Review: Windows Vista Ultimate

After my previous short first impressions ‘review’ of Windows Vista Build 6000, the final build, I promised you a full review which would look a bit deeper into the system, focussing on less obvious matters than appearance alone. Since there are so many new features in Windows Vista, it is very easy to lose track of them. Hence, this review will follow (where possible) a much linked-to page on Wikipedia: Features new to Windows Vista.

[Digg this story!]

Please note that I will not discuss each of the points presented in that Wikipdia page, therefore my paragraph numbers will be incomplete. Other than

that, some sections overlap one another. I will use the page as a guide to,

well, guide us through Windows Vista. Let’s start.

As you will notice, I did not attach any screenshots to this review. There

are so many good screenshot galleries out there that

I find it rather over done to duplicate all those.

The machine used for this review 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. For notes on the installation of Vista on this machine, please read the first impressions article.

1. User Interface

1.1 Windows Aero

I have already said quite a bit about the flashy effects that come with

Windows Vista. Microsoft has clearly restrained itself with the effects; they

are not used during every little task, and they are unobtrusive. After only

a few hours of usage, you actually forget they are there; however, as soon

as you switch ‘back’ to XP or something similar, you do miss the

effects. This is because unobtrusive as they may be, the effects do add

visual cues as to what is happening on the screen. For instance, when you

close a window in Vista, it dissolves while falling slightly backwards. This

is an extra visual aid.

Compare all this to all the new technological gadgets on the new Mercedes S

class, more specifically, the night view cameras. The S class has two

night vision cameras on the front of the car, which will, at night

(obviously) display its images on a screen right behind the steering wheel,

greatly enhancing what you can see on the road, making it much easier and

safer to drive at night. Now, this is typically one of those features which

many people will claim are pointless, but at the same time, all the people

who actually used it, will say they never want to go back to a car without

this extra safety precaution. Vista’s Aero effects fall into the same


Microsoft actually put more thought into Aero than many anti-Microsoft

people will want us to believe. For instance, when an application is

incompatible with Aero (all applications using Java, such as Azareus),

Windows will automatically turn Aero off, switching back to Aero Basic. When

you close the application, Windows will turn Aero back on. Nice touch.

The main drawback, of course, of Aero is that it requires a DirectX 9

compatible card. A substantial group of people will need a new graphics card

for this, but I do not see this is a problem, since most people will get

their hands on Vista via OEM channels anyway (meaning, when they buy a new


1.2 Shell

The new Explorer interface is, as far as I’m concerned, the least successful

change in Windows Vista. Explorer is a very messy application to use now;

buttons and widgets everywhere, and it is kind of hard to find out which

does what. To give you an idea, the sidebar on the left side can show two

things: a directory tree, or a ‘Favourites’ section (links to common folders

such as Pictures and Music). The problem: they can overlap. When you open

the tree view, which is basically a drawer opening upwards, it draws

over the favourites section, which is just, well, weird. Why not do

what everyone else is doing, and simply give a drop-down menu or tabs or

something, so that you can select which of the two you want, instead of

trying to cram both of them into the same tiny space?

Another problem, as noted in the superficial look, is that for one reason or

the other, almost every folder on your computer will default to a detailed

listview, which is just plain overkill; it makes the individual folders too

hard to distinguish, and it shows way too much irrelevant information, which

will distract you from whatever you want to do (manage files, probably).

This also makes dragging a box around multiple items problematic, since

clicking whatever point in the row of an item will make you drag the item,

instead of drawing the selection box.

Basically, I want an option which will allow me to set the icon size/detail

level system-wide, after which I can tune individual folder’s settings. And

lo and behold, it’s there: click the ‘organize’ button on the toolbar, click

‘folder and search options’, go to the ‘view’ tab, and click ‘apply to all

folders’, which will make every folder look like the one currently open.


The ‘breadcrumbs’ style location bar is a definitive improvement, as it

makes navigating through deep directory structures much easier. The ‘stacks’

feature, which allows you to create stacks of files based on whatever you

want (i.e. stacks of pictures based on date taken), is not what I had

expected of it. When I tested the really early Longhorn builds in 2003, this

feature actually had visual cues in the stacks (the more files in the stack,

the larger it was), but in Vista, this is not the case. The stacks are

basically glorified directories. Not a feature as useful as it could’ve


1.3 Search

Vista’s search does what it is supposed to do. It searches files, finds

them, and lists them. The biggest problem remains the fact that the actual

start menu contents get replaced by your initial search results. If you

press enter after entering your query, an Explorer window shows you all the

results, including tabs to see the results per file type. You can obviously

save the query; however, when you open this query later, Vista will not give

you the search pane (which allows you to view by filetype, as mentioned).

