A hard look at Windows Vista

Product Review: A hard look at Windows Vista By Scot Finnie and Preston Gralla Computerworld (US online) It's taken five years, enough lines of code to span the globe several times, countless thousands of hours of developer time, and so many builds, betas, and release candidates that you'd need a cluster-based supercomputer to keep track of them all -- but Windows Vista is finally here.

Vista development, which started with the Windows Server 2003 core, which in turn started with the Windows XP SP2 core, is in the same league with Microsoft's Windows 95 effort, and not far behind the gargantuan Windows NT undertaking. Whether you love Windows or not, whether you believe in Microsoft's ability to innovate or not, you can't fault the software giant's R&D efforts with Windows.

The question is, what does all that work mean to you and to businesses the world over? What are the benefits? What are the downsides? There can be no doubt that there are pluses and minuses to Vista, from easier installation and management to aggressive anti-piracy features, from advanced video 3D graphics to a notable bump up in the video hardware requirements, from hundreds of security improvements to the frustrating User Account Control user experience.

While Windows Vista is an ambitious total overhaul of Windows XP, in the end there's no big gotta-have-it feature or functionality, unless you're a big fan of Aero, its considerably improved and more elegant interface. From a user perspective, there are literally thousands of mostly small advances, but the sum of the parts isn't greater than the whole. Yet Vista is clearly a better OS than XP.

But how can a major new version of Microsoft Windows not be compelling? That's the conundrum of Windows Vista. The vision behind Vista was in many ways about laying the groundwork for the future. So it could well be that the benefits will play out over time. In the meantime, the two big selling points are presentation and security.

Should Windows Vista be in your future? To help you evaluate, this article focuses on the biggest strengths and weaknesses of the product. You be the judge. At the end, we'll tell you what we think overall.

Visual presentation

A whole crop of software reviewers has entirely missed the point about Vista's new Aero interface and Windows Presentation Foundation (or WPF, a.k.a. "Avalon") graphics subsystem.

Aero has often been dismissed as so much eye candy, as frivolously non-functional adornment, as pretty things to dress up the user interface. The same people who rant endlessly about whether the graphical menu should move vertically or horizontally are the ones who dismiss the power Avalon represents to transform Windows applications of the future. It's not about what Microsoft is doing with the Vista interface, it's about what all that power in the hands of application designers and developers could mean with your software.

The Aero interface, and the application user interfaces that take full advantage of WPF in the future, can take advantage of these graphical effects: 2D, 3D, 3D animation, effortless scaling, vector-based text and shape rendering and motion, transparency, blurring, shadows in motion, object movements and a lot more. Put in simpler terms, Microsoft is borrowing heavily on the graphics horsepower previously only found on high-end gaming machines and enabling it as part of the operating system's core.

To go along with internal support for full-fledged 3D, WPF also supports a new extensible application markup language, XAML, that should make it much easier for application designers to try out and create user interfaces for their applications that tie in with the programmatic functionality being created by their programmers.

It's about the applications. And since we don't have many of those yet, it's hard to see the advantage. But make no mistake, Windows Presentation Foundation is a powerful reason to prefer Vista.

Vista's upgraded user interface

The Aero user interface is a minimalist showcase of some of the things application makers might take advantage of with WPF. It appears that Microsoft purposely held back its designers to keep from turning the operating system into a theme park. The use of transparency in Windows Sidebar, though, gives you some insight into what might be possible. Windows Explorer's scaling icons are another hint. The Windows Photo Gallery is an excellent tool for managing images, due in large measure to the power of WPF.

Transparency opens up a cluttered desktop. HGTV addicts will note that it's the same idea as adding a mirror, windows, or a skylight to a room. There's nothing like that annoying feeling of trying to find another app window amidst the mess of 20 open windows. And yet many power users work that way.

Microsoft's use of transparency in Vista is subtle, not glaringly obvious. It isn't so much something you see when you look at Vista -- it's something you feel when you use it. The more aesthetically oriented you are, the more you feel it. It's the back-of-the-mind knowledge that does the trick. You know that window is there in the back. You can see it. It's not lost.

The Vista desktop, Start menu, Quick Launch toolbar (beside the Start button), taskbar, and notification area are more or less reprised from earlier versions of Windows. They have minor changes to their controls. The Start menu does a much better job of handling long submenus, but the change is mostly evolutionary.

One important change to the Start menu, however, is the introduction of text-based searching as an interface convention. Torn from the Web, this idea is just a slam dunk. When you're trying to launch a program and you don't know where it is on the Start menu, just type the program name into the Start menu's integrated search. Control Panel has almost 50 applets on some machines. It's far easier to type the name of the applet you want in Control Panel's integrated search field than go hunting for it.

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