Like it or not, Windows users are going to have to adapt to a new version of the ubiquitous operating system. Of course you’re not required to upgrade your existing PC to Windows Vista when the operating system comes out early next year, but if you get a new PC, chances are it will come with Vista.
Microsoft recently reiterated that the new operating system is expected to be available to corporate customers in November and to consumers starting in January.
However, as a longtime Microsoft watcher, I can say that an operating system doesn’t ship until it ships.
I’ve been testing various pre-release versions of Vista including the latest, “release candidate 2.” Microsoft uses the designation “release candidate” to signify a test version that is nearly complete but the company does admit that it’s not entire ready for release.
From my tests, even the pre-release version of Vista is more stable and reliable than the shipping version of Windows XP. Vista’s help system isn’t quite done and it doesn’t have nearly as many drivers (to handle printers, scanners and other hardware), but the basic features are all in place and, for the most part, working well.
Vista, which represents the first major upgrade to Windows in five years, has changes that you can see and “under-the-hood” improvements that you can’t see. Today’s column focuses on what you can see. Later I’ll write about some of the refinements that affect security, performance and stability.
The first thing you do see is a slightly modified look and feel. The Start menu, for example, has been streamlined and no longer even says “Start.” When launching a program with XP you have to click two or three times to locate it from a cascading menu. With Vista, you see all of your program groups in one list that you can scroll through.
Another enhancement called “Aero” works on only systems with graphics cards that are up to the task. Aero provides a translucent border around windows so you can cascade or stack them and see what’s underneath. That’s largely a gimmick, but Aero also allows you to see thumbnail images of the actual content of running programs in the task bar and when you switch between programs by pressing Alt-Tab.
There is also a new “switch between windows” icon on the task bar that presents you with a useful look inside all the programs that are running. If I were to press it now, I’d see a miniature window with the actual content of the article I’m now writing, along with the content from my browser and other programs that are currently running. Clicking on any of those miniature windows brings the program to the foreground.
You can search directly from within the Start menu but if you type in the name of a program, it will immediately launch that program. When I want to access a spreadsheet, I find it faster to type “Excel” than to locate the Excel icon in the Start menu or on the desktop.
Windows will also have new mini-programs called Gadgets to provide information on your desktop on stock prices, weather or how fast your PC processor is running. In addition to the Gadgets that will come with Windows, there are analog and digital clocks, games and all sorts of other applications that you can download.
While new to the Windows operating system, these types of gadget programs have long been available from Google and other sources and are also included in recent versions of Apple’s Macintosh OS X operating system. The Gadgets are associated with another new feature called Sidebar, which helps you find them in a window that appears to the right of your screen.
Sidebar is not to be confused with SideShow, a feature that will work only on laptops and other computers equipped with an auxiliary screen for viewing information even when the laptop is “shut off.” It might be used to give you immediate access to telephone numbers, your calendar or other data without your having to actually start up the computer. Microsoft expects companies to build a wide range of SideShow-compatible devices, including cell phones wirelessly accessing PC data.
Aside from changes in look and feel, Vista will also come with some new applications including Windows Photo Gallery, a very nice photo editor and organizer. The program’s Gallery view makes it easier to find your photos by allowing you to quickly find them by date, file name or a tag that you imbed with the photo.
While the program’s editor doesn’t have nearly as many features as Adobe Photoshop, Corel Paint Shop Pro or other full-featured photo editing programs, it does provide the essentials such as cropping, color adjustment, exposure compensation and red eye removal. It also makes it easy to email and print photos and burn them to a CD or DVD. As with Windows XP, Vista will have Windows Movie Maker, which is a pretty good video editing program.
The Outlook Express e-mail program will no longer be part of Windows but Vista will come with Windows Mail, Windows Contacts and Windows Calendar. Between them these free programs will give you much of the functionality that people get with Outlook – the e-mail, calendar and contact management program that comes with Microsoft Office.
Microsoft will also be including a robust backup program as well as software to help synchronize data between multiple PCs or other devices.
Vista will also have a speech recognition system that will allow you to dictate instead of type. I tested this feature and it works pretty well.
Not all features will be available in all versions. Microsoft plans to ship six editions of the operating system, including a stripped-down version for distribution in Europe where regulators are requiring the unbundling of the media player.
The entry level system for the U.S. will be the Home basic version that lacks some features.
The Windows Vista Premium Home Edition will include the Windows Media Center to allow you to watch TV on a PC equipped with a tuner and there will be separate editions aimed at small businesses and corporations. Windows Vista Ultimate will have everything except, perhaps, a kitchen sink. But who knows, with millions of lines of code, there may just be plumbing for that as well.