You’ll have to enable it by hand; not a showstopper, but sloppy, still.

1.4 Sidebar

Vista’s new sidebar is not at all much different from other, similar

implementations in other operating systems. The sidebar can house gadgets

(or widgets or applets or replicants or whatever you prefer), but the

gadgets can also be dragged onto the desktop.

What I like about it is that the sidebar and its gadgets are always visible,

so you are not forced to interrupt your workflow if you want to look them.

Apple’s Dashboard widgets are only visible after hitting a shortcut key,

and this interrupts your workflow (only cli magic enables you to permanently display

widgets on the desktop in OS X). In Dashboard’s defense, the Microsoft

implementation does lack a bring to front shortcut key or button.

Of course Vista’s sidebar has one major disadvantages: lack of gadgets. The

gadgets database is still fairly

empty, and the ones that are there, are of debatable quality (especially in

the visual department). I am sure that after the consumer release of Vista,

the amount of gadgets will explode, but for us early adopters the sidebar

remains pretty empty.

I feel compelled to touch on the originality issue often being referred to

on the net. Is Sidebar similar to Dashboard? Yes. Is Dashboard similar to

Konfabulator? Yes. Are all of those similar to Microsoft’s Longhorn sidebar,

which I first used in 2003? Yes. Are all of those similar to BeOS’s

replicants? Yes. You get the idea.

2. New and upgraded applications

Obviously, Vista comes with the latest release of Internet Explorer, version

7. I have already expressed my thoughts on Internet Explorer 7, and those

complaints generally remain for Windows Vista. It is not a bad browser per

se; it just is not my thing, and this is mostly caused by the highly

confusing interface. The browser is my most-used application, and hence I

want an interface that leaves me with little to desire (to give you an idea

of how far this obsession goes, the fact I cannot remove the ‘Go’ arrow in

Firefox 2.0 was almost a breaking point for me).

Windows Mail, however, is a completely different story. This is a really

good email client, and it inherits the best feature Microsoft ever devised

from Outlook 2003: the vertical preview pane; I refuse to use email clients

that do not have this feature (save for BeOS’s BeAM). For the rest, Windows

Mail has a very clean interface, which focuses completely on the task at

hand: reading and sending email. Contacts and emails are now individual

files, meaning you can manage both using Explorer. Annoyingly, emails are

given gibberish numeric names, meaning you can only know what an email is

about by hoovering over the .eml file, showing a tooltip which will give you

the subject field.

Problems remain with Outlook Express, err, Windows Mail; especially creating

rules directly from a message is very cumbersome (it refuses to copy the

information from the selected message, meaning you have to manually enter

all your filtering conditions). Another annoyance is that even though I

tried to set all fonts on incoming messages to a standard font, lots of

messages still display custom fonts. Other than that, the junk mail

filtering is a bit too enthusiastic at times.

Windows Photo Gallery is nothing to write home about; it does what it is

supposed to do, and that’s it, basically. It is surely no match for Apple’s

iPhoto, so let alone it being a match for Google’s Picasa2 (the best in its

class, if you ask me). Picasa2 is faster than Windows Photo Gallery, it has

a cleaner interface, and it supports Picasa Albums; the choice is easy if you

ask me. Photo Gallery badly misses export features; it cannot export photos

to the popular photo sharing sites (Flickr, Picasa Albums, etc.). This is

really a bad thing, and I hope Microsoft improves upon this issue in a

service pack or update.

Windows Media Player 11 shines on Vista. The application is to the point,

and centrered around what really matters: content. Where I could easily get

lost in pre-11 version of the application, Media Player 11 is much more

user-friendly and usable. Nothing revolutionary (it’s just a media player),

but I enjoy using it much more than iTunes 7 (which is, I’m sorry to say, a

really bad application (slow, buggy, and just plain weird), especially

compared to the outstanding version 6).

Since this is Ultimate I am using, I also have the new Media Center

installed. Windows XP Media Center Edition may very well have been

Microsoft’s best product user-interface wise (Office 2007 might be better

though), and this trend continues in this new version. It is very difficult

to explain exactly why MCE is such a good interface; the only way of ever

understanding this is to actually use it for a while. It simply makes so

much sense.

3. Security and safety

3.2 User Account Control

Security-wise, Microsoft touts various improvements in Windows Vista. The

biggest and most visible of those is User Account Control; this means that

whenever anything tries to do something that requires administration

privileges, the user must specifically allow this. Any user, even those

with admin rights, run in standard user mode all the time now, meaning that

a malicious program cannot just install itself anymore to system directories

or similar places.

