By MATTHEW FORDAHL, AP Technology Editor
In the span of five years, Microsoft Corp. promised its most advanced
operating system ever and then yanked key features to meet deadlines
that were missed anyway. Details of what would later be known as
Windows Vista sounded suspiciously like Apple's Mac OS X.
Yet Vista, which finally appears on store shelves and new PCs next
Tuesday, manages to largely overcome its long, tortured
prelude. Though it duplicates some of the feel and functions of the
Mac software, Vista includes its own improvements that take security,
reliability and usability to new heights on the PC.
Vista is by far the most robust and visually appealing version of
Windows yet. It's similar enough to its predecessor, Windows XP, to
make the switch easy, but different enough to make the price almost
That's not to suggest Vista's perfect or even as polished as Mac OS X.
In more than a month of testing on multiple PCs, I've run into a
number of rough patches. Then again, I was able to run my systems
longer between restarts, experienced fewer crashes and generally found
it more informative than its predecessor.
Overall, it's a worthy upgrade, though one that most users will
probably want to delay until the kinks are worked out.
Be forewarned: The hardware requirements for the best features are
Though a low-end version is offered (Home Basic Edition, $199, or $99
if the user is upgrading from XP), it lacks the high-end graphics and
Most consumers will likely want the Home Premium Edition ($239, $159)
that includes the visuals and entertainment tools and requires a
heftier PC (with at least a 1 gigahertz processor and 1 gigabyte of
The visuals, for obvious reasons, are the most noticeable improvement,
though the software doesn't hesitate to downgrade the experience if
your PC is too weak. Programs appear in semi-see-through frames that
pop open and close with an animated swoosh. Icons can be instantly
resized with a slider (yes, like pictures stored in Apple Inc.'s
The flourishes aren't just eye candy. They also help get the job done,
particularly if you're a multitasker.
In previous Windows versions, minimized programs were something like a
mystery meat: You knew they were there but it wasn't easy to find
anything. In Vista, live mini-previews of each window pop open when
the cursor is moved along the task bar.
Switching between programs using the Alt-Tab key combination is
easier, as the live previews appear there, too. A new combination _
Tab-Windows keys _ flips through all your programs like a 3-D stack of
The start menu _ which has wisely lost the word "Start" _ also has
been renovated. It now sports a search box that returns results
instantly as you type. No more dancing dogs or grinding hard drives.
In fact, the improved search _ which had been available for Windows XP
users through add-on programs _ is fully integrated throughout Vista
(much like the latest version of Mac OS X, released in April 2005).
Windows that display the contents of hard drive folders, for instance,
all have a search box that can filter whatever is inside.
Search results also can be saved into folders that get populated by
future files that meet the original search criteria, though the
feature isn't easy to find.
By default, the right side of the screen is filled with small programs
known as gadgets, displaying headlines, weather, microprocessor loads,
memory utilization _ whatever. (The idea isn't new: Mac OS X has
"Widgets," and other companies have offered similar lightweight
application layers for years.)
The default gadgets in Vista look great but aren't terribly
useful. The Really Simple Syndication gadget, which pulls headlines
from news sites and blogs, only displays four items at a time.
Hundreds of additional gadgets are available from Microsoft's Web
site. Some maintain the slick Vista visuals. Others don't seem to
Vista also includes considerable security improvements, including a
firewall that blocks network traffic in both directions and an
anti-spyware program. You still need to get your own anti-virus
Vista adopts "user authentication," which prompts you before the
installation of anything that might muck up the system. Oddly _ and
unlike Mac OS X and Linux _ it doesn't require a username or password.
The prompt, which darkens and deactivates everything in the
background, also is jarring and decidedly un-Vista-like.
Vista also has tools for monitoring and controlling your kids'
computer and Internet usage, as well as new "features" that Hollywood
can use to control what you do with its movies. If you ever update to
HD DVD or Blu-ray, for instance, the quality of those crisp videos may
There are finer controls to adjust for power consumption and excellent
notification and monitoring tools to figure out how the system is
operating and what has gone wrong. Like a judge at a diving
competition, Vista will rate a computer's performance _ though it
doesn't explain the scale very well.
Vista sports new multimedia capabilities as well, including a photo
management program with basic picture-editing capabilities. It's
improved upon XP's moviemaking software. And it supports DVD burning.
The premium editions also include Windows Media Center _ a shell that
makes playing music and video easy, even with a remote control. The
program, previously part of a special version of XP, adds some of
Vista's visual pizazz to a package that bundles a digital video
recorder for capturing live standard and high-definition TV.
How long does it take to give a PC running Windows XP this facelift
and, arguably, heart and brain transplant? Surprisingly little, at
least on a high-end PC with 2 gigabytes of memory. The anesthesia
takes considerably longer to wear off.
My installation took about an hour. After the software checked for
updates, prompted me for a serial number and asked me to agree to the
Windows user license, the installer ran without any need for input _ a
great improvement over previous Windows versions.
Problems arose when the PC came back to life. The beautiful visuals
and inviting "Welcome Center" were covered up by error and warning
messages detailing a number of incompatibilities.
There was no sound. A program that I use to synch data with a
flash-memory drive wouldn't work. The Internet-phone software Skype
couldn't find audio input or output. And I was told the control center
for my ATI Radeon X1600 Pro graphics card "might" have an issue. There
was no warning from Microsoft's compatibility program that I ran before
Most of the problems were fixed by visiting each vendor's Web site and
downloading updated software, although I still couldn't use my
Hewlett-Packard Co. LaserJet 1020 printer or my company's software for
virtual private networking.
In fairness, software companies have a few more days to get their acts
together before Vista's consumer launch (businesses have been able to
buy it for two months). But what have they been doing all these years?
The success of the operating system, however, won't ride on how well
old programs and peripherals will work but on the new capabilities
that are enabled. For laptops, it may hinge on auxiliary displays that
notify users of new e-mail when the machine is closed. For gaming
rigs, it may be how well the games tap into Vista's graphics
That's because given all its bells and whistles, Vista is still just
an operating system _ a blank canvas, albeit one with a very pretty
and elaborate frame.
On the Net:
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.
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