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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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