Is UAC annoying? Yes. Is it any more annoying than entering your password

each time you need to do something admin-related in, say, Ubuntu? No. At

least Windows Vista allows you to edit system files and directories without

launching a file manager window as root; Vista will just prompt you to grant

admin rights when trying to edit system directories. Of course you can turn

UAC off, but that really is a bad thing to do if you ask me.

If you want to know more about security features in Windows Vista, the related Wikipedia article is a good starting point. Many of

the measures are technical changes transparent to the user, which is a good


5. Audio

The audio department is where Windows Vista really is far ahead of any

other mainstream operating system. The new audio stack allows for a feature

I have only ever previously seen in BeOS: per process control of audio

volume. Gone are the days where you could get a heart attack from MSN

Messenger when someone sent you a message while you were listening to loud

music. In Vista, you just set the volume for Messenger lower than for Media

Player, and gone is that problem. A major advance, and surely something I

would like to see in OS X and Linux.

8. Mobile computing

On my laptop, Vista is a much better fit when it comes to mobile computing

than XP ever was. The biggest improvement is that sleep now actually works;

when using XP, waking from sleep would regularly fail. It was a known issue

on the Dell support forums, but a working fix was never found (although I

must say I stopped monitoring the thread after a few weeks). The problem was not hardware related, as sleep/wake in Linux worked just fine (ironically).

It’s good that this apparent bug in Windows is now fixed.

In the first look article, I mentioned how the various test and beta builds

of Vista had a huge bug in the bcm43xx driver; it would randomly

disconnect, refusing to work for literally hours on end. This problem now

seems fixed, and wireless networking is working perfectly. A bit of a

nuisance, though, is that after waking from sleep reconnecting to a

wireless network takes fairly long. My Macs reconnected in mere seconds,

while in Vista this process can take up to and well over 30 seconds.

One of the really big mysteries in the final Vista build is the apparent

lack of syncing with Windows Mobile devices. I have an iPaq Windows Mobile

2003 device, and upon attaching the device, an autoplay dialog pops up

asking me what I want to do (browse device, sync media files, import

pictures), but there is no option to actually sync the things that matter:

contacts mostly, in my case. I tried to use the Sync Center, but my device

refuses to show up.

After asking Google for advice, I found out you needed to manually download

the third beta of the Windows Mobile Device Center before you can really do

anything with your Windows Mobile PDA and Vista. Installing went fine, and

everything seems to work; however, it became clear quite quickly that the

Mobile Device Center only supports syncing with Outlook, and not Windows

Mail or Windows Contacts. Unacceptable, if you ask me, and something that

needs to be fixed before Vista goes to consumers.

Some words before the conclusion

Many of the features and improvements mentioned in the Wikipedia article are

directed to developers, and probably deserve a review of its own, done by a

developer. Other changes are too abstract to put into a review, and hence

have been left out. All in all this review has only touched on so many

features; there are many more to be found in Windows Vista but somewhere you

have to draw the line, as a reviewer. If your pet feature was excluded, feel

free to explain why it should have been included in the comments section.


After a few weeks of intensive usage (I haven’t even touched my various

other machines and installations), I think I have a pretty clear picture of

what Vista has become. I had my serious doubts about the system, caused not

only by its many delays, but more so by the highly debatable quality of the

many test builds released by Microsoft in the past years.

When I first tested what was then called Longhorn back in 2003, I wrote a review of it

for OSNews. The final line of that review read: “People might say that

this release is just XP with a new coat. They are completely right, in my

opinion. But darn, that new coat looks nice.” That line is completely

misplaced for this final build of Vista, no matter how much anti-Microsoft

folk who never used Vista in the first place want you to believe. Vista is a

huge step forward for the Windows world.

How does Vista stack up compared to its competition, most notably, Mac OS X?

Well, feature-wise, they are pretty much on-par, if you ask me. Stability-

wise, XP was already on par with OS X, and left little to improve upon. In

the looks department, it all depends on your taste, of course. I like the

Glass theme better than I like the Aqua look, but that is so totally

personal it is irrelevant for this discussion. Security-wise; now that is

where only time will tell. On paper, they seem to be on par, but theory is

always different from practice. When it comes to personality, I would still

say the Mac has the advantage – clearly.

In total, Vista is a pretty convincing argument for buyers of computers to

stick to the Windows side of the pond. Assuming the security will turn out

to be as good in the real world as it is on paper, Vista will enable buyers

to stick with what they know, using all the same applications they are used

to, but all in a much better interface and many other features many users

will certainly appreciate.

All in all, I am impressed by Windows Vista, and I will surely move my two

Windows installations to Vista (obviously leaving the XP partitions in

tact). Windows Vista is better than XP, and definitely more than just an

improved look as many say.

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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