This includes several new features that make the operating system look nicer. It includes the Aero translucent "glass" look and feel that lets underlying windows show through a form's border and title bar. To make the effect more noticable, forms have thicker borders and title bars. That makes them look a bit clunky when you're used to the thinner borders provided in previous operating systems. It also means these take up more screen space.
Vista also uses larger, smoother fonts to make textual display look nicer, and it uses bigger more elaborate icons. The result is certainly pretty but it also means that icons and forms take up a lot more space in Vista. If you bought a nice big 17" laptop so you'd be able to see and do more all at once, Vista takes much of that benefit away.
Vista provides new ways to view the applications that are running. If you press Alt-Tab, you see a Task Manager view of the applications more or less as before. However, instead of displaying the applications' icons, the view shows small images of the applications' forms. This is an impressive feat of graphics but can be pretty disconcerting, particularly for applications such as Visual Studio that change in appearance a lot depending on what you're doing. The Visual Studio image looks very different if you're editing a text file, using a data connection wizard, or designing a form. Deciphering the changing images can actually make finding the application you want take longer.
Instead of pressing Alt-Tab, you can also press Win-Tab to view the running applications in an impressive three-dimensional rotating display that shows almost full-sized images of the application. Sort of like an application Rolodex (it's real name is "Flip 3D"). This is undeniably cool but also somewhat unnecessary. Usually it's much faster for me to find the application I want from the task bar rather than deciphering the changing mini-images in the Task Manager view or figuring out which application is which in the Rolodex.
All of these features are cool. They show off some great graphics capabilities and you should try them just to see what they look like. However, the larger fonts, borders, and icons take up more screen space without giving you any real additional benefit other than aesthetics. The new changing Task Manager icons and the application Rolodex view are cool but distracting.
It's somewhat telling that Macintosh users seem happier with Vista than long-time Windows users. Overall it seems prettier and more aesthetically pleasing but slower and more cumbersome.
I've had trouble finding information about this on Microsoft's Web site but live icons are basically scalable thumbnails used in several places in Vista. I suspect they are what the new Task Manager view is displaying and they may also be the larger images shown by the application Rolodex.
Live icons also let Windows Explorer display thumbnails for every kind of file not just images. Personally I don't usually need to see a tiny little image of a text file or a PowerPoint presentation to know what kind of file it is. The icons are too small to display a lot of information so if I don't remember which file is which, I probably still need to open them to find out. Usually I display folders in the list or details view to avoid having these icons take up all of my screen space without giving me any really new information.
Overall Windows Explorer hasn't changed all that much and is as easy to use as ever. One odd thing, on my system at least, is the display defaults to showing media-related fields. By default the details it displays include Name, Date taken, Tags, Size, and Rating. It may come as quite a shock to Microsoft but my main use for this computer is not to store and catalog my photographs. I don't spend time rating my documents and placing tags on my source code files. These seem like very strange defaults.
The new search feature does more or less what you can do with Google's search tool: index your files to make searching faster. By default, it seems to search inside files as well as looking at their names. After trying to live with this for a while (I'm trying to grok the Vista spirit) I had to turn this off because searching was so painfully slow. Normally I know at least part of the name of the file I want so searching the files' contents should be the exception. It's really annoying to search a directory hierarchy full of code and wait while search digs through all of the executable programs and compiled object files.
I haven't done much with these except note that they are present and I'm glad to see they are finally here. I know they can let you schedule allowed use times for every user and I suspect that will come in handy when my kids are a little older. (If anyone tries these out, let me know how well they work. Are they as easy to circumvent as parental controls have sometimes been in the past?)
User Application Control addresses a real issue that has been clinging to Windows for years. Some parts of the operating system are protected so a program must have administrative privileges to modify them. In previous versions of Windows, if a user regularly uses a program that needs those privileges, that user would just log on as an administrator. That lets the program work but puts the system at risk. If the user does something careless or runs a file containing a virus, the system may suffer a complete meltdown.
With UAC, Vista starts all users with normal non-administrator privileges-even for the true administrators! Then if a program needs more privileges, it displays a UAC privilege elevation dialog. Normal users must enter an administrator's username and password. Even if you are logged on as an administrator, you must confirm that you want to obtain elevated privileges. This confirmation allows you to do most of your work as a normal user and only acquire special privileges when necessary, and that will lead to a safer operating system.
