key you tore off your keyboard because you kept on pressing it at the most inopportune times? You might want to find it again because the key actually has a use in Vista. If you press start and tab to switch into a Flip3D mode, you can cycle through your open windows like a rolodex. However, despite Flip3D's pretty interface, we have to admit that we still use the basic alt-tab function to switch applications.

Live Thumbnails

Vista uses live thumbnail preview images to help speed up multitasking by making it easier to find what you need. You'll see these file and application preview images when you switch between programs using alt-tab or when you mouse over them in the taskbar. You can also set the view option in your explorer window to display files as thumbnail icons.

Instant Search

Browsing for a file when you're already in a running application in Windows XP, when attempting to attach a file to an email for example, can be painful. That's where Vista's instant search box shines. It helps eliminate the clicks between you and what you want to do. You'll find the search box built into the start menu, as well as into just about every window. You can also save predefined searches to search folders that will return results with a double-click.

Customized Explorer Windows

Vista has customized command-bar and file-detail organization options for several popular explorer views. The regular explorer command bar lets you organize your files and adjust the view display. There's also a new "Burn" option that gives you one-click burn-to-disc access. The pictures explorer offers a slide show option, and the music explorer has a "play all" button in addition to the burn-to-disc option.

Performance

Vista's SuperFetch builds upon Prefetch found in Windows XP. Prefetch helped reduce load times in XP because the OS actively tried to arrange the programs you use efficiently in RAM and on the hard drive through a combination of precaching and intelligent defragmentation of your hard drive. Microsoft has improved it in SuperFetch by adding a frequency element to the programs you use to intelligently cache your favorite programs back into memory once you finish using an infrequently loaded program.

Next. Next. Next. When you installed any of the previous versions of Windows, you'd have to babysit the computer because the installer would remember to ask you for yet another trivial bit of information throughout the installation process. With Vista, you'll be done with clicking within the first minute. Sit back, relax, and go somewhere while Vista installs.

Streamlined Updates

Updating your Windows XP installation means navigating through a myriad of Web pages and praying that the operating system didn't make you restart your computer too many times before allowing you download real updates. Microsoft left out the Web pages altogether in Vista and simply gives you a list right inside the Windows Update menu within the OS. Like before, you can also turn on automatic updates to have Vista take care of all the maintenance for you.

Quick Boot, Sleep, and Shutdown

Windows Vista sends your computer off to a deep sleep when you hit the power icon instead of shutting the system down completely. The hibernation process is much faster, and the system comes back to life almost instantly when you need to use it. You can still opt for the full power shutdown, but Vista makes turning your computer on and off seem archaic in comparison.

ReadyBoost

Vista's ReadyBoost technology will let you use 256MB to 4GB of flash memory as a RAM extender of sorts. Your computer will benefit from ReadyBoost even if you have a large amount of RAM by avoiding using the slow hard drive as a scratch space. Our tests show that systems with 512MB of system memory benefit the most from ReadyBoost, but systems with 1GB or even 2GB of RAM still see some performance improvements.

System Setup: Intel Core 2 X6800, Intel 975XBX2, 2GB Corsair XMS Memory (1GB x 2), Corsair XMS Memory 1GB, Corsair XMS Memory 512MB, 160GB Seagate 7200.7 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows Vista Ultimate Edition. Graphics Cards: GeForce 8800 GTX. Graphics Driver: Forceware 100.54.

Windows Reliability and Performance Monitor

Previous versions of Windows had diagnostic tools, but you had to be rather computer savvy to make heads or tails of them. Vista's new reliability and performance monitoring tools make it a snap to identify problems and they'll even provide solutions if available. The daily charts separate errors into clearly defined categories, such as hardware, software, and Windows failures.

Performance Diagnostic

With Vista's new performance diagnostics, you can even test your computer to figure out what parts need upgrading. Vista scores your system in a variety of tests and determines what upgrades you need to improve your computing experience. We're not convinced that you can abstract PC performance down to a single score, but at least it's a starting point for novice PC users.

Improved Networking

Windows Vista comes with a completely reworked networking stack. The new TCP/IP stack works with IPv4 and IPv6 and supports autotuning and quality-of-service features. Wireless traffic technology receives numerous boosts to better accommodate for lost packets, bad signals, and large amounts of electromagnetic interference. All these features boil down to better, more consistent transfer rates for your existing Internet connection.

Applications

Windows Vista includes several new and updated applications. A couple of the programs, such as Windows Media Player 11 and Internet Explorer 7, are available free for Windows XP users. Some programs, such as Windows Sidebar and Windows Mail, are available in all Vista editions, but Home Premium and Ultimate users get access to Windows Movie Maker and Windows DVD Maker. Windows Media Center had its own special Windows XP edition, but the application is now built into Windows Home Premium and Windows Vista Ultimate. Windows Media Center will let you use your Xbox 360 to stream digital media stored on your PC over the network.

