BY WALTER S. MOSSBERG
A new version of Microsoft Windows, the world's most popular and
important computer operating system, will finally arrive for consumers
on Jan. 30. It has taken the giant software maker more than five years
to replace Windows XP with this new version, called Windows Vista --
an eternity by computer-industry reckoning. Many of the boldest plans
for Vista were discarded in that lengthy process, and what's left is a
worthy, but largely unexciting, product.
Vista is much prettier than previous versions of Windows. Its icons
look better, windows have translucent borders, and items in the
taskbar and in folders can display little previews of what they
contain. Security is supposedly vastly better; there are some new
free, included programs; and fast, universal search is now built in.
There are hundreds of other, smaller, improvements and additions
throughout the system, including parental controls and even a slicker
version of Solitaire.
After months of testing Vista on multiple computers, new and old, I
believe it is the best version of Windows that Microsoft has
produced. However, while navigation has been improved, Vista isn't a
breakthrough in ease of use. Overall, it works pretty much the same
way as Windows XP. Windows hasn't been given nearly as radical an
overhaul as Microsoft just applied to its other big product, Office.
Nearly all of the major, visible new features in Vista are already
available in Apple's operating system, called Mac OS X, which came out
in 2001 and received its last major upgrade in 2005. And Apple is
about to leap ahead again with a new version of OS X, called Leopard,
due this spring.
There are some big downsides to this new version of Windows. To get
the full benefits of Vista, especially the new look and user
interface, which is called Aero, you will need a hefty new computer,
or a hefty one that you purchased fairly recently. The vast majority
of existing Windows PCs won't be able to use all of Vista's features
without major hardware upgrades. They will be able to run only a
stripped-down version, and even then may run very slowly.
In fact, in my tests, some elements of Vista could be maddeningly slow
even on new, well-configured computers.
Also, despite Vista's claimed security improvements, you will still
have to run, and keep updating, security programs, which can be
annoying and burdensome. Microsoft has thrown in one such program
free, but you will have to buy at least one more. That means that,
while Vista has eased some of the burden on users imposed by the
Windows security crisis, it will still force you to spend more time
managing the computer than I believe people should have to devote.
Here's a quick guide to the highlights of the new operating system.