posted by Thom Holwerda on Mon 13th Nov 2006 11:18 UTC
IconLast week, Microsoft announced that Windows Vista went gold, and was released to manufacturing. The release has been long coming (five years of work) and was surrounded by controversies, rumours of rewrites, and legal threats by Microsoft's competitors. We got our hands on the RTM build (Microsoft Windows 6.0 (Build 6000)), so read on for the first superficial look at Windows Vista Ultimate.

[ Sceenshots of Vista's RTM ]

I stress 'superficial', because this first look "review" will only take a look at the external appearance of Vista, since it is impossible to form a proper judgment about such a big release in just a few days.

The machine used for this installation is a Dell Inspiron 6000 with a Pentium M 1.73Ghz, 512MB of DDR2 RAM, and an Ati Radeon x300 with 128MB of dedicated video RAM.

The installation routine hasn't changed since the last few beta/test releases, and is fairly straightforward. Contrary to the Windows XP installation routine, Vista's is entirely graphical, and requires minimal user interaction; all you need to do is enter your serial number, select whether you want to upgrade or do a fresh install, and select a partition/hard drive to install to, and you're set (and, depending on your version, you also need to select which edition to install). I found the installation to be excruciatingly slow, just like in previous Vista builds. While this is not a show-stopper per se, annoying it is, still. The really good thing, though, is that all the user interaction is placed at the beginning of the installation, so when that's done, you can easily go back to having a life.

After the actual installation is complete, you are asked to create a new user upon first reboot. Logging in for the first time takes a lot of time, just like it did on previous builds. Especially the part where Vista assesses your computer's performance takes really long. After that, however, you are ready to go.

Hardware recognition was, contrary to XP, excellent. Everything worked right out of the box, including my bcm43xx-based wireless network chip. Whether a certain bug in this driver that plagued Vista (for me, at least) during all of its test builds is fixed remains to be seen (the driver was very unstable, erratic, resulting in me being unable to reach the net for 99% of the time; it did connect to my home LAN, but refused to connect beyond that LAN to the internet). One piece of hardware was not functioning properly: my touchpad. It was working alright, but Vista recognized it as a standard ps/2 mouse, and hence my scroll areas did not work, and neither could I turn off the extremely annoying touchpad tapping. Another usual problem when it comes to hardware recognition, my internal SD card reader, also worked just fine. A quick test of the sleep/wake cycle did not pose any problems.

The first thing a longtime Vista beta tester like me notices when running the RTM is its speed; it just feels so much faster than any of the previous builds I have tried. By default, Vista turns off the flashy Aero interface for my hardware, but turning it on did not result in a significant speed/responsiveness decrease; however, further testing, under heavy loads, is needed before one can really say something about Vista's performance (especially compared to XP).

Subjective, but here it goes: Aero is beautiful. The transparent blur, the subtle effects when opening/closing and minimizing/maximizing, the live preview when hovering over a taskbar item (useless but pretty); t all just blends right in, and never gets in the way of what you are doing. As for the rolodex, it's no Exposť, but it's usable. I'm sure some clever programmer will soon use Aero to come up with a decent Exposť clone to replace the rolodex.

There are cosmetic improvements across the board in build 6000 when compared to the previous builds, the most important of which is the new icons and artwork: finally, one of my biggest pet peeves in Windows is fixed: a lot of icons and artwork dating back from the stone age are finally updated (not all though, yet, as a quick look through /windows reveals, shame!). The icon set itself is just stunning. Seriously, this is the best-looking icon set I have ever used; but of course, this is a very subjective matter. The new Vista fonts are simply stunning.

I still don't like the new Explorer. I cannot really put my finger on it, it seems as if it is simply 'too busy'. There are widgets and buttons everywhere, which all distract you from the actual content: the files. The fact that Vista defaults to the list-view with small icons and lots of details does not really help either, and there does not seem to be an option to set the icon size system-wide (only on a per-folder basis); at least not that I have found yet. For the rest, Explorer also feels notably faster than in the test builds, which is a welcomed improvement. Interestingly, Windows Vista has Time Machine. When system protection is turned on (which it is automatically) you can view and restore previous version of modified files via their 'properties' dialog. Less flashy than Apple's variant, but useful nonetheless.

Searching functionality is integrated into the Start menu, but I'm not yet sure that's the right place to put it; when searching, the actual contents of the Start menu disappear, and I'm simply not really sure this is the right way to go (things in GUIs shouldn't just disappear). Searching itself works fine and again, is faster than in the previous builds. The search field doubles as a replacement for the 'run' dialog, something experienced users will really appreciate (I know I do).

The Start menu is a bit of a mess, if you ask me. Since almost every Windows application is named "Windows [something]", there is like 28462 times "Windows" in the menu. Other than that, the menu uses a tree view which is simply really annoying and counter-intuitive. The 'classic' start menu is still available, but for some weird reason, it uses the classic Windows theme, making it look really out of place.

My first impression is that of a major leap forward for the Windows platform, and that of a few baby steps forward when compared to the previous builds. However, I do find some of the defaults weird, at best; the detailed list-view in Explorer, the tree structure of the Start 'menu', those sorts of things. Only more usage will tell whether or not they can be overcome, and if I can adapt to the new Windows.

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