Ultimate Vista Review

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 category.

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 computer).

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. Good.

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 been.

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 thing.

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.

Thanks To Osnewss
Posted by Hunt3rke, Monday, December 04, 2006 1:59 AM | 0 comments |