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Friday, February 2, 2007

The new Windows Vista - should you upgrade?

Vista's New Look

There's no question that the Vista shell is a massive change from Windows XP. Vista's Aero interface takes advantage of modern 3D graphics accelerators to provide features such as translucent "glass" window frames, subtle animations, scalable icons, and live previews of documents and windows. The Alt-Tab interface for switching between ­applications is much more informative than in Windows XP, and pressing Windows-Tab triggers the new "Flip 3-D" view.

Personally, I find Aero effects subtle and compelling. But for those who disagree, ­Vista allows plenty of control; you can even switch to a classic theme that eliminates the effects entirely.

Although there are UI changes throughout the Windows shell, they're most evident in three ­places: the Start menu, Windows Explorer, and pervasive search functionality.

Inside the Start menu, XP's menus of cascading programs are replaced by tree-view-like menus that expand in place, a navigation mechanism I find much more natural. But the real beauty of the Vista Start menu is its built-in search box. Start typing and Vista will use its full-text search capabilities to show you all the applications, documents, ­favorite links, and e-mails that match. You can even type in the name of a directory and press Enter to launch Windows Explorer in that folder. Whenever I switch back to an XP machine, I miss Vista's new Start menu more than any other feature.

You can find these new search capabilities throughout Vista; they are part of Microsoft's strategy to help users cope with file bloat and information overload. Incremental search appears in places such as Windows Media Player, Windows Explorer, Windows Mail, and even the Control Panel. Vista also offers a more sophisticated advanced search, which lets you specify parameters such as file types and modification dates, but it no longer supports the complex Boolean (AND/OR) queries that were available in some beta releases.

In Windows Explorer, "live icons" show scalable thumbnails of document contents, making it much easier to differentiate between files by sight. Expand a folder icon and you'll see thumbnails of actual files inside the folder. You can augment many types of files with metadata, such as author name, ratings, or tags, and then sort or filter on this information when you're browsing. Explorer also lets you navigate using address-bar breadcrumbs—those clickable folder-hierarchy indicators in the address bar. This takes some getting used to, but with experience I found it a more flexible navigation tool than XP's traditional directory-tree control.

These Explorer changes also appear in standard Windows file dialogs, even in apps that aren't ­designed specifically for Vista. The common file dialog shell adds many other nifty improvements. For example, before overwriting a file, it doesn't simply ask you to confirm the operation; it shows you details, including a thumbnail preview, for both the original and new file. Sharing files with other users is easier and safer in Vista than in XP, too.

There's been a lot of buzz about Vista's Sidebar, a transparent pane that docks at the side of the screen and lets you drop in various "gadgets" such as a clock, calendar, and notepad. (You can also tear these objects off the Sidebar and drop them onto the desktop.) Although it works well, I find I, myself, rarely use the Sidebar. It's a personal preference—even on a dual-display system, I prefer to save the pixels for the task I'm actively working on.

The new Help system is also an improvement over XP's. It integrates the latest ­online help information automatically, contains more links that actually perform tasks (rather than just telling you how to), and includes a demo capability that plays videos to walk you through various tasks visually. But I did encounter one problem: If Windows Media Player is busy doing something else (importing music, for instance), the demos will silently fail to launch.
Article source: For a full review on Windows Vista, check it out here.

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