UAC does require one fairly large change to your programming style, however. To work properly with UAC, you must avoid accessing the protected parts of the system whenever possible. For example, most applications are installed in the Program Files directory. That directory is protected by Vista so, if you install your application in that directory, the program must obtain elevated privileges to write in the directory where the program is installed. You can avoid this hassle by making your program write into a shared directory or into the users' private directories.
Similarly most of the Registry is off-limits without UAC elevation so you should try not to write to those parts of the Registry. Happily Visual Basic's SaveSetting, GetSetting, and DeleteSetting functions work with normal user privileges.
Finally, if you absolutely must write into a protected directory, fiddle around in a sensitive part of the Registry, or do something else that's verboten to normal users, you should isolate those parts of your application as much as possible. Then move those parts into a separate executable and mark it as requiring UAC elevation. Your main program can then invoke the auxiliary application and Vista will display the UAC elevation prompt. (It's a lot easier to use normal user permissions whenever possible and avoid the bother.)
I have not done much with these. My Vista system is not connected to a network so I haven't really tested Windows Firewall or Windows Defender (spyware blocker). I also haven't done anything with Windows Boot Manager. (Let me know if you have anything to say about them.)
This application displays gadgets in a scrolling display on one side or the other of the screen. Right now the gadgets are mostly toys such as an analog clock (in case the digital one in the task bar isn't good enough for you), a headline viewer (if you're connected to the Internet), and a picture viewer (to see thumbnails of pictures).
Microsoft says Sidebar allows you quick access to frequently used tools (isn't that what icons are for?) but it really seems like another excuse to show off some dazzling graphics capabilities. However, in the future gadgets may actually do something useful. Sidebar may just be a place for gadgets to play until Windows Sideshow becomes useful.
Windows Sideshow will allow a computer to run gadgets in a low-power restricted memory mode even while the computer is turned off. For example, a small display on the exterior of your laptop might run an email gadget that displays the subjects of new emails you receive. If you saw something interesting, you would boot and read your mail. (Although I receive so much spam the LCD would have to be huge to show me anything worth reading.) Currently there is no hardware to support Sideshow but it's a potentially worthwhile idea.
The Start Menu (which no longer says "Start" on it) displays programs in a trimmer vertical treeview-like display. Sort of like the left pane in Windows Explorer. Instead of opening cascading menus as before, it expands a menu inside the list of items it is currently displaying.
I've been trying very hard to use this feature but I find it very distracting. The spatial positioning of items in the cascading menu system helped me remember where things were in the menus. By opening everything in one vertical list, I lose any spatial context and it's a lot harder to find things.
The Start Menu does come with a handy search facility that lets you search for commands. This is a definite improvement over the old menu hierarchy, which on most computers was so big it was hard to find things, but with the new single-column expanding style it's crucial.
I think it's somewhat ironic that Microsoft lists "space saving" as one of the benefits of the new non-cascading menu when so much of Vista (larger fonts, larger borders and title bars, larger icons) gobbles up space like it's free. The statement seems almost mocking in light of the fact that the Start Menu appears only for a few seconds while you select a file but the larger fonts and icons take up space forever.
Vista is definitely a visually pleasing operating system but it's not clear how many of its new features provide large functional benefits. The larger smoother fonts, wided form borders and title bars, and bigger icons look nice but take up a lot of room. Live icons and the glass-like Aero appearance look nice but put huge performance demands on the computer. Other features such as making Date taken and Rating defaults in Windows Explorer detail view, and rearranging the way the Start Menu works just seem to be rearranging things for rearrangement's sake.
Microsoft predicted that Vista would be adopted more quickly than any previous operating system. While Vista's visual appeal is clear, it's much less obvious that you should rush right out and buy Vista (and possibly new, faster hardware to run it on).
- The Vista Era Begins
- A PC Magazine article by John C. Dvorak.
- RK Computers - Windows Vista Resources
- A short overview with some nice pictures.
- Windows Vista: Features
- Microsoft's list of features.