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Looking At Microsoft’s New Vista


Jan. 23, 2007


V-Day was Tuesday, Jan. 30. That’s the day Microsoft ships its consumer versions of Vista, the latest iteration of Microsoft Windows. I know the 30th is a Tuesday because I just typed the word “calendar” into the Vista search box and up popped Vista’s new calendar program, which along with its e-mail and contact management software is almost like getting a free copy of Microsoft Outlook without having to buy Microsoft Office.That search box, by the way, does more than bring up programs. It can find anything on your computer or an accessible drive on your network, even if you don’t have a clue of the file name. I typed the word “Robert” into that search box and discovered that I have 1,377 items on my PC that with that name in them. I had no idea I had that many Bobs in my life. The name popped up in Outlook e-mails and contacts (including my old archival files), Microsoft Word documents and even photos and music files which have “metadata” or tags with the name “Robert.” And that’s just my “indexed” locations. By default, Vista creates an index of files in your personal folder and e-mail folders so that it can perform lightning-fast searches. You can also expand that index to other directories, as I did for my /data directory, where I have 40 gigabytes of documents, music files and photographs.

Some of Vista’s most important features are those that don’t jump out at you. Microsoft says it’s much more secure than Windows XP, but, of course, that remains to be seen. The company reports that it analyzed “more than 1,400 threat models … to ensure identification of risks that required mitigation, code that needed special attention.” In other words, they found a bunch of security holes and say they fixed them. Microsoft also introduced what it calls “Windows Service Hardening” designed to reduce the risk of buffer overflows. They have also initiated “restricted services” to “reduce the number of services that are capable of doing unlimited damage to a user’s machine.”

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates told San Jose Mercury News columnist Dean Takahashi Microsoft spent $6 billion developing Vista, but you can get it for as little as $99 or as part of the deal the next time you get a new PC. The question is whether or not you should.

First, that $99 figure is for a version of Vista you probably don’t want. The company is selling three consumer editions. You can upgrade from Windows XP to Vista Home Basic for $99, to Home Premium for $159 and to Vista Ultimate for $259.

All versions of Vista have the increased security and the new search system, but the reason you probably don’t want the basic version is because it lacks some of the cool bells and whistles that make Vista fun to use. These include the “Aero Glass” interface which gives you translucent windows that allow you to get a peek inside a running program without having to actually switch to it. That includes the Flip 3-D effect which lets you look inside Windows when you press Alt-Tab or see tiny thumbnails of running programs on the task bar. It also includes Windows Media Center, which you can use to organize and play your videos, music and photos and, if your PC has a tuner, to watch, rewind and record TV — just like a TiVo. There is also a business edition ($199), but it lacks Media Center and other cool consumer features. The Ultimate edition has it all but at an inflated price with features that most consumers and home-based professionals don’t need.

So, unless search and increased security are worth $100 to you, I suspect most people shouldn’t bother upgrading to the basic edition. I really like the Home Premium edition, but I question whether it’s worth $159. If they were offering the Premium edition for $50, I’d say go for it, unless you’re one of the millions of PC users who couldn’t run that edition on their existing PC without having to spend a couple of hundred dollars or more upgrading your hardware.

To run the basic version, Microsoft says you need “a modern processor (at least 800 MHz),” 512 MB of system memory and a graphics processor that is DirectX 9 capable — that’s most PCs in use today.

To run the Premium edition you’ll need at least a 1 GHz processor, 1 GB of system memory, support for DirectX 9 graphics with a WDDM driver, 128 MB of graphics memory and something called Pixel Shader 2.0 (technology in your graphics card that can render surface properties images including lighting and shadows along with 3-D images). You’ll also need at least a 40 GB hard drive with 15 GB free space, a DVD-ROM drive, audio output, and an Internet connection. That sounds like a lot of hardware, but almost all machines being sold today qualify, assuming you opt for at least 1 gigabyte of memory. I’ve read some reports that you’ll need two gigabytes for decent performance, but that’s not true. I’ve tested it on a 1 GB machine and it works fine. My desktop PC, which is running the Ultimate Edition (the software was supplied by Microsoft for evaluation purposes), works great on 1.5 GB and I usually run several programs at the same time. To find out which, if any, version of Vista will run on your PC, visit microsoft.com/windowsvista/getready/ for a free program that will analyze your machine.

I really like the Premium edition of Vista. It hasn’t changed my life but it has made computing a bit more pleasant. Most important, it doesn’t crash nearly as often as XP (though I have experienced that dreaded “blue screen of death,” probably because of a conflict with one of my device drivers). Still, it’s more reliable. I love the new search features and even though the Aero interface is more for show than for productivity, I do like the way it looks. I’m also very impressed with the new Windows Photo Gallery for organizing, editing, printing and uploading photos. It rivals Apple’s famed iPhoto for both usefulness and ease of use. It even semi-automates getting rid of red-eye. The new Windows Movie maker is also quite good. I’ve used it to edit several videos I shot for CBSNews.com and unlike some other video editing programs, it took me very little time to figure out.

Vista also added new ways to browse through your files, including extra large icons that give you a very good idea of what your photos look like and a preview mode in the Windows Explorer file manager that lets you quickly look inside documents, photos and other files without having to open them.

Vista is good, but I still question whether it’s worth nearly $160 plus the cost of any hardware upgrades for anyone but those early adapters who love to live on the bleeding edge of technology. For most people, the best way to get Vista is to get it the next time they buy a PC.

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