Windows Sidebar

The Windows Sidebar is a docking station for small gadget applications on the desktop. Vista ships with basic Sidebar gadgets, such as a clock, weather monitor, RSS feed reader, and stock ticker. Users will also be able to download a variety of third-party gadgets. We downloaded a Sudoku game and a Digg feed reader. Unfortunately, the only local traffic monitors available so far appear to be dedicated to Microsoft's home turf in the greater Seattle, Washington, area.

Windows Photo Gallery

Windows Photo Gallery looks to be a great photo management tool. The organization features make photos easy to find. The command bar gives you quick access to several useful actions, including a "Fix" selection that lets you adjust the image color and exposure. There's also a red-eye correction.

Windows Movie Maker

Windows Movie Maker looks like the Windows Movie Maker from XP, but it has a graphics upgrade.

Windows DVD Maker

Windows DVD Maker lets you make a DVD with your photos and movies. The program makes the DVD-authoring process incredibly easy, maybe too easy. You can expect to see a rise in the number of video Christmas cards this year.

Gaming

We don't have DirectX 10 games yet, but the platform is ready to go sitting within Vista. You will need a DirectX 10-compatible video card, but at least you don't have to worry about getting one for a few more months. If you're itching to get your hands on one now, your only options are the GeForce 8800 GTX and the GeForce 8800 GTS. Our advice is to wait. More affordable DX10 cards will arrive before Crysis ships.

DirectX 10

DirectX 10 brings more than a few things to the table: smarter resource management, improved API and driver efficiencies, and modifications that shift work from the CPU to the GPU. Giving the GPU more efficient ways to write and access data will reduce CPU overhead costs by keeping more of the work on the video card. The end effect of all of this is to improve performance and increase graphical complexity.

Live for Windows

If you own an Xbox or an Xbox 360, you're probably already familiar with Xbox Live. Now it's coming to the PC, as well as mobile devices. Live for Windows will let you interact with your buddies using the same gamertag you've been using on your Xbox 360. You can monitor your friends, send messages, and even challenge each other to online matches. However, not all Live for Windows enabled games will have cross-platform online play. Shadowrun and Uno will let Vista owners and 360 owners play against each other, but Halo 2 won't. Many of us will still end up buying Halo 2 for Windows just to earn achievement points. (Yep, they're in there.)

Games Explorer

In older versions of Windows, each game you installed would make a few folders in the start menu, add probably a half-dozen icons, and then drop off an icon or two onto the desktop for good measure. With the new Games Explorer, new games, under the Games for Windows banner, will install one icon into the Games Explorer. You can also find the games included with Vista in the Games Explorer. Folks who get the premium versions of Vista will get Chess Titans, Mahjong Titans, and InkBall in addition to the playing card games.

Parental Controls

Bad for kids but good for parents, Vista's new parental controls let mom and dad monitor their children's Internet usage, limit the amount of time they get to spend on the computer, and even block access to games and programs deemed too mature for the adolescent consumption.

Security

Many of the improvements in Windows Vista are under the hood. We're not going to notice Vista's improved security or increased stability because, like the offensive line in football, we take notice only when the system crashes or gets infested with spyware, the equivalent of a quarterback sack. Many of these features are already available as free downloads for Windows XP, but Vista has integrated these features and also offers a couple of new ones.

Internet Explorer 7

It's not a Vista exclusive, but Internet Explorer 7 has a number of security improvements designed to protect users from malware and phishing scams. The Vista version also operates in protected mode for extra safety. Many of us have already switched over to Firefox for security reasons. There aren't enough improvements in IE7 to get us to switch back on current XP machines, but the new browser might be good enough on fresh Vista installations to save us from downloading and installing another browser.

Windows Defender

Windows Defender is Microsoft's spyware and pop-up protection program, which is now built into Windows Vista. It is free a download for Windows XP users, but it isn't a part of the full installation.

User Account Control

Windows Vista's User Account Control protects users by changing the level of access users have on the system. Many Windows XP users operate in administrator mode for convenience in hardware and software installations, but all that access means malware can do a lot more damage if it manages to get into the system. UAC in Windows Vista will prompt the user before performing any major system-level actions, such as software installations or when you try to access such restricted features as parental controls.

The good news is that you can still proceed with these actions from a standard user account by entering in the administrator password. The bad news is that UAC seems to be as hypersensitive as the Boston public safety officials. Expect to get hit by UAC prompts frequently as you set up your Vista system. UAC has the potential to be very annoying, but like the bumper sticker says, "freedom isn't free." We'll let you know when the UAC oversteps its bounds with illegal wiretaps.

BitLocker Drive Encryption

Vista Ultimate and Vista Enterprise both have BitLocker drive encryption to protect your data in case of theft. BitLocker basically encrypts your entire Windows hard drive and should operate just like a normal Vista installation in day-to-day use. You will need at least two partitions on your hard drive to enable BitLocker. One partition will be encrypted; the second unencrypted drive will be used to start the system. You will also need a Trusted Platform Module-enabled motherboard or a USB thumb drive.

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